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The black joke, p.1
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       The Black Joke, p.1

           David Bramhall
The Black Joke


  David Bramhall

  Volume One: THE BLACK JOKE

  Copyright © 2012 David Bramhall

  First published 2012 by Walnut Tree Books

  Chapter 1

  Though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea (Psalm 46)

  Far off at the western edge of the world, where the green land meets the grey ocean and the wind never falters, stands Bodrach Nuwl, the Old Man of the Mist, rising sheer and tall above the sea. At his head the great gales thunder, whipping the thin grasses and stunting the trees that lean and cling grimly with their ancient roots.

  Only on calm days is it possible to stand at the cliff-top. Often a brave soul making the trek to the summit must fall to his knees for the last two hundred yards and crawl, clinging onto sod and tussock lest the wind whip him away and bowl him back the way he has come. Arriving at the very top and inching his head over the edge, his fingers grip convulsively, for a great blue well of air seems to suck him down, down, down a thousand feet or more to the foot of the cliff. Once he has calmed himself and overcome the urge to vomit, he will realise that what lies at the distant foot of the precipice is not the sea but stone, cleft from the cliff-face and tumbled block upon block for half a mile towards the ocean.

  From the sea Bodrach Nuwl seems to be a sheer cliff, but his scale is deceptive. He is so gigantic that each ledge and crinkle in his face is a little world in itself. On green, wind-blasted lawns the size of football pitches, whole populations of rabbits and foxes lead their lives perched in the air with no inkling of the outside world. Small crevices become great chasms, lined with trees growing from the rock itself, fed by ferny waterfalls and inhabited by finches and great dragonflies. Habitats here have no connection with the world at large. There are species of insect that exist nowhere else, and unknown pale orchids that thrive in cracks and crannies. Great caves loom open that from the sea are like the holes of sand-martins but in reality could swallow a small village and are inhabited by bats and blind snakes.

  And constantly there is the wind, beating the rock, fingering the cracks and crannies, prying free the little stones, worrying the plants and making them dig their roots deep and bloom close and modest.

  But this is a calm, sunny day. Imagine, then, the great winter gales, how the wind must suck at the rock and uproot the plants, hurling them up to burst at the cliff-top fifty feet in the air before flinging them wildly inland. Imagine those even greater gales, the twenty-year storms that erupt out of the south-west ocean every couple of decades, flinging waves at the shore fifty feet, eighty feet from trough to crest like solid walls of water, waves so huge they have smaller waves crawling up their faces before they curl and break at the cliff’s foot with the force of the apocolypse, or of the creation.

  But Bodrach Nuwl is the master of even these elemental forces. For a million years he has stood here, thrusting his chest defiantly into the storms. Every thundering breaker that hit him took its toll. First little stones broke free and were whipped away by the receding waves, then larger blocks began to crack and slide, until from year to year vast slabs, whole crags and hills, fell free and slid to the bottom. But this was all part of The Old Man's grand strategy, a contemptuous sop to the ocean.

  For where this débris falls, it lies, half in and half out of the water. And though it break and subside and splinter, it does not go away. Twenty years later another great storm will strike and he will cast more of himself to the sea, and so build up the Stonefields, a half-mile stretch of natural breakwater on so big a scale that no wave, be it a hundred feet high and with the speed of an express train, can reach the foot of Bodrach Nuwl any more. Bursting in plumes of spray on the outermost bastions of the Stonefields it makes a roar that can be heard twenty miles inland, and rushes on between the slabs of rock through narrowing channels so that the water heaps up on itself and breaks again, adding another roar to the tumult and more spray to the mist that blows all the way up to the cliff-top a thousand feet above. And so it rushes on again, but by now it has travelled a quarter of a mile from its parent the sea, and it begins to lose its resolve so that every twist and turn of the channel, every fallen rock that blocks its path, is a discouragement. Slower and slower it travels, lower and lower it rises, spreading and losing its substance to the nooks and crannies, waylaid by skeins of seaweed a hundred feet long, enticed by rock pools the size of swimming pools with sea-anemones two feet across and crabs that can sever an arm. Long before it approaches the actual foot of the cliff, the toes of The Old Man himself, it has lost its way and its will, and humps sullenly in an oily swell at the bottom of deep chasms seaweed-walled and dark.

  And so The Old Man looks out across his kingdom of rock and water towards the kingdom of his old enemy the sea, an enemy long defeated, and sneers as only rock can sneer, and that is a long sneer, and a slow sneer, and a sneer that must give grim satisfaction to those entitled to it.

  Behind the cliff the windswept moors fall inland and in a steep cleft, protected by the mass of Bodrach Nuwl, huddles the town. Narrow cobbled streets are hemmed in by tall stone houses. There is no greenery among the little alleyways and squares, but plenty of water in every gutter, rushing headlong down to the quay. At the top of the town stand the larger houses of the merchants and factors, while the meaner cottages of the fishermen cluster round the harbour. Halfway up the town is the Market Place, and above the Market Place is the church, tall and gaunt with an ill-proportioned tower. In the church are ranks of pews, and under one of the pews is a boy, hiding from the Vicar.

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