Thursday, 10 March 2011

Stories Within Stories


By Mark Jack

Prop, of the Klimba people, sat on a small ledge at the base of a huge tree trunk. He sucked on some pieces of bark as he stared out across the valley, idly listening to the chatter drifting up towards him. Of all the Klimba people he personified what was most disliked by those of the valley. He spurned the depths, the God-warmth, the highly regulated life, and instead followed his joy in the hills and on the trees.

The joy was only ever partial though. All too often the sharp edge of the machines swept through the land, tearing through tree and often ground. There was little protection to be found on this denuded landscape, and strong winds and heavy rain ravaged the land. His people, and all the many races, survived by hiding in whatever nook or cranny they could find.

At times it would seem that the machines had forgotten about this world. The stumps of trees up on the hills would begin to grow, striving upwards towards some unknown and futile goal. But perhaps then a flood would come, and not long after, while the moisture still clung to the trunks of the still young trees the machines would strike.

To Prop it seemed that the floods were coming less often these days and the trees were growing taller than he could remember. He pondered amongst his many selves if the two things were related. The bark of the tree around him still glistened with moisture and he wondered if the machines would strike now.

As if to mirror his thoughts messages from the Order came through that the machines were coming and that all beings were to cling to their God. The Order lived in the deepest parts of the valleys, where the God-warmth was felt the strongest. It was they who sent out the messages that guided how all may live and kept the civilisation running smoothly in the face of these difficult times. It was also from whom, while never explicitly stated, that the deep prejudice against the Klimba came. Of course they never said things like 'dump your waste up in the Klimba's region', or 'don't trade with them, they are inferior, ungodly, and should be despised', but they did say things like 'God is warmth, God is in the depths, and all who are good and pure strive to be closest to him.', and that seemed to be enough.

The message coming from the Order now caused barely a ripple in Prop. Sometimes they did hold power over him, when they were on the winning side of the conflict within him. Certainly if he climbed higher they did cause him to doubt and to turn back, but now he wasn't that high.

He thought of all the others running into their holes, to cling to the ground and God-warmth. Down in the valley the other races spent most of their time that way, so he heard.

Of course Prop had never seen those places, the Klimba people were shunned, not only that but he felt uncomfortable in the warmth. He shuddered at the thought, for, as the Order said 'Be not like those who live high, for they shall fall off into the sky and be damned'. Well, he hadn't yet fallen off into the sky, despite many close brushes with the machines. Many a Klimba had shown startled surprised to see him sat, gloomily perhaps, but alive, on a flattened stump of a tree that was until a short time before his playground.

Prop also knew from all he heard that he would never see the Heavenly Kingdom beyond the farthest hills. It was said that there no storms could reach, that nectar flowed rich and the gentle warmth of God wafted softly over all. Try as he might Prop couldn't bring himself to feel upset about that: yes the food sounded good, but the warmth didn't, and he quite liked a mild storm from time to time. Perhaps he could dwell in the entrance to the Kingdom he mused, and get others to pass him food. But he was damned no doubt, for he lived high and it was where he seemed to fit best.

Something certainly felt missing from his life, perhaps his people were cursed. If any did try and live in the warmth of the valleys they tended to dwindle and die. Even up here on the hills disease was rife. It seemed more than the segregation could account for.

Another message came from the Order, stronger, more insistent: people must cling to their God, the machines are surely imminent. Prop inwardly sighed and slid of his ledge, the ground was several handholds away but he moved with ease. The usual throng of beings that was the norm he only found as he moved in between outcroppings and into the crevasses and wide spaces beneath the surface.

Even here on the hillside he found the warmth too much and started to feel lethargic. He found a damp and slightly cooler hole in one of the walls and molded himself into it. He fell into a slumber, but as he did his consciousness drifted out and he vaguely felt the goings on around him.

He felt the trees growing taller, the Order sending out messages of the machines coming, the anxiety building throughout land. He dreamt of huge caverns, warm and dark, of bursts of huge energy shooting along impossible distances, of power that made him shake in his sleep and push deeper into his hole. He felt the trees still growing, heard the Order speak of disloyalty to God, of being tested, of how the machines were coming. He sensed people growing hungry and fretful.

He awoke later to a buzz of messages, people had been to the surface and were babbling about a great change. The Order were sending rapid, loud messages, but they sounded erratic, contradictory. One message came through loud and clear though, no one was to climb the trees, for that was the stairway to damnation. Prop was confused, there should be no trees now. He sped towards the surface, and was stunned.

The trees were growing up at dizzying heights, blocking out parts of the sky. The wind and rains they had known of the storms were now softened and there was a great quiet over the surface. But more than all that the presence of God could be felt more strongly everywhere; His warmth filled the air.

The excitement grew in Prop, but the warmth suffocated him. Something deep within him wanted to climb. He clambered over and through those around him to get to the base of tree. One of his arms reached and gripped it. Messages came from the Order that up in the trees was the way to oblivion, that no one was to touch the trees. The message rang false and Prop reached for more handholds. The voices around him shouted that he stay, voices gathered over the years within him told him to stay, but they rang true neither. With doubt he started to climb, amongst himself he questioned the voices, weakening the doubt. Around him the shouting to stay grew stronger, but arm after arm of his reached up and pulled. Slowly at first did he reach the holds but then faster and faster. He found his rhythm and grace, and his love of the tree and the climb grew. The voices below and within quietened and with the cooling of the air peace grew within and around him. He sucked in the freshness. Those of him with longer and stronger arms thrived. The tree provided him with nutrients he had barely known before and he grew way beyond what would have been recognisable as him before.

Time passed and still he climbed. Between him and the tree was joy, they spun together in a dance; he leapt for a hold while the tree came to meet him in perfect union. He swarmed around and up. Along the tree some of him found places to settle, having found their peace with life. But still part of him climbed.

It was some time later, after days of the climb had past, that Prop entered a crevasse that was dark and jagged. He worked his way upwards, groping in the dark but ever moving. Before long he saw far above him light coming through a long narrow crack. He quickened his pace. Soon he was clambering over the top ledge into the blinding light. When he adjusted to the light he found himself on a flat plateau on the top of the tree. He recognised it as a place he had sat once, sad. Now he looked about and a thrill took him. Over the twisting tops of the trees about him, looming huge on the horizon, he stared, fixated, into the twin caverns of Nostralis, the Heaven of his people.

Or, to put it a different way,
I now have a beard and moustache!

Well, I hope you liked it! I apologise as it is probably a bit late for this story, as me having facial hair is old news to a lot of you, and I am going to cut it off in a couple of weeks anyway – the weather is warming up and it also makes licking food off my plate more difficult!

I have had a few sources of inspiration for this story. Perhaps Carpet People by Terry Pratchett was one of the first, later my ponderings on Gaian Theory and later still a somewhat bizarre and humorous conversation I had with a fellow trainee in a Zen monastery when we pondered what religious faith the cells of my body held towards me their God! Recently I came across this fun and thought provoking poem by W. H. Auden, which hopefully I am not breaking any copyright laws by posting here...

A New Year Greeting
by W.H. Auden

After an article by Mary J. Marples
in Scientific American, January, 1969

On this day tradition allots
to taking stock of our lives,
my greetings to all of you, Yeasts,
Bacteria, Viruses,
Aerobics and Anaerobics:
A Very Happy New Year
to all for whom my ectoderm
is as Middle-Earth to me.

For creatures your size I offer
a free choice of habitat,
so settle yourselves in the zone
that suits you best, in the pools
of my pores or the tropical
forests of arm-pit and crotch,
in the deserts of my fore-arms,
or the cool woods of my scalp.

Build colonies: I will supply
adequate warmth and moisture,
the sebum and lipids you need,
on condition you never
do me annoy with your presence,
but behave as good guests should,
not rioting into acne
or athlete’s-foot or a boil.

Does my inner weather affect
the surfaces where you live?
Do unpredictable changes
record my rocketing plunge
from fairs when the mind is in tift
and relevant thoughts occur
to fouls when nothing will happen
and no one calls and it rains.

I should like to think that I make
a not impossible world,
but an Eden it cannot be:
my games, my purposive acts,
may turn to catastrophes there.
If you were religious folk,
how would your dramas justify
unmerited suffering?

By what myths would your priests account
for the hurricanes that come
twice every twenty-four hours,
each time I dress or undress,
when, clinging to keratin rafts,
whole cities are swept away
to perish in space, or the Flood
that scalds to death when I bathe?

Then, sooner or later, will dawn
a Day of Apocalypse,
when my mantle suddenly turns
too cold, too rancid, for you,
appetising to predators
of a fiercer sort, and I
am stripped of excuse and nimbus,
a Past, subject to Judgement.


  1. I could feel you channelling your inner Pratchett after the first two paragraphs!

    That was very imaginative, and well written. Looking forward to more.

    Perhaps Prop ascends to the seventh heaven where the Machines reach only the farthest extremities, and the only enemy is the Creeping Depletion?

  2. Thanks Sam!

    Yes, I have probably read too much Pratchett to ever hope not to have a thought, let alone a whole story, that is not influenced by his writing!

    Perhaps he (Prop) does, the finger of God moves powerfully!


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