Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Blue Dwarf (1995)

This tale appeared in my collection, The Smell of Telescopes, together with its three sequels, all of which combine to form a story sequence called 'The Monmouth Wheel'. It was one of those stories I began writing without having any clue as to what would happen until I got to the end. When I compose fiction I usually have at least a vague idea of a potential conclusion, but not always; and on those occasions when I don't I feel I am reading the story at the same time I am writing it.

“All I require” the blue dwarf cried, as he placed his hand on my knee, “are your trousers and your soul.”
“Oh, little man,” said I, “this is a foolish request! They are both too large for you. They would flap in the wind and set up a commotion. Who would want to be your friend then? You would have to shout above the noise: ‘Blueberry pie at my house.’ Even so, no-one would come to visit. You would have to sit alone, absurdly attired.
“But let me tell you of the time I bartered both. The world was a younger place then; we did not value so highly such things as trousers and souls. The former were objects merely to be worn; the latter were baubles brought out over dinner to amuse guests. Neither had pride of place in the wardrobe, as they do now.”
“I do not wish to hear this,” replied the blue dwarf, and he turned to go. But I soon had him by the scruff and he was forced to amend his statement: “Perhaps I will listen after all.”
“Very good,” I agreed. “It is possible you will learn a truth here, though I doubt it. The amoral fable suits my tongue rather better than the moral kind. Attend then, unclouded fellow.
“The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Gwent, by the borders of the river Severn. And there is no quiet there, nor silence. The waters have a saffron and sickly hue; and they do a fair bit of palpitating beneath the red eye of the sun...”
The blue dwarf sighed: “Bugger!”

Actually, I exchanged my trousers for a clock and a carrot, and lost my soul as I was doing so. Do you know Monmouth?
The market there is notorious for pickpockets; I knew this before I set out, yet took no precautions. I was intent on driving a hard bargain for my trousers. The imps who run the stalls are good at offering low prices for items that come their way. They can talk the meanest miser into parting with his silver for a length of old rope. It is essential to be on your guard at all times.
Nor are they too particular about where their goods come from. I suspect the clock I received fell off the back of a steeple, and the carrot had been uprooted from an allotment. But I was desperate; and the imps and their customers are protected by the market-overt law. This states that goods sold at such markets, whether stolen or not, cannot be returned to the original owner (with the clock came an irate pastor).
Anyway, after I had spent an hour or so talking one stall-owner into giving me the clock and carrot, and had divested myself of my baggy britches, I made my way back to my house. Halfway home, I realised my soul was missing. Nimble fingers had filched it. Doubtless it could now be found on a soul stall. But I had nothing on me with which to barter it back. I decided it would keep until the following morning, when I would return with an umbrella and a parrot.
In my kitchen, I made a thin soup with the carrot and set the clock above my hearth (the pastor grumbled about the fire and claimed it was singeing his heels.) At last there was a knock on the door and Myfanwy stood on the threshold. I invited her in, showed her the clock, poured the soup and gazed into her large brown eyes. The combination of broth and timepiece so impressed her she consented to marry me at once — the effect I had been aiming for. “Hurrah!” cried I.
We finished the meal and listened to the clock striking the hour. She suggested we go out for a walk. I declined, of course — I had no trousers. I made some excuse about wishing to stay at the table to hear the clock strike another hour. She thought this an excellent idea and suggested we pass the time by playing dice with our souls. Again I made my excuses; I told her my soul had caught a cold and had to be kept inside. She saw through this deception at once.
“And to think I nearly kissed a man without a soul!” she growled. She stood up to leave and I rushed to restrain her. She glanced down at my bare legs. “What’s more, without trousers too!” she added. It was all I could do not to fall on the floor and burst into tears. I fell into an easy chair and burst into tears instead.
Myfanwy had left me, and my efforts at seducing her with pendulum and root vegetable had come to nothing. She was the greatest baker of blueberry pie in the region and men of all kinds came flocking to her oven; she could afford to be choosy. She had picked off the crust of my amorous overtures to expose the lack of filling beneath. I had lost her for good. Let this be a lesson to all young lovers, especially in these days, when inflation and curry has pushed up the price of both trousers and souls. Wear the former and ‘ware the latter.
The following morning, I took my umbrella and parrot to the market in an effort to retrieve my soul. But it had been sold. I was much put out by this. The imp who owned the stall offered to do me a very nice soul in maroon-and-black, but there is nothing quite like having your own soul; it fits you like a favourite overcoat, or like an idea in a single word. The imp would not reveal to whom he had sold it. I decided to cut my losses and buy back my trousers.
Incredibly, my trousers had also been purchased. I was so stupefied that I relaxed my guard and ended up exchanging my umbrella and parrot for a pair of tinted spectacles. I wore the spectacles — they turned everything as blue as my funk — as a reminder to myself never to be so foolish again. Indeed, I have never taken them off.
I sat on the side of Monnow bridge (if you do not know Monmouth, this is quite close to Agincourt Square, behind the giant waterwheel) and dangled my legs above the fetid river. As I was grumbling there to myself, Owain ap Iorwerth came up to me. “What’s the matter, Gruffydd?” he chortled, pleased to find me in a state of despair. I told him. “Oh well!” he grinned and slapped me on the back. I think he meant for me to fall into the ravine, but I merely coughed loose a tooth.
Owain ap Iorwerth, you see, was my greatest rival for the hand of fair Myfanwy. I made my way home and, too depressed even to finish off the soup I had so lovingly prepared the day before, took to my bed. I was startled by a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was overjoyed to find Myfanwy there, holding my trousers and soul.
It seemed I had misjudged her. She loved me, to be sure, and after storming out of my house had made her way to the market. There she had searched for the items and bought them for me. My clock and carrot, she quickly confessed, were so utterly remarkable, both as singular objects and also as a sum greater than the parts, that she had seen the error of her ways. She begged my forgiveness.
Naturally, I told her it was I who needed to apologise. After some thought she agreed; I did so and we fell into each other’s arms. But, unfortunately, this is the real world; life is a sour cream poured on stones. It soon became apparent she had sold her own trousers and soul to purchase mine. A hatstand and three harpoons had been thrown in.
I was in a quandary. How could I marry a woman without trousers or soul? Neighbours would gossip; I should be ashamed to show myself in public. I did not mention this to her, of course; I am a sensitive sort of man. The sort of man who does not despise pink socks because of their colour, but because of their hue.
In the days that followed, I did my best to act as if nothing was amiss. But her blueberry pie lost its flavour, and her lithe limbs lost their ability to slide against mine without friction. More to the point, when we went out with each other, people stared at us. They suspected she was lacking trousers and a soul; you could see it in their eyebrows, which jumped alarmingly whenever we approached. Some even made jokes in our presence. “That’s the spirit!” they would cry, or, “What a turn up for the books!” Pedestrians can be very cruel.
Owain ap Iorwerth noticed as well, because one day she left me for him. He had done the noble thing, buying back her trousers and soul and returning them to her. This showed me up as a thoughtless lover. The irony was that he bartered his own soul and trousers to obtain hers. I gritted my teeth and, in order to impress Myfanwy with my sacrifice, re-exchanged my trousers and soul for Owain’s. This had the desired effect, but only for a while.
The long and the inside leg of it is that all three of us ended up exchanging and re-exchanging our trousers and souls a great many times. It was a ludicrous and vain episode of my life. Eventually, after a year of this fabric-and-phantom farce, the trousers and souls were jumbled up and we did not know which was which. It is an unbearable sensation, not knowing if your trousers and your soul are the ones you were born with, and we all rushed off in opposite directions, taking up residence in the three corners of the scalene world.
Before I left Monmouth, I made sure I took a blueberry pie with me, to remember Myfanwy by. And it still remains uneaten in my pocket. The day I meet her again will be the day I take a bite; the day I encounter Owain ap Iorwerth will be the day I beat him to death with it. It is tasty and solid enough for either eventuality.

“And that tale is absolutely true,” I told the blue dwarf, “which is why you shall never succeed in removing my trousers or my soul. I suggest you run along and torment someone your own size. I spy a woodlouse down there; it has a waist more your size.”
“You fool!” The blue dwarf wriggled out of my grasp. I saw now he was not really a dwarf; he was standing on his knees. When he arose, he was almost my own height. He pulled off his wig and his coat and stood there before me with a wide blue grin.
“Myfanwy!” cried I.
“Yes, you fool!” she returned. She reached into her pocket and took out a blueberry pie. “At last we meet again! I have been searching for so many years. Our trousers and souls were indeed jumbled; you have mine and I have yours. That is why I asked you to remove them. Now we can be married and live in near bliss for months!”
I shook my head. “A disguise, eh? I suspected this all along.” I pulled off my own wig and removed my own coat. “I am not Gruffydd after all; I am Owain ap Iorwerth. And I have come to take you away with me, to claim your love and your baking talents!”
Myfanwy threw back her head and laughed. “Exactly as I planned! You have fallen into my trap!” She removed her new wig and took off her new coat and it was Gruffydd himself who now glared at me. He shifted the blueberry pie in his hand and prepared to lunge. “At last I shall be avenged! I have waited long ages for this.”
“Ha!” I screamed. I followed his example; I pulled off my new wig and discarded my new coat. And then I jumped off my stilts and snatched the blueberry pie from his trembling fingers. “A blue dwarf!” he cried. “What is the meaning of this?”
I reached forward and pulled the tinted spectacles from his nose. At once he understood. He bellowed: “You are not a blue dwarf at all. You are a yellow imp!” I nodded and raced back to the market.
The bottom has dropped out of the trouser market; there is no longer life in souls. Blueberry pie is the new thing. Sometimes we resort to devious tactics to get it.

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