Rising Sun: Issue 7 - February 2001

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Reborn in Albion
by John Grant

Later this spring my novels Albion and The World are being reissued in e-book and print form by eReads -- indeed, The World should be available by the time you read this, with Albion appearing shortly afterwards.

The reissue has given me the welcome chance to re-edit and revise the texts -- particularly necessary in the case of Albion, whose text has never much pleased me; I was desperately unhappy, for personal reasons, all the time I was working on the book, and, while sometimes this actually helped in the writing, most often it was a destructive influence, wrecking (to sound pompous) the coherence of my vision.

In both novels an important part is played by Alyss, who of course started off in the Legends of Lone Wolf. From the first moment that she had introduced herself to me and demanded to be written about -- you cannot believe how little choice I was given in this matter -- it had been obvious that she was a character who couldn't be constrained to a single world, and indeed she has since turned up in all sorts of contexts in my fiction. But Albion represented her first foray outside Sommerlund. I had forgotten, until I was recently re-editing that book, how I had effected her transition from one world to another . . .

A forest, somewhere in Albion, the trees showing the coats of all the seasons in a blend of improbable hues that alternately clash and harmonize with the brush of the lethargic wind. Small animals dartingly obey the commands of their inscrutable instincts, their hasty paths linking the shadows to each other. Here there is the dismal scratch of naked branches against each other; over there the fresh yellow-green leaves rustle together. An eddy creates a brief dance of golden shapes, drifting across to fall on sullenly dark old moss or to glide onto the uneven surface of a narrow stream that plays with them childishly, pushing and pulling them along until it tires of them. Birds shout hoarsely incomprehensible expletives at each other.

Only the sunlight is silent: even the nervous creatures make small sounds as they scurry over the muffling moss.

Overhanging the stream is a silver birch that seems only three-quarters grown, its trunk no thicker than a thigh, its bark still flesh-smooth, the clefts between its shanky branches not yet grown mysterious. For some reason that cannot be understood the little animals avoid it—not out of fear or revulsion, nor even out of respect. Perhaps they recognize that it has become different, and their small brains have no other response to such a difference than avoidance. But the sunlight has no qualms: it runs its fingers across the strong suppleness of the youthfully stretching bole, imparting its warm life to the multiplying cells.

Look more closely now.

Run your fingers up the trunk, feeling its coolness where other trees cast their shadows across it. At about shoulder-height the first major branch diverges, the junction like a tensed small muscle under your touch. It seems that the branch quivers suddenly, as if it is startled by the incursion of your hand as you pass your palm along it, brushing aside green twigs no more rigid than grass.

You lean out over the stream, drawn by your hand into a precarious balance, until at last you can lean no further.

At your very fingertips there is a sharp-edged ripple in the bark, and you can just detect the faintest sensation of rapid, almost furtive movement from within the wood. Fascinated, you try to make your arm just a little longer, as if by touch alone you could comprehend the changes that are happening in the branch, but it's impossible without falling into the cold waters below you. Besides, your body is beginning to ache from the strained position you've adopted; your muscles have tired of your brain's orders, and are making their displeasure felt. And perhaps even your brain senses something of what the shy forest creatures sense, because it makes no argument.

So you haul yourself back, and spend a minute or two with your hands on your waist, staring along the branch's shiny length, hoping frustratedly that perhaps your eyes will be able to tell you what your fingers cannot.

But there's nothing to be seen. Not yet.

A bird with blue and yellow plumage skates along the length of the stream and your eyes are distracted, following the living colour until the flurry of wings is lost from view.

You wonder why you're here, why you've been standing so still, waiting for something—you're not sure what. For a little while it seemed as if you were so close to a rushing, turbulent understanding of yourself and the world surrounding you, but now even that is a forgotten sensation, lost in the dusty parts of your mind that you never dare intrude upon.

Shaking your head, you urinate where you stand, spattering the moss and the base of the birch's trunk. Then you turn away, taking a few irregular paces through the snatching undergrowth until your feet stumble across a path etched out over the forgotten years by untold thousands of travellers who've followed that way because somehow it felt . . . downhill. That's how you feel about it, too, as your body carries you along in the direction of your home.

Behind you, unseen except by a finch that has paused in its song out of sheer tiredness, the bark is splitting open along the line of the wrinkle your fingers were touching just a little while ago. A bud is pushing its way incongruously out of the wood, and as it does so the rest of the birch is beginning to draw in upon itself, its silveriness tarnishing and crumpling, its youthful vivacity being drawn from it towards the site of this new growth. The other leaves on the tree slowly fade from existence, their flesh vanishing first to leave the veins as deltas of gossamer that, in their turn, collapse into tiny dust-storms that are swiftly dispersed by the impertinent breeze. Curling bark peels downwards, disintegrating as it falls; the wood of the exposed trunk is dead with an ancient grey-white darkness.

The birch can no longer support its sole healthy branch. There is a tired-sounding crack, like the noise of a carious tooth resignedly permitting itself to be drawn from its socket, and then almost immediately a splash as the bough drops into the stream. Sluggishly, too heavy with resin to float easily, it drifts erratically with the current for a few metres, catching its ends on the larger boulders, until at last it is snagged immovably against the bank by the arching roots of a semi-aquatic shrub.

The developing bud protrudes upwards, clear of the water's surface. Now even the bough that is giving birth to it is crumbling in on itself, although its outer bark remains whole, the pink-green spots turning abruptly silver to match the rest. The emerging tip of the bud is russet-coloured and smooth, furry like the coat of a fieldmouse, yet sleekly moist like the head of a new-born baby.

The finch eyes the rapid flowering with taut interest. There is the chance that this might be food.

A blink of the bird's bottomless eye and the growing bud is gone. Now, poised delicately on the tapering empty cylinder of bark, there is a small shrew-like creature, its nose sensing the air with fine whiskers above its in-slanting teeth, its tail a flattened metal rope on the bark behind it. The little animal holds its position for only a second before its strong hindlegs propel it in a jumping, skittering run along the length of the bark and up to clutch frantically at the overhanging roots. An instant later and it's losing itself in the reeds.

The finch feels and then immediately forgets disappointment. It darts away from temporary perch to temporary perch until it reaches the further end of its territory, where its mate waits for raucous news of its travels.

Soon there is a commotion among the reeds, their browned tips waving in protest as the stalks are pushed away from a common centre. The shrew-like beast is growing ever more rapidly, its shape transmuting in a series of flurries as it does so. The creature is the size of a coypu before its hindlegs dramatically increase in length and strength, so that the rest of the body is pushed into a vertical stance, the stubby paws of the forelegs extending and refining themselves to form lean-fingered hands. From the smooth wrists a swift-moving front line of pale flesh runs up the arms, subsuming the reddish-brown fur, as if the creature were stripping on long thin gloves. Soon the forelegs have become fully formed arms. The hindlegs are straight by now and, as with the arms, they lose their fur to show calves and thighs separated by narrow knees.

More and more of the trunk becomes denuded, leaving a spark of russet pubic hair beneath a perfectly coiled navel that is set in a flat abdomen, framed to either side by prominent pelvic bones. The pinkness of the arms has invaded the shoulders and upper torso, revealing small, widely separated, rose-tipped breasts and sharp shoulder-blades. The arms reach up together high above the head to touch the warm air with sensitive outstretched fingers.

The head is the last part of the body to change. The blunt, pugnacious features of the rodent pull themselves inwards to reveal an inquisitive cleft chin, a small mouth with narrow lips that pull back in a lazily hedonistic smile to reveal twin rows of pointy white teeth. The eyes above the clearly delineated cheekbones lose their roundness and their slight bulbousness, elongating and narrowing, changing their colour to a pale feline green. The thin eyebrows and the long eyelashes are the same forest red-brown as the perfectly equilateral pubic triangle and the hair of the rest of the head.

Lowering her arms slowly, the creature—the woman—looks down approvingly over the planes and contours of the body she has grown, and her smile broadens a trifle as she nods her head. Taking swift but smoothly graceful movements, she treads the few necessary paces through the reeds to reach the edge of the stream and, her features sobering, passes the palm of one hand over the surface of the water, stilling it so that its music dies and, for as far as the eye can follow its passage, the stream has a flawlessly even reflective surface.

She gazes at her face, thinks for a moment, and adjusts her nose so that it is a little less snub. She runs her hand over her hair, but elects to leave it the length it is: its shortness, she decides, excellently accentuates the trimness of the rest of her face.

Then, with an airy wave of her hand, she frees the stream so that it may pursue its course, and droplets of water dance around her arm as if to express their gratitude. She stoops to retrieve the cylinder of bark, which is in danger of being tugged free of its mooring by the rejuvenated current, and holds it high above her head, turning it with her quick fingers so that it seems to dry—impossibly swiftly—in the warmth of the Sun. Satisfied, she holds it vertically beside her, its narrower end resting on the ground, and casually draws the fingernails of her left hand down its length, so that the branch tumbles downwards as a cascade of countless coiling silver threads. Once more her fingers move with invisible speed as she weaves for herself a vest, a jerkin and a pair of ragged-cuffed breeches. Clad, she spends a few moments flexing herself, becoming accustomed to the feel of the garments against her new skin, and then, as an afterthought, bends down once again and seizes a handful of the long reeds, throwing them into the sky above her; they swirl slowly downwards, intertwining with each other, to drape themselves as a cloak about her shoulders.

Satisfied, she looks around her, and then squints up at the sky, smiling cheerfully at the Sun. An Ellonian would deem it more than coincidence that a small, petulant-looking cloud should choose that moment to start moving across the face of the golden disc. For Alyss is older than not just the Sun but also this universe—older, indeed, than all the universes that she selects as her playgrounds.

And there are so many of them for her to choose from, each dependent on its own particular and infinitely long series of quirks of fate, accidental ripples in the substrate of spacetime, randomnesses that were individually meaningless but, when placed with each other in just the right order, came together—and are still coming together—to form the infinitude of discrete probable or, more accurately, possible universes through which it is Alyss's joy to flit. She can remember the spark that set off the reaction that has created the polycosmos, the incomprehensible multitudes of shadow universes; to her it seems as if it were only yesterday that a tiny shift of logic concentrated the existing probabilities of the void called God in a certain locus, and thereby started time on its inexorable path.

For before the shadow-universes blossomed there was no time—not even a "before". Instead there was just a nothingness composed of the twelve dimensions, which were impotent to effect change but uncaring about that fact, for there was nothing for them to exert their influence upon—and, besides, in timelessness there is no tedium, and hence no ambition. And so the twelve-dimensional void, the state of no-time, might never have ended had not an accidental trace of probability, like a mischievous imp, given an infinitesimally tiny touch of texture to the nothingness, contaminating it and, incidentally, giving birth to time.

The contamination spread with almost instantaneous swiftness, now that there was time through which it could spread and against which its swiftness could be measured.

Creation necessitates destruction. In the microseconds of the birthing of the polycosmos, the twelve-dimensional void devoured itself, invaginating to create a forest of spacetime structures. Eight of the dimensions were destroyed, springing back in on themselves to disappear entirely except for the infinite echoes that they left, which spread themselves throughout the polycosmos as an unbounded and ever-expanding pattern of invisibly small cosmoses. The four remaining dimensions—including time—threw chains across the flanks of the polycosmos, controlling its savagery, tethering it as well as they were able so that it couldn't respond to all the whims of rampant and playful probability.

Their control of the polycosmos was only partial, of course, so that probability was still able to tease the edges of reality, fraying them as time passed. In fact, the infinitude of realized possibilities would soon have nullified each other, recreating the twelve-dimensional void commonly known as God, had it not been that, in the self-immolation that had immediately followed the spark that instigated the evolution of the polycosmos, a tiny portion of the void somehow escaped—a scrap left over from the moment of creation.

That scrap travels among the shadow-universes, reifying any one of them in which it chooses to tarry for a while. Here, visiting the universe containing Albion for as long as its caprice encourages it to stay, it has chosen to take the form of a young woman—Alyss—the woman whose emergence from the straits between the universes you would have witnessed had you had the ability to be patient long enough to wait beside the silver birch near the stream's edge. As it is, you become aware of her arrival as you trudge along the worn path, even though you don't realize quite what it is that you've become aware of. Everything is suddenly there with more clarity, and soon you begin to recognize elements of your surroundings—a sensation that you have never experienced before. This path is no stranger to you any longer.

The torrent of liberation from the stifling embrace of your amnesia makes your mind wild. Delirious with an emotion that is fresh to you, you almost turn and retrace your steps—simply because that is something you've never done before and which is therefore tacitly taboo. But no: you're hungry and your deep unconscious as well as, now, your intellect is telling you that food awaits you if you keep on going in your original direction. So you don't go back, but still your soul is dancing in the awareness that you're going this way because you choose to.

Alyss, undisturbed by the changes she has wrought in you, calls a small white butterfly to her shoulder and cranes her neck to stare at it solemnly.

Her eyes almost cross, and she giggles.

Then, her green cloak liquid about her, she sets off with a floating step to explore her new universe. 

Contact: TheRisingSun@bigfoot.com

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