Sunday, 13 May 2012

Nexis Guide 1

 The Nexis Guide to the Planets of the Milky Way

Cloux. Spatial access number: Ac173DT987 x 98Y, ext. 5550 (Cloux City SpacePort). Class M Planet. Gravity 1.02 Earth normal. Oxygen levels within acceptable limits. Climate moderate except at poles and around the equator. Rotation: 0.96 Earth normal (day = 25 hours). Carbon and water-based life forms. Rated 97% Earth compatible. Standard inoculations recommended. Tourists and business visas available at all Alliance of Five embassies and consulates. Class 3 security checks in place for all visitors. All otherworld access to the planet is through the space port at Cloux City. No restrictions on travel once on the planet. The two moons are heavily fortified for planetary defence and off-limits to otherworlders.

Dominant life form: The Clouxians are an advanced bipedal trisexual humanoid life form. Socialability rankings: L5+ D2 S0 W3 Y2 K9 (access link for an explanation of these codes). There are several major languages but most Clouxians understand Galatic Standard and an estimated 82 percent speak it fluently. The population is highly educated, peacable, and friendly. Clouxians are generally hospitable to otherworlders.

Economy: Advanced Singularity.

Political organization: Founding member of the Alliance of Five. Popularly elected planetary council headed by a president.

Cloux is one of the most Earth-like planets in the Milky Way and considered one of the planets most amenable to visits by human beings. The inhabitants are friendly if somewhat formal in manners. Attempts to discuss personal matters with be politely rebuffed and the subject changed.

Local food is edible but considered bland by most visitors. Eat only food from replicators. Galactic standard replicators capable of producing a wide range of Earth foods are available in all large cities and at most tourist hotels.

Warnings: Public rowdiness is not tolerated—Cloux is not recommended for heavy drinkers or carousers. Sex with otherworlders is considered repugnant and any otherworlder proposing it will be arrested. Never approach a Clouxian whose skin is blue. This condition signals the start of their reproductive cycle, and any approach will be considered a sexual overture and result in arrest. Most Clouxians sequester themselves when they become blue, but occasionally a blue Clouxian may be encountered in public.

Major tourist attractions: At the age of five each Clouxian is given a rough pebble approximately three centimetres in diameter by its parents. For the remainder of its life, it holds the pebble in its left hand, constantly turning it. Over time, the rough edges of the pebble are worn smooth. At death, the pebble is cemented in place in a memorial wall as part of the burial ritual. The largest of these walls begin near the capital city of Cloux on the main continent and radiate in all directions. When completed, each wall is a uniform 1.6 meter wide, 4.6 meters high and extends in a straight line until it reaches the sea or some other natural barrier. The longest extends nearly 350 kilometres. Much care is taken to keep the walls in good repair. The walls have deep religious and cultural meanings for the Clouxians, and visitors should treat them with proper respect. . . .

Friday, 27 April 2012

Random thought about a character in a future fiction

He is one of those people who thinks modesty corrodes the soul.

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Warning: rant ahead

I have been asked to write an article about six first-time American novelists and 'recent trends in American fiction'.  The book reviews editor of the Sunday supplement in which this article will appear chose the six novelists on the basis of reviews published in leading American newspapers. The books were delivered to me with a strict injunction that I was not to read other reviews of these books. I found the books well written and competent but not in the end exciting. I didn't come away with the feeling that I had encountered major new talents, and I didn't add any of the author's names to my watch list.  (None of the six books has appeared, or will appear, on my reading list 'Books 2012' here.)

All six of these 'serious' novels begin with an acknowledgements section. Five of the six authors list the writing courses or seminars and certificate programmes they have attended. Three of these five authors list one course; two authors list two. The sixth author apparently has not attended a formal course in writing, but she thanks her writing circle as well as an arts organisation that gave her a grant that allowed her to stay at a artists' retreat for several months and finish her book. All six mention feedback from an impressive array of friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues, as well as the help of agents and editors and other publishing personnel. Three of the authors cite specialists who helped them with points of law, medicine, and psychology. More than any other aspect of these works, these acknowledgements pages attracted my attention. Since that subject is outside my brief for the article I am writing, I decided to discuss it here.

Such acknowledgements are not confined to serious works. As anyone who has glanced at the Books 2012 page here will know, I consume a lot of junk food for the mind, such as mysteries and science fiction. Over the past three decades, writers of such works have come increasingly to include an acknowledgements page listing, among others, the experts who gave them technical help.

Does any of this matter? Without much effort, one could compile lists of competent writers who never had a lesson in writing as well as those who have emerged from writing programmes. It also would take little effort to list many incompetent published writers from both groups. Writing programmes and courses do force an aspiring author to write, and practice in writing is never wasted. Some of these aspiring writers would probably arrive at the same point on their own; the programmes simply provide an environment that forces them to work out their problems with writing. Any participant in these programmes would undoubtedly benefit from the critical eye of a good teacher. Works written for such programmes tend to incorporate the instructors' views, however, especially if getting a good grade in the course and eventually receiving the certificate depends on satisfying the teachers. There is always the danger that rather than helping a writer achieve a personal voice, the programme will teach them to write to a formula or to think of writing in terms espoused by the teacher. (I have found that graduates of such programmes tend, for example, to be obsessed with 'point of view' and to be on continual alert for any violation of a unitary point of view in a work. This seems to be the latest successor to the Three Unities. I think the better advice would be to always be aware of how point of view can be exploited and played with.)

Friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues can be helpful, but advice per se is not necessarily useful. And more often than not one receives a different opinion from each of them. The writer still has to choose, and it's been my experience that authors (like all of us) are quite capable of dismissing, indeed ready to do so, views that diverge from their own or would require a lot of work. Some of the most injurious advice comes from those who praise an author. The last thing an author needs to be told is how good the work is--the best advice deals with how to make the work better. But when confronted with praise from X and criticism from Y, how many of us are going to think more of Y, especially if it means a major rewrite?

By consulting experts, an author may improve the accuracy of the details in works that touch on specialised subjects or fields, but it does nothing to improve the quality of the writing or of the overall work (there are many of the opinion that the accuracy of details is a major factor in assessing quality; I happen to feel that this ignores the nature of fiction, but that is quite a different subject from the one I am discussing here--this may become the subject of a future posting). The apparent purpose of acknowledging the experts an author has consulted is to lodge a claim of accuracy and to make the story seem plausible. I have consulted an expert in dart throwing and hence the poison-tipped dart that pierced Lord Darlington's heart is a realistic means of murder. These claims are often followed by "Any remaining errors are my own", which is nothing more than a disingenuously modest assertion that the credit really belongs to the author.

Agents' opinions are directed mainly towards what needs to be done in order to improve the works' chances of finding a publisher--their concerns tend to be driven by the market (after all, their income depends on pleasing the market). Editors can be extraordinarily helpful in catching inconsistencies as well as grammatical errors, typos, and misusages, but they, like agents, are ultimately concerned with the market--their livelihoods depend on sales.

As must be apparent, I am doubtful about the benefits of credentialing. For me, the interesting question is not Is this valuable? but Why do authors and the publishers who include these acknowledgements think readers will be impressed? Does a certificate from the University of Iowa Writing Program convince us that the work that follow is worth reading? Does a list of the names of the twenty-five readers who offered the author comments on the work as it was being written guarantee that the work is good?

The purpose of all this credentialing appears to be to reassure the reader that the author is qualified to write and has done the research necessary to make the work accurate. Credentialing as a phenomenon seems to have begun in scientific and technological fields. Should I need an operation, the list of letters after the surgeon's name is at least some assurance of competence. I could dress like a surgeon and wield a scalpel, but it would be unwise of you to let me near you with one in my hand. As skills have become more technical and the acquisition of bodies of knowledge more time-consuming, credentialing has assumed more importance. The perceived need for credentialing in these fields seems to have spilled over into other fields, where a certificate of training is less necessary or even totally unnecessary.

Another reason for the growth of credentialing may be the growth of education. Our higher-education systems now offer degrees in an incredible range of subjects, and along with this growth has come a need to justify the necessity of these degrees. There seems to have been a progression from the view that a degree in, say, history indicates some knowledge of the past to the not unreasonable view that those with degrees in history may have more knowledge of the past than those without such degrees to the somewhat iffy view that they are hence better qualified to speak on the subject. The danger is that this sometimes becomes only those with degrees in history are qualified to speak on the past. The last is certainly an option exercised by many academic historians, who can be quite ruthless in dismissing the opinions of anyone without the proper licenses to have an opinion. Granted training in historical 'science' may help develop the skills historians need, but these are not difficult skills to master. The insistence on the proper acquisition in accredited schools of the skills of 'the science of history' owes much to the desires to limit entrance to the field and to justify the ego-defenses necessary to maintain a feeling of superiority to 'amateurs'.

And now credentialing is spreading to fields that depend primarily on talent, such as writing or painting or music-making. All the training in the world, all the mastery of theory or bodies of knowledge, will not make anyone a good writer or a good painter or a good musician. A course in oil painting may introduce one to the basics of mixing paints--indeed one may become a master in mixing paints as a result of the course--and that knowledge may improve the quality of one's output, but it remains no more than a skill. Properly mixed paints don't create a good painting by themselves. Following the precept that one 'should show and not tell' does not guarantee that what one is being shown is worth reading. A unitary point of view is simply a unitary point of view, not a guarantee of a good story.

It seems to me that many of these courses concentrate on the mastery of techniques. This is understandable--technique can be taught and mastered; talent cannot. A writing instructor may point out to a pupil that his characters are wooden and stereotypical and may even be able to show the writer how he should be thinking about his characters to make them more lifelike. But if the student is tone-deaf psychologically and simply can't understand others, no amount of training will help him overcome this defect. Authors offer stereotypical characters not only because they are lazy and resort to clichés but also because that's how they envision other people.

IMHO, aspiring authors should spend their time reading rather than taking courses.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Home and the dying

A friend of ours died last week of a condition called Levy's syndrome. It's one of those awful brain and nerve deterioration diseases. It is described as a cross between Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. People who have it lose both motor control and mental abilities. The first apparent symptom, a problem with walking, appeared about two years ago. Within a few months he began forgetting how to do simple tasks, such as how to get water into a drinking glass. The progress of the disease is not constant. Some days he was fine and lucid and relatively in control. Other times he had hallucinations or could barely walk.  Last October, he had to be put in a care home because he needed full-time professional nursing. About two weeks before he died, he lost the ability to swallow and had to be fed through a tube. His white blood cell count was over ten times the normal level, and his kidneys ceased to function.

His wife had to make some terrible decisions. When his kidneys failed, she was given the option of dialysis, which would have meant loading her husband into an ambulance, transporting him for nearly an hour to a dialysis centre, and then returning him to the care home in another ambulance. She was told that dialysis is painful and that it would stave off death only by a few days, a week at most. She decided against that. I suspect that, like most of us who have had to care for someone who is dying, she concluded that further treatment would be cruel and that allowing the person to die is the final kindness one can do. That knowledge doesn't make the decision easier.

The doctors and the nurses can only outline the options and try to present them as factually as possible. The standards of their professions don't allow them to counsel allowing the patient to die. Our priests also cannot condone assisted suicide or murder through neglect. Their standards tell them to offer prayer and hope and to counsel acceptance. These professionals' ability to help one decide is limited but they do acquiesce, silently but efficiently, when they feel the decision is right. Friends and relatives can be a bit more open, but the burden always falls on the spouse or children to make the final decision.

All of us know the rationalisations--'It's what he would have wanted,' etc. In truth, guilt and relief go hand-in-hand. It's difficult to avoid that thought that in ending someone else's suffering, we are also ending ours.

The care home was a torment for our friend. By the end he had forgotten most everything except that fact that he wanted to be at home. That was often the only thought he had. When we visited (which became harder and harder to do), he would repeat over and over, 'Take me home. I want to go home.'  He knew his wife almost until the end and knew that she was the only person who could decide to remove him from the care home. He sometimes became very angry with her that she wouldn't do this for him. When we spoke with her after his death, she focused on the fact that her husband had wanted to go home and that she hadn't been able to grant his wish. She felt guilty about that--unnecessarily. All we could do was to assure her that she had made the right decision.

One of my aunts spent her last weeks in a care home. She, too, was constant in her demands to be taken home. My father chose to die at home rather than in a hospice, even though he knew that it meant a lower standard of care. People with terminal illnesses seem to have this desire to be somewhere they identify as 'home'. Even when the person knows that death is imminent, 'home' seems a refuge. That feeling is understandable when the other choice is a hospital or a care home, which are gruesome at best. I have been inside only one hospice. It attempted to provide a 'homey' environment, but that made its institutional nature all the more evident. One's lair or den seems the best place to die.

All this prompted another discussion between Lewis and myself, assuming that we will have a choice. It's made more complicated in our case because we are not legally spouses in many places and our legal right to make such decisions would not be recognised. We have living wills, but again those are not legally binding in many places. Niamh, I know, would accept Lewis's decision. Lewis's nearest relatives are his two siblings, one of whom lives in California and the other in Boston. Lewis has told them of his wishes. I don't think there will be a problem, should it become necessary. The worst would be to be kept in a twilight state because of a legal problem. I hope we can avoid that.

A related thought: I have read that married people live longer. Of course, these statements take heterosexual couples and marriage as norms. Long-term unwed heterosexual or same-sex couples are not factored in, as far as I know.  We seem to be counted automatically among the lonely unweds. The implication of most of these studies is that marriage makes people satisfied and happy, and that happy and satisfied people live longer. I think there might be another explanation, and that is the power of nagging. A partner (married or unwed) is likely to encourage the other partner to seek medical help if there is a problem.

I had my annual check-up a few weeks back. My doctor's office asks people to turn the mobiles off. I had barely exited the office and turned my phone back on before Lewis rang to ask if I had remembered to show the doctor the dark spot on the skin under my right eye. Had I mentioned the stiffness in my legs and asked about post-polio syndrome? What did the doctor say about the arthritis in my right thumb? Was my high blood pressure improving? A week later, I no sooner walked into our house than Lewis handed me a letter from my doctor with the lab results and ordered me to open it and show it to him. The doctor said that there were no problems except for a slight dip in the 'good' cholesterol reading and that I should get more exercise and to see him if my legs got worse. More nagging. Because of my blood pressure, salt has become a dirty word in our household, and soda bread has been banished. I am sick of hearing about post-polio syndrome and being watched for problems with moving and having my stiffness fussed over. (I'm getting old, Lewis. Some stiffness is normal.) It's great to have someone who cares so much and I hope that Lewis is healthy, but I would like him to have at least one small problem that I could nag him about.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Memorable short stories

Yesterday a remark in another blog prompted thoughts of a short story I read many years ago. I knew that Isaac Asimov was the author and that the story had to do with reversing entropy and ended with the words 'Let there be light'. A search on Google quickly led to the story, which is entitled 'The Last Question'. The Google link led to Wikipedia, where I learned that I am not alone in remembering this story. (See

The experience led to further musings on memorable short stories. I wrote down the following list as they occurred to me over the space of two or three minutes. It's definitely a mixed bag, ranging from the sublime to the ordinary.

Shirley Jackson, 'The Lottery'

Saki, 'The Open Window'

Frank O'Connor, 'My Oedipus Complex', 'First Confession'

Henry James, 'The Beast in the Jungle', 'The Jolly Corner', 'The Figure in the Carpet'

Edith Wharton, 'Xingu', 'Autre temps'

Eudora Welty, 'Why I Live at the P.O.'

Kafka, 'The Penal Colony'

Maupassant, 'Boule de suif'

Balzac, 'L'Auberge rouge'

Eugene McCabe, 'Music at Annahullion'

A. S. Byatt, 'The Thing in the Forest', 'The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye'

Raymond Carver, 'Where I'm Calling From'

I also thought of Elizabeth Bowen's story about a country weekend but can't remember the title. I don't know why I immediately thought of these and not the hundreds of other short stories I have read. There doesn't seem to be any link among them other than the workings of my mind. I encountered the French stories the summer before I went to university.  I thought of the Maupassant story first. It followed the Balzac story in the collection of French stories I was reading as part of my preparations for university, and I was impressed at the time by the great change in writing styles between Balzac and Maupassant. That was what brought the Balzac story to mind. Except for the McCabe, Byatt, and Carver stories, I read all of these as a teenager or when I was in my twenties or thirties. They've stuck in my mind for forty-odd years now.

I fell into the habit of reading short stories at that period of my life because I commuted to school or work on a bus or the subway, and I could finish one or two short stories in the time it took to travel the distance. There were many days when I couldn't read because I couldn't get a seat or the ride was too crowded or too bumpy to hold a book while standing. Novels were less accommodating to the commuting process because several days might elapse when I wasn't able to read, and I would lose the thread of the story and forget minor characters or details of the plot. So I hit upon bringing a short story collection in my briefcase and reading a story or two when circumstances allowed.

The Jackson story probably owes its inclusion and its position at the head of the list to Jonathan Lethem's remarks about it in that collection of his essays I read a month or so ago. The Kafka is memorable for me because it's one of the few pieces of writing that have made me physically ill. Anne Enright once described a piece by John McGahern as the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolling across the kitchen floor. That's what the Kafka was for me.  I felt the description of the workings of the punishment machine on my own flesh, as it were.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

E-books vs P-books

Because of Coetzee's mini-essay on Dostoyevsky in the last novel I read [see no. 38 in the Books 2012 (2) section], I decided to re-read The Brothers Karamozov. My reading speed has been considerably slower than my usual, not only because this is a novel that needs to be read slowly but also because my copy is a paperback edition purchased in 1962. As common for books of that era, it was printed on non-acid-free paper, which is now almost brown. This reduces the contrast between the black type and the background. Moreover, the type size is very small, and there are almost no margins. It stresses my eyes considerably to read this work on paper (hereinafter, a p-book), and I find that about twenty pages is the most I can tolerate in one go. If I haven't finished reading the work by the next time I visit the library, I will borrow a copy with larger type (if the library has one).

Or I could download the entire text from Project Gutenberg and manipulate the screen image to make the type larger--which brings me to the point of this note.

What I miss in reading e-books is the certain sense of where I am in the book. In reading a p-book, one is aware of how much one has read and how much one still has to read. This knowledge may be more sensed than thought about, but one can gauge, however unconsciously and roughly, where one is in relation to the end of the book. This knowledge is, I would argue, important to the reading of a novel. In a mystery novel, for example, the end of the book brings the resolution of the mystery, and one knows that the closer one gets to the end, the closer one gets to the solution. I think this knowledge instinctively shapes our sense of the plot as we are reading.

Such information is of course available in a e-book. Among the control buttons at the top of a PDF file is one indicating that the present page is, for example, 234/702, or no. 234 out of 702. Even in the most primitive form of e-book file some indication of where you are is available. But the point is that one has to search for this information. It isn't there to be sensed immediately. In reading an p-book, a variety of sensory inputs tells us how far we have read in the book. The most prominent clue is visual, but even in holding a book to read it, our sense of touch tells us the relative weights and thicknesses of the blocks of pages we are holding in our right and left hands. Our senses provide clear feedback on how much remains to be read. All one sees in an e-book is the text on the screen at a given moment, and one doesn't instinctively know where this text falls in the book. There is no immediately apprehended feeling of where one is in relation to either the beginning or the end of the book.

I think the same is true of all works that exist physically as one unified narrative published in a physical book. Even our reading of books that aren't meant to be read for the plot is shaped by our expectation that a narrative is rounded off at the end and that we either are or are not approaching that point. In an e-book we lose our sense of progress through a book, progress in terms of not only how much we have read and still have to read but also how quickly we are reading.

A similar point can be made about reading a short story printed on paper within a larger context, say, an anthology or a magazine. Without paging through the publication to find the end of the story, the reader has no certain idea where the page(s) now visible fall in relation to the end of the story. This knowledge only comes when one turns the page and sees that the type ends midway down a page or that there is a new title visible somewhere in the facing-page spread. Or think of an article in the paper version of a newspaper. One instinctively apprehends the size of the article if all of it falls on the same page. But what happens when one reaches the bottom of the column and finds "continued on p. X"? Until one turns to page X, it remains a mystery how much remains to be read. Or consider what must be a common experience for all readers of books--"I'll just finish this chapter and then I'll scrub the kitchen floor"--without paging through the book to find the end of the chapter, one doesn't know how much remains to be read.

So in some senses our readings of short stories, chapters in books, articles in newspapers or magazines that we are reading in paper versions are akin to reading in some electronic format. In most cases we do not immediately have available to us the knowledge of where we are in relationship to the end of the story, chapter, article. That is one way in which our reading of short stories embedded in a larger work differs from our reading of a novel that occupies the entirety of a physical book. We don't know where we are in relation to the end of the narrative, and that uncertainty can be exploited by the author (assuming that the reader doesn't cheat and check the length before beginning to read). Is what I have just started reading the beginning of a short anecdote or have I embarked on a novella? Of course we can sense when we are approaching the end of a story. But even for a skilled and practiced reader, until that reader gets well into a work, there is no sense of the quantity of material to be read.

So back to The Brothers Karamazov--this is a novel of ideas. The plot--what happens--is secondary (at best!) to the discussions of ideas. I left off reading in the middle of the biography of Elder Zossima that Aloysha wrote after Zossima's death. I can see from the bookmark sticking out of the top of the book that I am slightly less than halfway through. I remember from my previous reading roughly what happens next in terms of plot. So it is difficult for me to think myself into the position of a first-time reader of The Brothers Karamazov. I think, however, that a virginal reader engaged with an electronic version of the text would have a very different sense of the book from one reading a p-book version. It moves at such a glacial speed that the knowledge of where one is in relation to the whole of the book shapes one's sense of the book and of the portion currently being read to the book as a whole.

I was surprised in fact to discover that the Grand Inquisitor section falls relatively early in the book. I had remembered it as one of the highlights of the work and thought it far closer to the end that it is. Physically knowing where I am in the reading shapes how I view a particular episode. The Grand Inquisitor's tale becomes less a summing up of the ideas of the work and more a disquisition that will play into the reading of the subsequent text. The tale is prospective (it shapes our reading; it poses questions and ideas to be tested in the novel; it tells us something about the character who is telling the story, knowledge we will use in evaluating that character's subsequent acts) rather than retrospective (imagine if it had been the final chapter in the book--then it would have become Dostoyevsky's final comment on the novel; it would be definitive rather than open). Knowing where one is in the text provides clues on how its parts are to be read.

Later addition: Similar factors are at work in cinema and television shows. Think of a film in which the principal characters are put in peril in the first half-hour. The audience knows that, however bad things look for the leads, they will escape with their lives--they have to survive until the end.  So the 'will they, won't they live through this' tension the film tries to create around the peril is tempered by the knowledge that they will survive. This forces a shift in the dramatic interest to a vicarious enjoyment of a safe danger and perhaps the hero's cleverness in overcoming the threat or her bravery and insouciance in confronting it (peril and wisecracks are commonly paired). The good ship Enterprise will survive the nasty aliens' attack and live to fight again in next week's episode or in the next sequel. Similarly any repeat viewer of the CSI series knows that those accused of the crime and brought in for grilling in the first three-quarters of an episode are not the guilty parties. Their alibis will hold up; their DNA will not match that found at the crime scene.

I have seen a few films in which a 'star' is killed off in the first half-hour. It comes across as a shock. Audiences gasp when they realise that an apparently major character is dead so early in the film. The death seems profligate. It violates our sense of narrative conventions and increases our sense that this movie is serious. A writer's ability to subvert genre conventions depends on the audience's knowledge of those conventions. Surprise works only when we have expectations of what is normal.

Every narrative genre that foregrounds plot (novel, short story, or drama) has stereotypical ways to spread the action over the required space or time. Our knowledge of the limits imposed on the work (either because we can see the size of the book; or because we know that the dénouement of the TV show will come about five minutes before the end of the show to allow time for the final barrage of ads, a final minute showing the characters recovering from the trauma of that particular episode, and the credits; or because we know that the play will last two hours) conditions our instinctive reactions to individual scenes. Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius until the end let Shakespeare address the moral uncertainty surrounding revenge. Shakespeare would have had to find a very different focus if Hamlet had disposed of Claudius early in the play. The delay in killing Claudius forces us to think of the play in a certain way. It matters when something happens in relation to the length of the work.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Boy Who Danced with the Sea

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island

The Boy Who Danced with the Sea

Nexis Pas

© 2012

No one in Munfrees knows when the boy lived, but everyone agrees that it was long ago. The oldest people in the village say that their grandparents told them that the boy lived many years before even they were born. Nor does anyone know the boy’s name. Some of the Aherns say that he must have been an Ahern because half the villagers are Aherns and it is more than likely that he was an Ahern too. Kevin Garrighty was drunk one night at the pub and tried to claim that the boy was one of his ancestors. His brother Conor set him right by pointing out that the boy was only a lad when he disappeared and could not have fathered any children and that Kevin should look elsewhere to account for his stupidity.

But everyone agrees that the boy was mad and that the music caused his madness. ‘It captured his soul as soon as he heard it and he was never right after that’ is how old Mrs Ahern put it when she told me the story. That was the first time I heard about the boy. I had been wandering by the ocean, peering into the small pools of water left by the receding tide in the clefts of the black shale rock that lines the shore. They were filled with activity—snails crawling on bits of seaweed, barnacles topped by waving fronds. Occasionally a tiny fish startled by my appearance above its world would dart towards a haven within a pool and lie motionless. I was following the movements of a minuscule blue crab when Mrs Ahern saw me and stopped to tell me the story of the boy who danced with the sea and what happened to him.

‘The priest was away to see the bishop and the villagers decided to hold a dance. The priest had warned them against the fires that music feeds and forbidden dancing but no priest has ever been able to quiet the blood of the young or the desire of the old to relive their youth. Everyone in the village took an unholy oath not to tell the priest.

‘They gathered down by that open flat space at the lower end of the village, next to where the pier is now. That was before they built the stone wall to moor the boats. There was just a sand beach surrounded by the black rock. They had only small boats, small enough for one man to row, and they pulled them up on the shore beyond the reach of the waves and turned them over when they had finished for the day. The musicians sat on one of the boats. There was a fiddler and a drummer. It was St John’s Eve and the light was still high in the sky. Even so they built a fire to mark the night as we have always done in Munfrees, priest or no priest.

‘The young ones gathered in a ring around the fire and the old ones sat in a circle about them. The boy was thought too young to dance, and his grandmother held him on her lap. The girls wore their best dresses and shoes and bound their hair with bright ribbons bought from the peddler. The young men wore knee breeches and covered their calves with stockings and put shoes with bright brass buckles on their feet.

‘When the fire shone red on their faces, the music started and the dancing began. The young men capered. One brave one was the first to jump over the fire and that started the rest of them. Each of them tried to leap higher than the others. The young women lifted their skirts so that their feet in their slippers and the ribbons tied round their ankles could be seen as they danced on their toes. The fiddler played faster and faster and the drummer beat louder and louder. The old folks began to clap and shout to encourage the dancers.

‘Then the boy slipped off his grandmother’s lap and began to dance. Dance like no one in Munfrees had ever seen. Later they said that he had the Devil in him. He spun faster and faster. His feet moved so fast that no one could see them or trace his movements. He leaped higher and higher until he was soaring in the air above them. The fiddler and the drummer couldn’t stop. The faster the boy moved, the faster they played. The boy drove the other dancers into a frenzy. Their faces grew red, redder than ever fire was. Their breath tore at their lungs. The blood burned hot in their bodies. Their feet blurred. Even the old people rose to their feet and began dancing. They clapped until their hands blistered and their throats grew hoarse with the shouting. Even stranger, the fire burned brighter and brighter and higher and higher, though no one was feeding it. But no matter how high the flames, the dancers, man and woman alike, leaped even higher.

‘They danced throughout the night, never tiring. It was like Munfrees had been cursed by the music. When the first light came over the hills, the fire died, the musicians stopped, and the dancers fell to the ground. Those pretty slippers the women wore to attract the men and show off their slender strong ankles and hint at their legs were danced to rags. The horsehair on the fiddler’s bow was tattered and fluttered in the wind. The skin on the drummer’s drum was thin, so thin that one more beat would have broken it. The men’s jackets and trousers were split at the seams. Aye, it was a sore-looking and tired group that greeted the dawn that morning in Munfrees. They were too stunned to speak or wonder at what they had done. They dragged their weary bodies home and fell into their beds to sleep throughout that day and the next night too.

‘All except the boy. He watched the villagers stumbling home. “Come back, come back,” he cried. “Keep dancing. Dance with me.” But the villagers ignored him. One by one they entered their houses and closed their doors, leaving the boy alone in the open space by the boats.

‘When the boy saw that no one would dance with him, he turned his back on the village and walked between the boats down to the sea. It was one of those mornings when the waves are ripples on the surface of the sea, barely lifting the water. It was more like the sea was whispering against the land, breathing quietly, each incoming wave little more than a foam hissing for a foot or two across the sand. The music was still loud in the boy’s ears. He hummed a bit of a tune and danced a step and then another. A line of footprints formed in the wet sand by the water’s edge, some shallow where he had put his whole foot down, others deeper where he had capered on his toes. It was like he had written a record of the dance on the sand.

‘The prints filled with water that gleamed in the light. A wave surged higher up the sand than the others and tugged at the sand, softening the footprints that the boy had left. The boy danced back across the sand. A second wave erased the new footprints. The boy laughed. He danced back and forth between the waves. He moved so quickly that the sea never caught him. As one wave ebbed back into the sea, the boy would streak across the shore, leaping and turning to the music in his head, and jumping onto the rocks at the edge of the sand before the next wave came in.

‘ “Dance with me,” he cried to the sea. And the sea laughed and began to dance with the boy. Caper for caper, turn for turn, step for step, they moved as if they were one, now drawing apart and inviting the other to follow, now coming together and smiling flirtatiously at each other. No pair of lovers have ever danced so joyfully as did the boy and the sea. The boy’s ears filled with the music of the dance, the beats of the bodhrán sounding from within the waves, the fiddle’s tune in the wind.

‘It was early morning when their dance began, while Munfrees lay in the shadow of the hills to the west. Far out at sea the sun shone on the water, making a great pool of light. As the sun rose over the hills, the light rushed toward the shore. It was like a golden path on the surface of the water. But the boy had no thought for anything but the music and the dance. The waves leaped higher and higher and moved faster and faster. “Dance with me,” the sea cried. The lover called to the beloved. The path of light bedazzled the boy’s eyes and befuddled his senses. He danced along the golden path, leaping with the waves, until he was far out to sea. And still the music gripped him.

‘That was the last the villagers saw of him. When they awoke the second day after the dance, the area between the boats and the sea was filled with small footprints, but that was all that remained of the boy.

‘Still, sometimes, when the sea rages towards the shore and the wind catches at the waves and blows the water off the top of them, if you look closely, you can see the boy dancing along the waves as they curl. The men who go out to fish say that when the sunlight shimmers on the water far out at sea, they can see someone dancing there. And there are those who swear that on quiet nights they have heard voices coming from the sea, one deep and full and one high and thin like a child’s, saying “Come dance with us. Dance with us.” Those who have lived to tell the tale say it is hard to resist that call. Their feet begin to twitch as if the music were beckoning them to take to the floor. They need all their will to turn their backs on the sea and close their ears to the music. But there are some who cannot resist, who dance away with the sea and are never seen alive again.’

Mrs Ahern turned her gaze away from the sea and looked down at me. ‘So, young Patrick Brennan, it is wise to be careful around the sea. It can take you away if you are foolish enough to listen to it.’ She held out one of the pails she was carrying. ‘Here. Take this. You can help me milk the cow. I hear you are good at it. Your hands aren’t rough from work yet, and the cow likes you.’