The Neptune Clock: a short story

I wrote this story of unexpected magic quite some years ago, and it’s been popular with readers, so I’m republishing it here today. Enjoy!

The Neptune Clock

By Sophie Masson

The summer my grandfather disappeared, I had been with him, as was usual during the holidays. We’d spend the weeks just swimming and fishing and talking. Grandad was a great talker. Mum reckoned he could talk the hind flipper off a dolphin! It was a good picture to have of Grandad, if you know what I mean, because he was really a sea person.

He and Grandma, both. Every year, when she was still alive, they’d lock up the farm and head for the coast. Grandma was a wonderful swimmer; she’d nearly been chosen for the Olympics. It was hard for her, living at the farm; yet she loved it, loved Grandad, too, so she didn’t complain. But when she died, Grandad sold the farm and everything in it, and moved permanently to the coast. He said he felt closer to her that way; reckoned her spirit was in the sea, watching.

The only thing he’d brought back from the farm was the clock. His Neptune clock, as he called it. He had found it in a junk shop years and years ago before he and Grandma were married. I’d known it all my life. You just couldn’t imagine Grandad without it. That clock was a remarkable thing: a grandfather clock, with a glass front, a cedar case, and a carved brass face. Around the Roman numerals were all sorts of sea-figures: dolphins, seashells, a mermaid, seahorses. And the figure of an old man, holding a trident. Neptune, god of the sea, Grandad had said. When I was little, I used to think secretely that Grandad had been the model for Neptune’s face: kindly, thin, as filled with lines as a spider’s web. That clock ticked and tocked and bonged through all our days together; Grandad reckoned that it kept him going. He loved that clock, and used to polish it regularly. And when it stopped, he would open the case with a little key, a lovely brass key in the shape of a dolphin, and start the weights up again. And while he started it, he would tell me endless stories, stories of when he and Grandma were young, stories of the farm and the animals he’d had, stories of the sea. My favourite was that old Scottish story of the selkie–you know, the seal woman who is captured by a fisherman but eventually returns to the sea, leaving her family on land. It’s a sad story, and Grandad’s eyes always looked wet when he told that one. Sometimes I wondered if he thought of Grandma, then, Grandma, who’d so loved the sea, who’d seemed so at home in it…

I’m not sure when I noticed Grandad was a little different, that holiday. I think it started when I found him down at the beach, early one morning, without his beloved rod, just gazing out to sea. ’I saw the dolphins again today,’ he said. He turned to look at me, his blue-green eyes full of excitement. ’They’re coming closer!’ I nodded. I didn’t quite understand his urgency, his excitement, but it was nice to think of them out there, playing, leaping, the brilliant sea sparkling off their skin like scattered gems. Grandad sighed a little, and rubbed at his eyes. ’I don’t really feel much like fishing, these days.’ I looked at him sharply, but he had not sounded weary, only a little restless.

I watched him carefully for the next few days, but he seemed to be just the same as ever. Only occasionally he’d interrupt his talking and look out of the window at something I couldn’t see, but it was only a moment. Next moment he’d be back chatting and spinning yarns. And in its corner the Neptune Clock chimed out its creamy slices of days, chiming in with the rise and fall of his voice.


But then one morning–that morning!–I woke suddenly. The house was perfectly still; almost as if it was listening. Something in the quality of that silence made me jump up and fling clothes on. I ran from my room into the kitchen. No-one there. I looked in Grandad’s room. No-one there. The bathroom door was open–no-one there either. Behind the door, fishing rods, boots and all were still in place. But the clock was silent, its sound stilled, somehow adding to my fear.

There was no-one on the beach, and in the silver light of morning I ran and stumbled across the windswept sand, calling for Grandad. I ran and ran, my heart thumping and swelling with knowledge that I didn’t want to face.

It was near the end of the beach, as you go round into the next one, that I found them. His clothes, I mean. Even then, I shouted, ‘No!’ and looked around frantically for him, my eyes almost splitting from the enormous tears that ran all over my face.

Suddenly, there was an unusual movement in the long rolling waves uncoiling before me. Through the tears, I saw two backs, arching, sleek grey bodies slipping in and out of the silken water. Closer they came, closer; and then…People have told me I’m crazy, since then, that it’s just wishful thinking–but I swear that one of those dolphins’ faces was lined, as crazily as a spider’s web, with humorous, sea-change eyes, eyes that had so often been turned on me. And then I watched the dolphins, playing, leaping, looking for all the world like loving people who have found each other again after a long absence…

I can’t tell you how long I stood there, how long they stayed there. But after a while, I walked back slowly to Grandad’s house. And there, on the hall table was the clock key. I picked it up, and turned it over in my hands. ’It’s time, then,’ I whispered. I inserted the key gently into the keyhole.

It opened easily and there, under the weights, was a note in Grandad’s writing: ’This is your clock now, Jessie. It will be a good friend.’ And then followed instructions for starting up the clock. Carefully, I followed them. Then as the clock started ticking again, I looked up at it–and caught my breath. For the Neptune figure, the one which had once had Grandad’s face, stared back at me with a highly-polished grin, out of a face I knew well. Of course I knew it well. I saw it in my mirror every morning.




The Questing Beast: another story from Arthurian times

This is another Arthurian story I wrote some years ago, set again in the court of Camelot, like The Common Dish which I republished yesterday: unlike it though it’s set at the beginning of the Grail Quest, and the coming of Galahad. And this one is told in Guinevere’s voice.

The Questing Beast

By Sophie Masson


May it was, a beautiful Pentecost dusk, when Galahad first came to Camelot. Oh, in a blaze of glory he came, streaking across our sunset sky like a fiery comet, lighting the brilliant way to the end of our world! We saw the brightness, but not the doom; we did not understand that he brought both death and life to the tired land. And we did not pity him. We did not see anything in him to pity..

It was the springtime of the year he came, but the autumn of Camelot. For the great deeds of the past, the vigour and magic of the youth of our world, had dwindled. All the paths, it seemed, had been taken; all the monsters vanquished. We lived in a peace and prosperity unknown to any before us. No wars disturbed our peaceful borders; but the ideals of our past had grown old with our King, and soft with our living. For it is a strange thing that men long for peace when there is war; yet when there is peace, war reigns in their hearts. Melancholy now lived amongst us, where she had been unknown before; yes, and her sister regret, and her daughter despair, and her cousin indifference. The young spent their days in fruitless jousting, in never-ending tournaments of empty valour and foolish risk, in boasting and swaggering; the old in endless recounting of events of long ago: when, they claimed, not only were the deeds more valorous, but also the sun itself shone more brightly in the bluer-than-blue sky!

But there was more than this, something that was dangerous above all else. For the memory of the ways to the Otherworld had grown dim too. The path through the forest of dream had become overgrown and choked with the brambles and vines of our indifference. No longer did the graceful maidens or perilous knights visit us from the immortal realms; and we had almost grown to forget they had ever come at all. The doors and windows of our heart-fastnesses were shut to all marvels, all joy and wonderment, and darkness encroached steadily upon us. So the Wasteland grew around us without our even becoming aware of it; and we bled from invisible wounds, and did not even know it.

Oh, there were a few of us knew well enough, both of the old and the young. Mordred, for one. He had come to Camelot not long before, and had caused quite a stir. But memories had grown dim at Camelot along with so much else; and long shadows are easily hidden at dusk. Mordred did not remind the Court of any unpalatable things; he was always a smiling villain, and clever, and became quite a leader amongst the young men. But villain as he was, he understood what was lacking, what was missing in this autumnal Camelot. And in this understanding he saw his own chance. But he was also one of the few to understand Galahad for what he truly was: bright sun to his own night, yet kin to him in all but name, and necessary to each other. For if there was no sun, truly, the night would be bleak and overwhelming; but if there were no night, would the sun not seem merciless?

And Perceval, the one they called the Holy Fool. He knew. He had been to the perilous castle, he had seen the maimed piteousness of the Fisher King. He had failed twice to ask the questions that would heal the land. But alone of those there, he knew it was the questions that must be asked, not the answers sought. He and his sister the Lady Dindraine, who was in my household, they were amongst the best of the young ones there; bright with enthusiasm and kindness, both, though hotheaded and impulsive, at times, and in a fair way to losing their brightness, in the enervating atmosphere that was now our world.

Arthur should have known. But melancholy had settled over him like a well-worn cloak; his heart was in mourning, his mind wounded, enshrouded in fog. The anger and coldness that was in Mordred had come from him, after all: the son was a mirror of the father, a demon’s bitter glass, to be sure, but nevertheless reflective. The memory of his ancient double sin–the sin of incest, however unwitting, the sin of then attempting to kill his own son–might have faded from the Court’s memory, but it had never left Arthur. In his earlier years, it had seemed to him that the sum of his honourable deeds and his care for his land of Logres, might be set in the balance with his old sins, and tip it in his favour. But now, he was not so sure. The bewilderment of the past had returned to him in full force, and he had none of the defences of youth to hold up against the darkness anymore. And every evening, now, he was reminded. Every evening, Mordred sat at the table, and led the young knights to their boasting, and swaggering. Every evening, Mordred raised a toast to his father. Every evening, he toasted the Queen, and the First Knight, Lancelot. And every evening, his mouth smiled and smiled like summer, and his eyes were cold as winter.

But Arthur did not look at his son if he could help it; his mouth never formed the name ‘Mordred’. It was his only protest, his only defence. And it availed him little, in people’s minds; for there were many there that spoke, not so secretely, of Arthur’s unfairness and coldness towards his only son, who had always behaved with the utmost respect towards him.

And I? What of me? In that autumn of our world, the power of summer had left me. I was weak with the onset of my nature’s own winter, and sad with the onset of my years’ end. True I had been, in my way, the way that meant I loved two men; but with the years had come an understanding as draining as Arthur’s; that never would the glory and careless pride of our youth return.

Lancelot and Guinevere in youth

It was on such an evening that Galahad came. He came not unknown and unheralded, like the King himself had done, long ago; but blazing out of the darkness, out of the palace shut in on itself for so long. Handsome as the day, with a skin touched with a golden bloom and hair as black as a raven’s wing, he was clad in red armour, with a golden scabbard by his side. He came not orphaned and humble, as did Perceval the Fool; but indeed to claim his rightful place at the table. Yet he did not come in fuss and fight and defensive jealousy, as did Mordred. For Galahad there was no test of valour necessary: his very name was enough, for the Siege Perilous glowed in letters of gold at his approach. Young, assured and strong and bright as a lick of Pentecost flame, he stood before us, not arrogant in his pride, but straight, as someone who knows his true worth, his own truth, who has always known it. Neither he nor the white-clad old man with him, his guide, needed to ask for our silence. Their very presence was enough. The Otherworld had returned to us; summer and winter were one.

Oh, how I remember now the looks on the faces turned towards him! The young ones felt the fire of their loins rushing up instantly into their minds; the older ones knew a bittersweetness rising up to overwhelm them. In all the manly hearts was a longing, all the deeper for being sudden: that it was they, standing straight and proud and tall like that, gazing calmly into all of the waiting faces! And the women–ah, the women knew a longing that they might stand by his side, might share in all he was to ask of them, as mothers, or sisters, or lovers. I understand it, for I felt it, too, so strongly…

I looked across at sweet Dindraine, and saw that her eyes were fixed on the young knight. She was already his: her heart already lost, her soul already promised, her body already aflame! Before long, it would burn with a fire all the greater for being denied, a flame tall and straight and white and consuming.

‘Peace be with you, fair lords,’ said the old man. His voice was soft, yet somehow it made us all tremble. He turned to the King. ‘Sir, I bring you a young knight who is of king’s lineage, and of the kindred of Joseph of Arimathea.’ He paused a while, and his voice dropped to a whisper. But still we heard it, low and thrilling. ‘And through him, all the marvels of this court and of all strong realms shall be accomplished.’

I watched Lancelot’s face then. It was transfigured. His striking, strong face: it was suffused with a  joy I had never seen there before, as he gazed on his only son. I remembered what his castle had been called, when he had lived with the Princess Elaine, mother of Galahad: Joyous Gard. It was this joy for which he had been waiting all his life. Oh, there was nothing selfishly proud, nothing of fatherly swagger about him: of all the men there, Lancelot could see the truest of all. Not with the sharp eyes of hate, like Mordred, or the clear eyes of innocence, like Perceval: but the true eyes of a loving man. Indeed, his son was a shining child to him, though, never, never as dear as his father, and lacking…lacking in something, though I did not know it yet. And seeing Galahad through Lancelot’s eyes, I felt as if a great burden had gone from me, as if I truly understood.

But there was Arthur. Arthur, gazing hungrily, wildly, on Lancelot’s son, as if he would devour him with his eyes. And the pain of it was like a lance in my heart, a frost-tipped lance of endless sorrow.

The King nodded. ‘Sir, you are right welcome here, and the young knight with you.’ Lancelot looked at him then; for Arthur was not immediately warm, in his voice, and the First Knight always was a man frank and bold in his own reactions. But I could see the King was holding in check some great leap of the heart; some terrible yearning; and I longed to help him, but could not.

Galahad bowed, and smiled: not discreetly, but with a grave golden dignity.

‘Sir, I thank you for your courtesy.’

Then the old man brought him around the table, towards the Siege Perilous. And there was another great silence in the hall, a silence that was like fear.

The old man lifted the cloth that had always covered the seat; and he read out in a loud voice the words that had appeared there, in letters of gold:

This is the Siege of Galahad the High Prince.

There was a great sigh then, and a rustle, as everyone got to their feet, craning to see as Galahad slowly sat down on the seat that had always been meant for him. There was no surprise in his face, just that golden smile. And suddenly, I looked across the hall, and saw Mordred. And he was smiling, too. Smiling and smiling, with his mouth and eyes bleak as winter. And for a moment, pity filled me. Mordred did not have his father’s love, his father’s blessing: nothing but his lineage, and the memory of an ancient sin that must be expiated. His place here at Camelot had been forced on Arthur. Here he was, the High Prince; Arthur’s heir; yet it was Lancelot’s son who sat thus enthroned.

Mordred caught my eye. He did not stop smiling; but in his eyes something leapt then, something like a dark, questing beast, blind and wild in its fury.

Galahad was speaking. ‘Go in peace, old man. You have done what was needed of you. Give my respects to my grandfather King Pelles and my mother Princess Elaine. Tell them that my father has greeted me.’

So young, to be so commanding! Yet none of us wondered at it, for in his radiance, half-human, half-Otherwordly, he reminded us of our old contract with the Otherworld, and it gladdened all hearts, the young and the old.


And so the die was cast. The coming of Galahad was truly a great wonder, and many marvels he accomplished as well, after it, but what I remember most of all is the way in which he transformed the court in his short time there. I never saw him again after he left Camelot, but he left an indelible impression on me, as he did on everyone who knew him. Whilst he was there, there were no foolish quarrels, no hasty words, no witless swaggering, and Mordred’s poisonous whispers went unheard. Lancelot went about in a happy daze, so happy that all our old joy was restored. And most of all, the fog seemed to leave Arthur’s eyes, and he seemed not so much reborn as refreshed. Not that he forgot his sins; but that, like so many others, in Galahad’s presence, he felt that truly the balance was there. That he had truly atoned, and that though Galahad was not his son, his very presence at Court was a sign of forgiveness. Arthur even looked on his son Mordred then, and spoke his name, and attempted kindness where tenderness did not yet come naturally. Mordred was becoming uncertain: the dark unhappiness and desperate anger of his heart trembling under the new way of things. Even in the bitterest soil, a loving miracle can make a beautiful flower grow. If it had all lasted longer, who is to know what might have happened?

But that was never Galahad’s aim. Never his destiny. He was the blazing comet, the last brilliance of our wounded land, and not its healer. Earthly harmony held little music for him, for he was of the Grail Family, keepers of the secret flame, the holy blood. Kind he was indeed to Dindraine, but never did he love her as a man loves a woman: for Lancelot’s son though he was, he did not have Lancelot’s soul. Galahad’s being was of light, and had no share in darkness at all. And a man must have both within him if he is to know love, and love is to know him.

When the knights came to Arthur and begged to be allowed to go on the Quest for the Holy Grail, Galahad’s name was on all their lips. Galahad was the shining light. He was the one for whom the Grail had waited, and now he was here, it would be found. The King gave his consent–of course. How could he not? Was it not what they had all been waiting for? At that time, this is what they thought: this would be the healing to end all healings; Camelot would be purified and made whole, forever. They did not think that light blinds and burns as much as it illuminates. None of us remembered. We had been living in the twilight for too long, to remember that morning’s fresh gilt is followed by midday’s burning, and that the setting sun burns brightest of all.

Watching, I could hardly fault them their fervour and worship of the young Grail knight, not when I myself had known such peace when Galahad was there. But he was going; and now I began to see that he had always meant to go. And I began to wonder. What did Camelot mean to him? What did it mean, for one so young, to know he was marked by God? What did it mean, to know one’s conception had not been made in earthly love, but in otherwordly deceit, sweet and good as that deceit might have been? And I could find no answers. Questions, only. I thought, like Perceval, I should be content to know the questions and not seek the answers–but oh, I am too much a part of this unstable world to be able to do so.

And so, the knights would be going, all of them, even Lancelot, only Arthur remaining behind. Only Mordred had not declared for the Quest; the tough vine of his jealousy had sprung up again, and he wanted to make quite sure it was not all a plot to distance him from Camelot, and from Arthur’s favour. But no, perhaps that’s not the full story; perhaps it was truly because he knew.B ecause as I said, he understood Galahad.

Dindraine came to me on the day before they left, to bid me goodbye, for she was going on the Quest, with her brother Perceval, and good Sir Bors, and Galahad her love. She was aflame still, sweet Dindraine: and in her voice and manner was the fervour of one who would lay down their life for their love, for the glory of a deed to impress her name on him forever.

‘Good lady, I ask for your blessing,’ she said,’ for you have always been kind to me, and I have admired you, always.’

‘I give you my blessing joyously,’ I said, ‘for I see that it is in joy you go, and not grim destiny.’

‘Oh, yes,’ she said, and turned wide eyes to me; ‘with Sir Galahad, there is no grim fate, but only the surprise of joy, always!’

I did not show in my eyes or my mouth that I had any doubts. I blessed her, and hoped that God would smile upon her, and that Galahad might see her one day, and love her as much as she loved him. But as I fastened on her cloak the gilt brooch that was my gift to her, I felt such a tremor of fear that I could barely murmur words of farewell. In any case, she hardly heard me; her spirit was already on the road, with the three knights.

But I had Galahad called to my presence, nevertheless. As he stood there before me, so much his father’s son yet so unlike him, I felt a pang of grief unlike any I have ever known, so that for a moment I could barely speak.

‘You sent for me, Lady?’ His voice was low, yet sweet. There was no surprise or wariness in those clear blue eyes, his mother’s eyes: only compassion. Strange, then, that I should feel afraid to continue.

‘Yes, Sir Galahad.’ I made my voice firm. ‘I have been speaking to the Lady Dindraine.’

His eyes lit up. ‘She is a beautiful soul.’

The words were wrenched out of me. ‘Oh, Sir Galahad, do not forget she has a body too! Lovely as the morning, for it is the mirror of her soul, the sacrament of her spirit, and must not be tossed lightly aside.’

His eyes were still clear and blue. ‘Sweet lady, do not fear,’ he said gently. ‘The Lady Dindraine comes willingly.’

‘I know that.’ Somehow, the arguments had thickened on my tongue, but I forced them past my lips. ‘I am a daughter of earth, I know, Sir Galahad, and not like your mother, who is a princess of the Otherworld. But Dindraine is of earth too. And so I am afraid; for our bodies are our souls’ only home in this world.’

‘Dear Lady,’ he said, again, ‘do not fear, for I am her knight, and her friend, and will protect her.’ And his smile was so sweet that all the questions left me.

On the morning they left, then, we made a merry occasion of it, and the air was bright with trumpets and gay with green and blue and red favours .The Questers rode out of the court with a tumult of hooves and a flourishing of mailed hands, and hope and glory and courage rode with them. And at their head, a figure beautiful as the dawn: Galahad himself. And riding behind him, queenly in bearing, with her bright hair up, the Lady Dindraine…

For a moment it was as if we were looking on the morning of our own world, and not just on day’s beginning: and I felt the tears start in my eyes, and thanked God for granting us this sight. I looked at Arthur, and saw that his eyes were full of it too, and we reached out to each other, and our hands clasped, and held firm, and warmth surged through each of us, and renewal, and hope.

But then came Mordred’s slow, thoughtful voice behind us, making us spring apart, as if by instinct.

‘My Lord Arthur, my lady Guinevere–is it not a strange sight indeed?’

Arthur turned. ‘Strange sight, my son? Whatever can you mean?’ His voice held a strain, but he was striving to be fair. For Mordred had decided at the last moment that he would not go, and Arthur had made him see, most plainly indeed, just what he thought of that. Cowardice was a thing he never could stand, and he had accused Mordred roundly of it. But I did not know these things till later, when it was far too late: or I would have told him that cowardice was not a thing Mordred had in him. Many other things, yes, but not that one.

Mordred smiled. And horror rose in me at the sight, for there was winter again in his gaze, the white harshness of frost in his features.

‘Why, great King and Queen, would you not say that yonder line of men looks most uncommonly like a great beast? A great questing beast bright in colour and sinuous in movement, with many and many baying tongues: and its head like a flame?’

We could not help looking, and to our horrified eyes, now that Mordred had spoken and unlocked forbidden things in our minds, the long line of knights did indeed look like some terrible thing, some devouring dragon eating up the land. Some ravaging, wild and wicked thing. And at its head, a flame, pitiless as fire, blind as the sun.

‘Why,’ said Mordred, watching our faces. ‘Why, great Queen, great King, I am sorry if my thoughtless question has caused you pain. I have too lively an imagination, it seems.’

‘Thoughtless…’ echoed Arthur, and his voice was choked. ‘You never did anything except by great thought, Mordred. But imagination–that you do not have. That you cannot take, as well.’ And without another word, he turned on his heel, and was gone from my side.

Mordred raised an eyebrow at me. For a moment, the fear of him was great in me. He was growing strong, and would soon be stronger.

‘My lady Guinevere,’ he said, ‘Forgive me if I have offended you. I meant to be merely amusing: the knights of the Round Table, questing off on the hunt, quivering, like some great eager beast.’

He waited for my reaction; but I hardly heard him. For in that terrible moment, Galahad had turned in his saddle and was looking back towards Camelot. From this distance, I thought I saw uncertainty in his bearing. No longer was he the flame-head of some hideous questing beast, but a young man, still beardless, and alone in all his perfect glory, in our imperfect world. And the sight of him filled my lungs with power, my mind with the question I should have asked him, so that I cried it out loud:

‘Oh, my friends, why do you quest far away for the Grail, when it might live bright within you?’

But they were too far away. They marched away gaily, all unheeding, those doomed bold men, that doomed brave girl: for of that large and shining company, only a pitiful few would return. There was only Mordred to catch my words, and only his wintry smile in answer, as he turned away from me, and followed his father into Camelot.


The Common Dish: a short story of Arthurian times

Today I’m republishing a short story of mine, The Common Dish, which is inspired by that great medieval body of stories, the Arthurian legend–and the Grail Quest as seen by those who were left behind.

Knights departing on Grail Quest, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Common Dish

by Sophie Masson

May had come in, lusty May, that makes us forget the rigours of winter and think of warmer pleasures than those of the fire. May, bedecked in garlands and blossom, sweeping down the country lanes like a bride, showering all with gladness. Usually, we welcomed her with equal gladness; we danced for her honour, we donned our bright clothes again, drawing them out of chests where they had slept all autumn and winter, under lavender and rosemary, to keep the moths away.  Usually, at this time, the lady of this place, Laurel, my sister, gave orders for sweet pastries to be made, and honeycombs to be brought, and last year’s mead brought out of the cellar, new cheeses to be laid fragrant on well-scrubbed tables, the common dish filled with fine and tasty things for all.  The fields were bright with poppies and meadow-sweet and cowslip; the riverbanks bright with flowering parsley, the skies bright with larks and thrushes and other sweet-voiced birds, the roads bright with knights bound for tourneys and shepherds herding their flocks and ladies going a-maying and children singing new songs.  Everyone was happy, in May-time; everyone, from the lowest to the highest, the King to the lowliest kitchen scullion, the most ancient crone to the handsomest knight, saint and sinner.  Even the ill-favoured and ill-tempered might be happy, at such a time. For blue, bright May was God’s gift to the whole of creation.

But this year was different, for Camelot.  Of course, there was the joy that the Quest had ended, the knights returned.  But so many had not, and so the joy was subdued, blue May less welcomed, and mourning amongst the happiness, like thorns amongst the roses. . . .

We had thought, we who had been left behind, that the great Quest for the Grail would bring an ease, a healing, a return to things as they once had been, before Camelot lost its first bloom.  But it seemed that even such second-hand bliss was not to be found.  The returning knights had each sought a private audience with the King; and no doubt he knew just what it was that had happened, in those magical, distant realms of the otherworld.  He must know just which of his knights had reached the Grail.  But he remained silent about it, too.

There was a great deal of talk, of course, amongst those of us who had not gone, those of us not mentioned in the chronicles, whom it was not thought fitting to inform of such weighty and important things; lots of rumours, passed from mouth to mouth, hand to hand.  We looked at the knights, noting here a new serenity, there a strange fixity of regard, here a gentleness, there a wildness of mien, and judged accordingly as to whether the wonderful vision had been given.  But was that truly a good way to judge? If anything, the Quest seemed to have emphasised each man’s character; accentuating his qualities, and also, alas, his faults.

It was so with my lord Agravain.  Aware that he, as one of the Orkney clan, might be seen as unrefined in the sophisticated court of Camelot, surrounded by such knights as Lancelot du Lac, he was overly anxious about his station, and thus never had been one of the King’s favourite knights.  Yet he had always found his place in the court, before.  In the past, despite his faults, he could at times be an entertaining companion, with a dry sense of humour, and a bright manner of speaking.  Yet even then, he had seemed, to me, like the odd man out, beside his brothers: huge, rumbustious Gawain, gentle Gareth, kind Gaheris—a man of uncertain, perhaps even cruel temper under the jokes, with a jealous discontent under the dryness.  I had felt the sharp edge of his tongue more than once: he was proud to be allied to our house, but not so proud to have a plain sister-in-law whom no man seemed to want.

Unlike his brothers, too, he hated Lancelot, though in front of them, he pretended a manly indifference to the French knight.  But Agravain’s true feelings for Lancelot were even more complicated than this: he hated the Lake Knight, yet he often copied him, the way he walked, the way he held his sword, his slow, grave, sweet smile, his natural grace and courteous French manners.  Except that Agravain, poor soul, could do no more than ape Lancelot: never could he have a fraction of his charm, but only be a pale copy, like a cheap facsimile made by an indifferent scribe.  And knowing this, did he hate the oblivious Lancelot all the more?

Ladies of Camelot tapestry by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

Always, before the Quest, Agravain’s faults had been kept in check, by his brothers’ careful kindness, by my sister’s loyal love, by the gentle management of the King and Queen, who found space for all manner of people in their realm.  In those days, he was careful, at least; he did not approach Mordred, who had come to Court just before the Quest began and was already a disturbing influence in Arthur’s once-serene kingdom.  Agravain knew well on which side his bread was buttered.  He went with his brothers questing not because he wished, like them, innocently to gain, if not knowledge and wisdom, at least adventure and mystery, but because all the knights who mattered were going.  And Agravain would certainly not be left behind in that race.

While he was away, Laurel and I spent our days as we had when we were children, and it was plain to see that she relaxed into it, as if she were freed from a burden.  We gave up the dull Frenchified rituals Agravain insisted on, we ate plain meals out of common dishes with the retainers and the servants; we swam in the river and walked in the woods; we read to each other from illustrated books and we spent many hours in pleasant gossip.  Sometimes, Lynete and Lionors, Gaheris’ and Gareth’s wives, would come over to spend time with us, and then, all together, we spoke longingly of the absent ones, and wondered how the Questers were managing; and sighed, that we should be women, and not be able to go with them.  Or at least, Laurel, Lynete and Lionors  did; I reminded them that Dindraine, Perceval’s sister, had gone with them, and Laurel pouted and said that did not count, as everyone knew Dindraine was practically a nun.  Frankly, I had no desire to go on the Quest; there was in me an unease from the very beginning, an unease I could not explain to anyone, not even Laurel.  Perhaps especially not Laurel, who like most of the others in Camelot, was dazzled by the Quest, by the beauty of it, and coincidentally or not, by the unearthly, untouchable beauty of Galahad.  It was a companionable time, that time without men, and soothing to my own troubled spirit, for it is not easy, being an old maid, when you have no intention of becoming a nun. .

Yet on one day, the very day that the Questers came back, my kinswomen destroyed that peace for me, quite innocently.  We had been sitting in the solar, calmly embroidering, and they had been talking, as usual, about their favourite subject, whilst I listened indulgently.

‘What do you think?’ said Lionors, turning to me suddenly.  ‘You are silent.  Could it be. . ‘ and here she twinkled at me—‘that you do not share our admiration for the greatest knight of them all? ‘

‘I do not consider him the greatest knight,’ I said, stiffly.  ‘He has not proven himself.  ‘

‘Unlike his father,’ said Lynete, with that sharp glance that had so flayed poor Gareth when she had first met him.

I coloured, but said nothing.  Laurel sighed.  ‘My poor sister,’ she said, softly.  ‘Lancelot’s heart was taken long ago.  He cannot give it to you, though indeed you are more worthy of it, my dear one, than she who holds it now.  Beauty is not only in the eye, but the soul: true ugliness is never in the features of a loving face. ‘

It was a great shock to me, this thing she said, for it showed me something I had long known, yet hidden from myself, and something which I certainly thought had been hidden from everyone else.

I pushed away my embroidery and stood up.  I could feel a hot denseness in my chest, a tight pain in my throat.  Yet I managed to speak.  ‘You are being foolish and frivolous,’ I snapped.  ‘I am tired of idle talk.  There is work to do.  My lord Agravain will not thank us if we allow the manor to go to ruin in his absence. ‘

They stared at me.  I stared back proudly, and stalked away. I truthfully did not know where I was going, only that I must go.  I walked briskly, blindly away and towards the stream, feeling their eyes on my back, and the hot dense pain in my whole being.

There was a girl, one of the servants, washing the dishes by the stream.  She was a young girl, and uncertain: when she saw me advancing on her like a fury, she gave a little squeak and hurried away, leaving her work.  I smiled harshly to myself: so, in my despairing, angry ugliness, I had frightened her! All the better.  I looked down at the dishes scattered by the stream: the cups, the plates, and the common dish, a huge blue pottery tureen, encrusted with the remains of all too many meals.  My widowed father had had it made, in a pattern that Laurel and I would recognise, for it was just like the dishes we had had at home.  Agravain had never liked it; it was too thick and homely for his tastes, and so it had mostly languished unused, except when he was away, and then, by common consent, Laurel and I would call for it to be put on the table.

I cannot remember doing it: but the next second, the dish was in the stream, broken in several irrepairable pieces.  And I was kneeling by the stream, weeping as if my heart would break too, trying to gather the pieces of the broken dish, yet trying, too, to smash it even more, my hands bleeding from the sharp shards, but uncaring, for my head was filled with a painful, joyful vision, a thing of such bright clarity that for a moment it seemed to have a tangible reality.

I heard running footsteps.  Laurel had found me.  She touched my arm, timidly.

‘Sister,’ she whispered, ‘forgive me, if I have hurt you, unknowingly, I did not mean to.  ‘

I looked at her with love. ‘Laurel,’ I said gently, ‘do not be afraid.  You saw something I had hidden from myself, and I was angry.  But I am not angry any longer, only a little sorry that I.. ‘ I looked down at my hands.  ‘I am sorry, for I broke our father’s gift to you and Agravain. .‘

My sister’s eyes filled with tears, then, and she leant towards me.  But what she was about to say never got said, for I turned my face away from her, towards the woods—and saw a figure come limping out from their lee, a figure leading a skeletal horse, and I knew at once, with a hot, wild, joyful, despairing leap of the heart, that it was Lancelot, back from the Quest.

The parting of Lancelot and Guinevere, by Gustave Dore

Laurel turned her head and saw him too; then she gathered up her skirts and went running, crying out joyfully as she went.  She was followed by Lynete and Lionors, and then by all the people on the manor, the workers in the fields, the servants, the grooms, the kennel-men, the dairymaids.  From all over the manor, people were hurrying, to give their beloved living legend, the Knight of the Lake, a welcome they would never have thought to give their own lord.  And so it was that only I saw Agravain coming in his turn, not from the forest but the opposite direction, from the direction of Camelot, splendidly attired, and riding a magnificent Arab mare.  He rode with a swagger and a certainty that he would be noticed; and I felt almost a pity for him, then, a kind of shameful wound, as our eyes met across the distance, and I saw he knew who the other man was.  But he never checked in his stride, I’ll give him that; indeed, he quickened his pace, and soon drew level with me.

‘Well, my lady,’ he said, his eyes not on me but on that touching little scene by the forest, ‘as you see, I am back from the Quest. ‘

‘So I see,’ I said.  ‘Welcome home, my lord Agravain. ‘ Some strange levity was bubbling in me.  I could not help it.

He smiled thinly.  ‘But I see I am not the only one.  I must welcome my companion home too. He looks ill.  Perhaps the Quest was not a success for him. ‘

His eyes dared me to ask questions.  Obligingly, I said nothing.  What was there to say? I was not a Quester.  My vision had not been of the Grail; but only of the common dish.

The involuntary mockery of my thoughts must have shown in my face, however, for his lips tightened, and he said, ‘Sister-in-law, it is not fitting you are down on your knees, washing dishes like a common scullion.  ‘

‘No,’ I said, ‘I suppose not.  I must remember my station as sister-in-law of a returned Quester knight. ‘

‘Indeed,’ he said, in his vanity misinterpreting my humble face and lowered eyes.  ‘I am glad you understand.  ‘ He paused for a tiny second.   ‘The other– my brother knight Sir Lancelot,’ Agravain went on, ‘has he been here long? Has he seen the King yet? Is there.. . ‘

‘No, my lord,’ I answered, as steadily as I could.  ‘He has not.  ‘

‘Ha,’ said Agravain.  He looked down the slope at the cheering, whooping party, at his own wife, his brothers’ wives, his retainers making merry around the weary, but obviously delighted, Lancelot, ‘In any case,’ he said, slyly, ‘I do not suppose that it is the King he would go rushing off to straight away, do you, sister-in-law? ‘

I looked at him; at the jealousy distorting his face, at the cruelty fully imprinted there now, at the discontent of his bearing, and I felt a tiny pang of fear, for I knew in that instant that Agravain had not come even close to the Grail, and that Lancelot had.  I knew that if Agravain had hated the French knight before, it was as nothing to what he felt now.  My heart ached—with love for Lancelot, with a kind of tender sorrow that he would never know it, with unease for what might follow.  But I gazed steadily into Agravain’s angry eyes and said, quite quietly, ‘I am sure I do not know what you mean, my lord. ‘

‘Pah,’ he said, ‘you’ve always been a fool, blind like all the others, like the King himself.  Prince Mordred was quite right. ‘ And with that, he touched his horse’s flanks, and was off, galloping down the slope towards Lancelot and the others.

But I stood there quietly for a moment, before moving down the slope in my turn. And the wild, hot, despairing feeling grew again in me, and grew, like a vine twining its way around my heart, a thorn bush of wild blooms protecting the vision I had seen.  The vision of the common dish, that is the lot of common humanity, the ones of us left behind, forgotten, our names and histories lost to the chronicles and the legends, but whose breath and liveness, anonymous, can be found in all of the most ancient stories, the oldest songs: the knowledge of love brought to the light of day, the welcome of spring returning, as it always does.  No, it is not the Grail: but it is given to more of us, and may, in the end, prove as wonderful as that holy vessel.  And perhaps, if a person look only for the Grail, and forget the common dish—is that not a forgetting of God’s magnificence, of His love that remembers even the smallest sparrow?  In my heart, I thanked God for His gift, his gift of this blue May morning, of the unremarked, the common miracle, in the midst of the sorrow and the glory and the gathering tragedy of the great ones of this world.

June, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry



A Feather of Fenist the Falcon–my modern fairy tale in TEXT

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin for Fenist the Falcon.

I’m delighted to announce that my modern fairy tale, A Feather of Fenist the Falcon has just been published, with its accompanying research statement, in a special issue of the prestigious journal TEXT(Special Issues series, Vol 43). Titled Into the Bush: Australasian Fairy Tales, the special issue focusses on the particular take of Australian writers on fairy tales and features both creative and analytical pieces.

A Feather of Fenist the Falcon is inspired of course by the wonderful Russian fairy tale, Fenist(or Finist) the Falcon, which I’ve loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, in a Soviet-era reprint of a classic version superbly illustrated by the great Ivan Bilibin. With its echoes of Beauty and the Beast and Psyche and Cupid, the tale has a haunting beauty, romantic power and great storytelling verve. My story transposes the setting to contemporary Australia, within a wealthy Russian immigrant family, but also keeps within the timeless dimensions of the original tale by not overtly stating place or time, It’s told from the point of view of the youngest daughter, focussing on the very beginning of the tale, up till the moment when the feather brings the shapeshifter, Fenist to her window. I loved creating this rich, disorienting and resonant contemporary fairy tale world.

My story is here, and you can also read a version of the original fairy tale from which it’s inspired, here. (Note by the way there are several versions of this tale!)

And have a read of all the other wonderful stories and articles in the special issue, here.


A ghost story for Halloween

Today, as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d republish one of my ghost stories, Restless. Inspired by a creepy dream, it was first published in Aurealis magazine in June 2013.  As it’s quite long, there’s a ‘Read More’ for you to read beyond the line. Enjoy!


by Sophie Masson

The worst nightmares aren’t of blood and monsters and darkness. The worst are the ones that creep up on you, that start so quietly and lull you into a false sense of security, and then..

It was that kind of a dream. Oh, I’d had it only once, and months ago at that. And you could say nothing really had happened to account for the chilling sense of dread I’d woken up with. It went like this: I was in a house I did not recognise. A smallish house, a cottage, really. It was quiet. Sunny. Sparsely furnished with rather shabby furniture. But there seemed to be no one there. I walked into the next room. There were dishes on a table, untouched. Chairs pushed back, as if the people had just left. But still no sign of anyone. And then I came to the back room. It was dim in there. But I could see someone, sitting facing away from me, in a high-backed armchair. Male or female, I couldn’t tell, for all that could be seen above the chair back was a gleam of blond hair under a dark-coloured beret. The person didn’t move. He or she just sat, silently staring at the opposite wall.

That was it. But somehow I knew that I must not make a sound or move a muscle or else the figure would turn around. And if they did, then I was lost.

I had no idea why. I just knew deep in my dream-self that it was so. That the person sitting there so quietly was pure evil. And that if they discovered I was there, I was done for. I had to get away. But how?

I managed to wake myself up then. Switching on the light, I lay there while my heartbeat returned to normal and my skin no longer puckered with gooseflesh. Sometimes, after waking from a really bad dream, I’ve tried to think up a happy ending for it, so that its power to scare me is taken away. Sometimes, I’ve tried to understand what it was trying to tell me. And sometimes, I’ve just tried to airbrush it from my mind.

That’s what I did with this one. Airbrush it away, I mean, because the other options meant that somehow or other that figure in the chair had to turn around and that was just unthinkable. And though that first day I felt as though the nagging memory would never leave me, and hardly dared to close my eyes that night in case the dream returned, little by little the dread left me. Partly of course that was because the dream never returned. Partly because I told no-one about it. Not my parents, not my twin brother Jamie, and not my friends. Not even my diary.

But whatever the reason, soon I had just about forgotten about it. Until that Saturday three weeks ago..


When Jamie and I were little, we used to be very close. We aren’t identical twins, because I’m a girl and he’s a boy, and when we went to school we still hung around together a lot. It wasn’t until mid-primary that being a twin became less important than being girl or boy. We began to move in different circles and to like very different sorts of things. I read a lot, Jamie never. Jamie’s brilliant at art, I’m hopeless. I had lots of on-and-off friends, Jamie only a couple of long-standing close ones. In high school it was even more that way. It was only this last year, our last year of school, that we were slowly drifting back to our old closeness, and to enjoy being in each other’s company again.

That was why that rainy Saturday morning, Jamie had persuaded me to go with him to the big art museum in the city. He couldn’t spend the morning painting in his studio as he usually did, for he had an important assignment to do, about how and why people react to art. I was to be an interview subject. Now, normally art galleries aren’t my thing. It’s not that I don’t like art: it’s just that when there’s a lot of it together and you have to trudge kilometres across hard floors and you can’t talk except under your breath because if you do people frown at you as though you were chatting through a film, it gets to be a bit of an ordeal. And I hate how you’re meant to stand in front of the artworks, especially those by famous artists, and pretend you’re thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of it all. Plus normally the kinds of paintings I like—the kind with people in them, the sort that tell a story—are not Jamie’s thing. He prefers abstracts and landscapes, which I find mostly boring.

However, to my pleased surprise, Jamie took me not to the modern art section but to a dimly-lit exhibition hall full of ancient African and Central American sculptures. They were actually pretty cool: weird and even sinister at times but powerful and interesting. We sat on a padded bench in front of one of the display cases, where spooky masks with wide open mouths and blank eyes stared sightlessly at us, and Jamie asked me questions, and typed what I said into his Ipad.

After a while I ran out of things to say and left Jamie to finish entering it all in while I went in search of the toilet. It was a bit of a trek. Then I had to find my way back. I must have taken a wrong turn or something because suddenly I had no idea where I was, and I couldn’t even call Jamie because I’d left my phone at home.

I couldn’t see any maps. Still I kept going. Down one corridor, up another, round a corner into another. That’s how I found myself in an annexe which was a rather newer part of the gallery than the grand exhibition halls. Here it was all white plasterboard walls and recessed ceiling lights and impersonal corridors like those in hospitals. There were doors up and down them but they were  locked, with ‘No Access to Public’ written on them. It struck me how empty this annexe was. No guards. No guides. No art lovers. No tourist groups. No bored kids trailing behind parents. No random people sheltering from the weather.

Nobody at all. Except me.

Even then, I wasn’t scared. Not even uneasy. Only a bit puzzled and fed-up. But then I saw an open door down the end of the corridor, and light coming from it. And so I headed for it and straight into my nightmare.. Continue reading

Interview with Bob Topp of Read Me A Story, Ink

A couple of years ago, I received an email from the US with an intriguing request: would I agree to allow two of my stories originally published back in the 90’s–Cry Wolf, published in the Omnibus Books anthology, Amazing, and The Clever Thief, published in Cricket Magazine–to be included in an index of great read-aloud stories on a website specifically designed for the purpose? Both made excellent read-alouds in schools, bookseller and reader Bob Topp told me, inviting me to check out his website, Read Me A Story, Ink. After visiting this very impressive website, I was more than happy to agree–it’s a fabulous resource and I was glad my stories would be included in it–and as five-star reads, what’s more! Recently, Bob’s been in touch again regarding new developments, and acquiring another couple of my stories (The Magic Carpet, and The Old Woman and the Imp) for the site. Of course I was happy to agree once more–and also thought readers might like to know more about Bob and his fantastic site, which does so much to encourage the joys of reading great stories aloud. It’s a great interview–read on!

Bob, your wonderful website, Read Me A Story, Ink (and what a great name!) is obviously a labour of love. Can you tell me about how and when it started? What gave you the idea?

I started reading in Bergen Elementary School in our home town of Evergreen, Colorado when our older son, Harrison, was in second grade. His class was doing a unit on frontier America and we had just finished reading a children’s biography of American legend Davy Crockett at home. I offered to come and read a chapter to the class and soon found myself reading weekly. The next year, I started with our younger son’s class as well. After they both moved on to middle school – they are now 28 and 30 – a few of their teachers asked me if I would like to continue, so I began visiting a few classes once a month. At that interval, there wasn’t the continuity or time for chapter books so I started to collect short stories. After a few years and enough anthologies, I realized I couldn’t remember what story was in which book so I created an index for my own use. When the index reached six or seven hundred entries, it occurred to me that it would make a useful tool for parents and teachers and a friend helped me design a rudimentary website. Over the years the site has grown in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists, printable stories, both public domain and for which I had the author’s permission, links to other great children’s sites and most recently I have started recording some of the stories. The core index is now over 1500 records and I estimate that I have read eight to ten thousand short stories.

How does the site work? What has it achieved so far, and what are your goals for it for the future?

My designer and I have tried to keep the site simple and very user friendly. Each record on the index includes a plot summary, age level, subject category and the source where I found the story. If there is a printable or audio version there are tabs beneath the record inviting the user to print or listen to the story. Also, if the author has a website, there is a link to that site so that the user can find out more about the author and what else she or he has written. The index can be searched by category, author or keyword making it easy to find appropriate stories for the user’s needs. Recommended reading lists and links to other children’s sites are all easily accessible. At the moment I don’t foresee any different intent for, just a constant expansion of resources as I discover new stories and contact more authors.

What has the response been like, both from children and schools, and from writers whose stories are listed?

Response has been very positive from all quarters. Parents have mentioned that they use the recommended reading lists while teachers gravitate towards the printable stories. In one thank you letter from a fifth grader, she wrote, “ as I am writing this letter, we are listening to one of Mr. Topp’s stories.”  A function on the site’s administrative panel allows me to view the IP addresses of people, bots or institutions who have viewed the site and frequently the IP address is a school district. Authors seem appreciative of having their stories available and, write to say that they enjoy the recordings of their stories as well. I can also access information on how many times a specific story has been “viewed” on the web in a month. Most stories have been clicked on between one and two hundred times each month. Unfortunately there is no way to know if those views are individuals, school districts or bots that are simply out there roaming the web universe.

How do you choose stories which will be good for reading aloud? What are you looking for, in a story?

I choose approximately one out of every six or seven stories that I read. The first and most important criterion is whether I like the story. If I like it, that enjoyment will translate in the reading aloud and in most cases the kids will like it as well, though I have been amused over the years to note the difference between reading to myself and reading aloud. Occasionally stories that I love fall flat when read aloud for inexplicable reasons while stories that I hesitate to read become all time favorites when I read them aloud. I also tailor the story to the grade. I read 30 minutes to third graders and 45 minutes to fifth graders with the stories frequently chosen by theme for the month (ie., Holidays, Black History Month, Women’s History Month and always, Dragons for November). Ultimately I can’t escape my own biases which are in the direction of positive stories with at least one character who can be a role model. Humor also creeps into many of the stories that I read.

You are now, with writers’ full permission, making stories available both in print form and in audio form as read-aloud. What has been the response to that?

Without a doubt the printable stories page is the most visited page on the site. I assume this is because both parents and teachers are finding readily available material for reading aloud or as suggested reading to their children or students. Authors, parents and friends have all given me positive feedback on the recordings but since there are far fewer recordings than stories that are available to print, they haven’t gained the same traction.

Do you still go into schools yourself to read aloud?

Yes! I currently read to 14 classes, first through fifth grades, and have no plans to stop. I begin reading for the new year in a few weeks and I am already getting excited about what to read first and mulling over what new stories I have discovered and what month of the year would be best for their first reading.

Are you interested in hearing from writers about stories that might be suitable for Read Me A Story, Ink?

That is a very difficult question for me and one that I have frequently contemplated. As it is right now, I read a story that I like and ask the author’s permission to make it available. If I started receiving short stories that I hadn’t read, I would be in the position of having to reject some – something for which my personality is not suited. I do currently offer two previously unpublished stories that were offered to me and I have to admit that I am very proud to make them available. So, I guess the answer to your question is an unequivocal yes and no 🙂

The Magic Carpet revisited

And for the third and final(for the moment anyway) of my revisited original tales inspited by fairytale/folktale elements, here’s The Magic Carpet, which was published in The School Magazine and was inspired by my childhood love of The Arabian Nights.


by Sophie Masson

Once upon a time, a boy called Hamid lived with his uncle and aunt in the very middle of a great city. Hamid’s uncle and aunt kept the best-known carpet shop in that great city, and people came from near and far, just for a chance to look at their marvellous carpets.

Hamid’s uncle, who was as thin as a stick of cinammon, and his aunt, who was as round as a honey cake, greeted everyone at the door with a bow, and a smile, and a flash of gold teeth. They dressed in fine, silken clothes, and Hamid’s uncle wore a tall dark-blue silk turban, and his aunt a gauzy, spangled scarf.

But poor Hamid had no silken clothes, and no dark blue turban, and he was hardly ever allowed in the shop, only occasionally at night, when no-one was about. His uncle and aunt said he was very lucky, for they had taken him in when his parents had died. Hamid had to spend his days in the kitchen, cooking the nine different dishes his uncle and aunt demanded each evening.

Every afternoon, Hamid went to the market to buy the food for the next day. This was at the time when his uncle and aunt closed their shop and slept in their grand, silken-hung bedroom. But Hamid was never allowed to sleep or rest in the day. When he wasn’t cooking, he had to take bundles of laundry to the washer girl, or polish silver till his arms ached, or beat carpets until his face was covered in dust.

Yet Hamid loved the carpets. He would have stayed all day in the shop, if he had been allowed, fingering the rich stuff of the carpets and dreaming of the places from where they came. Sometimes, when he did this, there were pictures in his mind of another time, another place when he had been happy, when gentle arms had held him, and soft voices whispered to him. But the pictures were like shadows, or dreams; unable to be grasped. And if his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon or his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake saw him dreaming, they would shout, and order him back to the kitchen.

One afternoon, as he made his way back from the market, a figure came walking up the street towards him, with a parcel under its arm. As the figure came closer, Hamid saw that it was a woman, a young, lovely woman, though he could see only her eyes, and her hands. She was dressed all in dusty grey, and her eyes above her veil were of a most surprising colour, almost as blue as the lapis lazuli necklace owned by Hamid’s aunt. She stopped in front of Hamid. She did not say anything, but her eyes looked both sad and smiling, all at once.

Hamid’s heart fluttered a little as he looked at her; for he thought that somewhere, sometime, he had seen her. He said, “What is it you want? Are you a beggar? For I have no money. ” Still, the young woman said nothing, but she touched Hamid lightly on the arm, and her eyes filled with tears.

“Are you ill?” he said. She shook her head. She held out the parcel she was carrying.

“This is not mine,” he said, and he tried to give it back to her, but she shook her head, and put her finger to her lips. Then she stroked him–very, very gently–on the hair, and vanished, completely.

Hamid stood on the road, his heart thumping even louder. The touch of her hand had remined him of those dreams he had, those dreams of a happier time, when he was loved. As if in a dream, he walked back to his uncle’s and aunt’s place.

Alas! When he got back to his house, his uncle and aunt were both awake, and as bad-tempered as usual, only more so, because their midday sleeps made them feel hot and sticky. Hamid had no time to hide the parcel, and they ripped the covering off it, only to reveal an extremely old, faded, dirty carpet whose pattern could no longer be distinguished.

Hamid’s aunt boxed his ears, then, and his uncle called him sixteen different kinds of idiot. When they were out of breath, they told Hamid he was to stay in his room until the next day; they would go out to eat in a restaurant. And they tossed the old carpet out the back door, where it landed with a soft plop on top of a pile of compost.

Now normally, Hamid was a cheerful boy. But today, his cheer seemed to have deserted him. He lay on his straw bed and thought about his life, and how he wished…

Suddenly, he jumped off the bed and went outside to the back courtyard. Gently, he lifted the old carpet off the compost pile. Even though it was so old, and worn, it was the very first thing he had ever been given for himself. Perhaps, if he cleaned it well, it would look better?

And so, he fetched buckets of water, and soap, and a hard brush, and kneeling on the cobblestones of the courtyard, he began to scrub at the carpet. Scrub, scrub, scrub, he went, and soon he began to see a pattern emerging. “Oh,” said Hamid to himself. There was a curly golden pattern on a bed of deepest blue, and at the sides, something else, a red creature with a horn of purest white. Hamid kelt on the wet carpet and scrubbed gently at it, watching, absorbed, the colours, the patterns emerging from the old grime and dust. Why, he thought as he scrubbed, it was beautiful! He got a sponge, and tenderly began wiping away the soap from the other parts of the carpet.

He was so absorbed that he did not hear his aunt and uncle returning. They had gone into restaurant after restaurant and found fault with each, till at last the exasperated owners told them to go. So, dinnerless and more bad-tempered than ever, they had come home, intending to force Hamid to make something for them. What was their surprise and anger to find him not in his mean room, but out in the courtyard, wasting good soap and water on an old bit of rubbish! Hamid’s uncle reached over to pull his hair, and his aunt opened her mouth to call him twenty different kinds of rude names, till all of a sudden they saw the carpet properly for the first time.

Their mouths closed; their arms dropped. They stared at the carpet, and at Hamid, who did not even look frightened. He stroked the carpet, and said, “It is strange, it is almost as if I know this carpet, already. . ”

“Don’t be stupid!” said his uncle, fetching him a stinging blow on the ear. “Don’t be absurd!” said his aunt, pulling at his hair. Hamid, looking up in pain and surprise, saw that his uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and his aunt-as-round-as-a-honeycake had gone white as salt. He wiped a tear from his eye and stood up, sad but no longer afraid.

“You will put this old bit of rubbish on the fire!” his aunt commanded, her three chins wobbling like almond jelly.

“At once!” added his uncle, his eyes as round as if he’d seen a ghost.

But Hamid shook his head. “No,” he said, “it is mine. ”

His uncle and aunt goggled at him. “But,” said the uncle, with a cunning, cruel smile, “You are our servant. ”

“It is therefore ours,” agreed his wife, her cold eyes snapping.

“Give it to us,” said the uncle-as-thin-as-a-cinammon-stick, advancing on Hamid. “Yes, give it here,” said the aunt-as-round-as-a-honey-cake, clawing towards Hamid. But Hamid grabbed the carpet and held it tight.

And then came a voice from the back door. A tired, used-to-commanding voice. “Is there no one to help a customer, in this place?”

Instantly, the uncle’s and aunt’s faces changed. From being white-mean, tight-cruel, they smoothed out into smiling brown masks. “Oh, Your Highness,” simpered the uncle. “Your Gracious Lordliness,” wheedled the aunt. “It is only this silly boy of ours, who will not drop his bit of old rubbish. Come, Hamid,” she said in a silky voice.

The man at the door frowned. Hamid saw a short, grey-haired man, wearing splendid clothes and a vast white turban. There were lines on his face, of crossness and something else, something deeper and sadder. The man looked back at Hamid. He blinked, wiped his hand across his forehead, and said, “I came. . to buy a carpet. If this is the way you treat your. . ” but then he stopped. He said,still looking at Hamid, “Strange. . oh, you remind me so much of. . but no, it isn’t possible. . . ”

“Oh sir,” said Hamid, feeling a curious sort of emotion, which filled his eyes and his chest, but to which he cpuld not put a name. “Sir, it is only that I wish to keep this most beautiful carpet. . ” And before his startled aunt and uncle could stop him, he had unrolled it, almost at the man’s feet.

The man started violently. He looked at the carpet, at Hamid, at the uncle and aunt, and then he did the strangest thing. He burst into tears! Then he took Hamid in his arms, still crying, and said, “My son, oh my son. . ”

Hamid, clutched in the man’s arms, full of a warm, surging wonder, said, as if he were trying the words out, “Father. . is it really you, Father?”

They went on in this way for quite some time, but at last they thought of the uncle, as thin as a stick of cinammon, and the aunt, as round as a honey cake. And do you know, those two had simply disappeared, leaving everything in their shop, their money, their fine clothes, everything except what they had on them!

And then the man told Hamid that his son had been kidnapped as a small child. Although a huge ransom had been paid, the boy had never been seen again. His wife had died of grief, and he himself had become sad and empty and impatient of life. “And now, my son,” he said, weeping, hugging Hamid-who–was–his son, “here you are, and there is the carpet, the very carpet on which you had been lying, when you were taken!” And from the big pocket of his robe, he had taken out a miniature of a young woman, and shown it to Hamid–a young woman with a soft, round face, and amazing lapis lazuli eyes that seemed to smile right into Hamid. And then Hamid recognised her, and knew why his heart had been thumping, in the street, that afternoon. In his mind, came a picture of her–not sad anymore, but smiling, her sky-eyes sparkling as a spring morning. And in his mind, she held out her hand to him, and whispered, “My son. My son. My dearest son. ”

And when Hamid and the man-who-was-his father were back in the prince’s(for he was a prince, you see) marvellous marble-and-filigree palace, they talked long into the night of the wonderful and terrible things that had happened. And so long as they lived, the old carpet had pride of place in the most beautiful hall of the palace, under the portrait of the princess, Hamid’s mother, with her lapis lazuli eyes…

But as to the uncle-as-thin-as-a-stick-of-cinammon and the aunt-as-round as-a-honeycake, why, nothing was heard from them again, at least not in that country. But I have heard it whispered that in a cold and dusty and forgotten corner of a far-distant land, there is a greasy restaurant with a dirty kitchen where, day after day, a bent man as dry as a stick of thin grass and a woman as squashed as a melting cake stand in front of a vast pile of dishes, and wash, and wash, their arms up to the elbows in scummy suds.