The Worm of Haftvad

Last weekend I had a wonderful time at a storytelling event at Buckden Towers. A group of us stayed all weekend sharing tales from the Shahnameh, a Persian text by 10th century poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi. The schedule organised by Marion Leeper was wall to wall storytelling, it was pretty intense but rewarding and enjoyable with long breaks to chat, make new friends and eat loads of food, biscuits, cake and pudding.

Here is the script of the tale I related.

Haftvad and The Worm

The tale I am about to tell reputedly happened during the reign of King Ardeshir almost 1800 years ago, and it was related to Fedowsi in the tenth century by a travelling snake-oil salesman.

High atop a precipitous mountain, somewhere in modern Iran there still stands a glorious citadel built in mud. It has become known to us as Arg-e-Bam – the castle that exploded.

It’s turrets gaze out over the surrounding country, a magnificent mountain castle keep of unparalleled splendour, it is still the world’s largest adobe building, more extensive and breath-taking than the ancient mud ziggurats of Ethiopia.

But who built this opulent fort? we ask ourselves, which munificent princeling created this enduring wonder? – the answer is nobody knows, his name has not come down to us through history, it has been buried in the shifting sands of time. Arg-e-bam was founded by a man with no name.

But I am getting ahead of myself, at the beginning of the story there is no mountaintop citadel, there is only the modest town of Karajan.
That distant town nestled in a rich fertile valley crescent, cupped between the shore of a clear glassy  lake. And  the abundant forest foothills of a craggy, scree-riven  mountain. Karajan, A small dead-end of hard-working tranquillity.
This small moth-eaten town at the far end of a minor tributary path that meanders on into a circuitous ancient route that leads on to the laden caravans and the astonishing marvel of the ancient Silk Road. (gong)
In the  town of Karajan – that scraped a paltry existence through the crafts of spinning and weaving –  there once lived a man with seven sons who the Shahnameh tells us was called Haftvad. Now the strangest thing about Haftvad was that he had no name, Haftvad simply means “The Man with Seven Sons”.

So, Haftvad had no name and neither did his sons. But the strangest thing is that Haftvad also had a daughter, and he took no notice of her. He took notice of his singular beautiful daughter, the most important person in this story. Haftvad’s daughter, who also has no name. Haftvad’s only daughter,  his one daughter, his first, his number one, his prima. And because I think she deserves better than to be nameless, I shall call her Alif, like the first letter of the  alphabet.

The people of Karajan lived in a state bordering on poverty. And like his neighbours, Haftvad made a living in the town, a small living, more than just surviving, but not much more.  It was a poor but cheerful town.

The people worked hard, carding and spinning and weaving the most exquisite fabrics.  Even the children worked hard. The boys spent their nights high in the mountains with their herds, or days in the fields tending fibrous crops. And each day, from early in the morning the girls, the unmarried maids of the town, tramped out into the hillsides, with their heavy distaffs and their bales of wool, and they  spent their day on the hillside, spinning, not returning until nightfall, laden with skeins of yarn. These were poor resourceful girls who were able to spin most anything into thread of some kind. They could spin cotton, linen, stinging nettles, hemp, , they would spin sheeps wool, goats wool, rabbits wool and when they could get it – they would spin the finest, beautifulest, most sought after yarn of all, from the wool of a worm.

girls spinning illustration from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The thread the girls spun was taken down into the town at nightfall and stored to be weaved into long bolts of fine cloth by the rest of the townsfolk.

Like most of the girls and women of the town, Alif’s dark sleek corkscrew hair was twisted and coiled up with a beautiful woven headscarf, she looked very fine. Indeed, all the girls and women dressed well, they were poor, but lived in a town where off-cuts and remnants of luxurious cloth were bountiful. All the maidens of the town were impeccably dressed, and wanted only jewels and shoes to be mistaken for princesses. They lived the opulent lives of a rag man’s daughter.

This rhythm of life persisted through time, unchanging and consistent until one strange day when Alif found a worm.

That day started the same as any other fine autumn day. The girls gathered at sunrise and made their way through the fall trees, their leaves tipping orange. They found a clearing in a mulberry grove and spun with laughter and gossip and hard work. At lunchtime they sat in a circle and chatted over their food together.

Fedowsi tells us –
It was just  at that moment Haftvad’s daughter found
A windfall apple lying on the ground
And picked it up – now listen carefully
Because this story’s quite extraordinary:
She bit the apple then, but as she tried it
She saw a little worm there coiled inside it:

Well now, we’re all familiar with the story of the maiden, the snake and the apple, and I can almost hear you calling out: “No! No! Don’t eat the apple! Don’t eat the apple!”.
But have no fear, this story is about Alif, not Eve, it’s not about a priviledged trustafarian snowflake cupped in the palm of gated-community paradise. This story is about Alif a practical down to earth girl, a lowly spinster living in a threadbare textile town, somewhere south of the Silk Road.
So Alif restrained herself, looking at the maggot in the mulberry apple,

She scooped it out and gently found a place
For this small worm inside her spindlecase.
And as she took up her cotton she said
“By God I swear, today I’ll spin such thread,
Helped by this apple’s lucky worm, that you
Will be amazed at what I can do!”
The girls began to laugh – in their delight,
There faces glowed, there teeth shone silver-white”

Which just goes to show that although they were poor they could still afford toothpaste.

Well, come sunset that day, the girls gathered up their spindles and counted the skeins of yarn they had spun. And true to her prediction, Alif had spun much more than she usually did. The other girls were agog at Alif’s productivity. “That truly is a magic worm!” they exclaimed “You should take good care of it” “it is a blessing” Alif agreed as she marked the amount on the ground then ran like wind-bourne smoke to show her mother how much she had completed. From that day on Alif fed the worm each morning and kept it safe in a box under her bed. Alif said to herself “I am going to spin so much thread, by the grace of this worm, that I’ll never be poor again”.

– And so, Alif fed the worm everyday
And the worm increased in size day by day
Alif’s spun more and more thread by the week
Her father grew richer and richer every month

Alif looked at the growing worm and admired it’s smooth sleek scaled black skin. And here’s the strange thing she noticed about the Worm – it had a tiny weeny wincey mouth and the hugest fat stomach you have ever seen.  So it could eat only the smallest of morsels, but could never eat enough to fill it’s big empty belly. And Alif wondered for moment if the Worm was a metaphor for greed, but then she stopped herself because she was a down to earth parochial girl and the fancy Chinese concept of a hungry ghost was beyond her comfort zone.

Every morning Alif fed the worm a piece of the apple, and however much cotton there was, Alif magically spun it into thread.

The image of the girl miraculously spinning preternatural amounts of yarn often appears in European fairy tales. And generally the girl is tricked by some disguised evil magician so that her only escape from forever spinning is to solve a riddle by guessing a name, or hand over a newborn child or kiss an ugly reptile. Not so in this story because  – the Worm, like almost everybody in this story, has no name to guess, Alif has no first born son to sacrifice, and although she’s poor, she’s not about to go snogging with a maggot, however beautiful it’s black and orange crackly skin. Alif has standards.

So, in the story of Haftvad and the worm there seems there is no quest, no riddle or tribute to pay. The magic worm gave Alif the ability to spin monumental amounts of thread and asked nothing in return beyond it’s basic needs of food and shelter. And over time Alif’s prodigious output is such that her family are no longer able to keep up, they need to employ people, more and more people, to help weave the copious thread into cloth…

After a time Alif’s father began to notice her and wonder at her miraculous skill, the source of his burgeoning wealth and he questioned her. “You spin so much that it seems that you’ve taken a fairy for a sister”.

Alif laughed because she knew there were no fairies in this tale. “it’s from the apple and the little worm inside it” she said, then she showed Haftvad the miraculous worm and explained everything to him.

At this point the story totally changes direction,  and Alif simply disappears from the narrative, it truly now becomes the story of Haftvad and the Worm. Because at this moment, Alif’s father – Haftvad –  instantly took control of the situation. Haftvad assigned assistants to care for the worm and he used his new found wealth to build a castle keep on the nearby mountaintop for the Worm to live in. And as Haftvad’s wealth grew he assigned courtiers and soldiers to attend the worm and he extended the castle keep into a grand Fort, where the worm was indulged, safe secure and comfortable. The Worm continued to grow. As Haftvad’s wealth grew he incorporated a magnificent citadel around the fort on the mountaintop. And Haftvad assigned Viziers and Generals to serve the giant worm. Although in truth the Generals and Viziers franchised out the day to day care of the worm to some dodgy private security firm. Haftvad realised that his continued wealth was dependant on the whims of the worm and he did all he could to appease it, keep it safe and keep the money rolling in.

And the town prospered, and the women and girls of Karajan were soon able to afford the jewellery and the shoes to make them the very simulacra of princesses.

Alif, of course, kept on spinning, she was the goose that laid the golden egg, endowed with the blessing that turned to a curse. Like Ariadne she had to spin for her life.

And as this is no fairy tale, it is as it always is in real life Haftvad’s conspicuous wealth and power attracted the attention and envy of malcontents, thieves and kings. At first Haftvad easily suppressed these attacks by the grace of the magic worm, and through a combination of largesse, cowardice and the brute force of his seven sons – each of which commanded an army of 10,000 soldiers a piece. Haftvad grew in power.

Alif spun on as was her destiny, the eternal spinster silhouetted, momentarily glimpsed through the dim light of history.

Haftvad’s fortress citadel became so well-known that they say even the winds of heaven didn’t dare blow around it.

Twice King Ardeshir himself rode  against Haftvad and twice the King was trounced.

Defeated, the King and his armies returned home. The Worm’s reputation went before him. Skirmishes broke out but as soon as the soldiers heard of the tale of the almighty worm they lost heart and fled. So it was that finally, Ardeshir resorted to underhand methods, he devised a cunning plan to kill the Worm itself and break it’s spell. And so in the end the Worm was brought down through a combination of trickery, flattery  and ill-conceived drinking games with the worm’s guards.

As the Citadel trembled and shook from the explosive death throes of the Worm, King Ardeshir pronounced from the ramparts of Haftvad’s vanquished citadel “I fed the worm molten lead; his power is gone.” Hadvad and his sons were executed and their names were erased from history.

High atop a precipitous mountain, somewhere in modern Iran there still stands a glorious citadel built in mud. It has become known to us as Arg-e-Bam – the castle that exploded.

It’s turrets gaze out over the surrounding country, a magnificent mountain castle keep of unparalleled splendour, it is still the world’s largest adobe building, more extensive and breath-taking than the ancient mud ziggurats of Ethiopia.

Rite of Passage

In my day jumping the trains to London was a teenage rite of passage. As outlandish and mythical as it may now sound, there once really was a magical spiral staircase at Finsbury Park, and it fed directly down into the London Underground. Truth to say everybody knew about it, everybody used it and everybody took it for granted. Like a down-snake, or a disused helter skelter, it was a ride, a trick, a trick of transformation. All you  needed was a bit of vim and nerve and you could transform an invalid overground rail ticket into a newly-minted 3-zone London travelcard.  In one quick downward dive you could fall from Finsbury overland, spiralling right down into the tube network, and so into the throbbing veins of central London itself, and all for th price of a 3-zone travelcard. Jumping the trains into London was a veritable teenage craze, in my day.

Having said all that, the charm only seemed to work going into London. We overstretched ourselves mortally when we tried to dodge out, away from London. Notable was the time we tried to jump the trains as far North as we could get, and were apprehended in Birmingham, after Leicester Central had telegraphed ahead, with our descriptions and modus operandi. So when we did our handbag-drop-bum-rush routine on them for the night train out of New Street, they were already wise, and held us in a holding cell while they waited for the Transport Police. We had to phone my friend’s big sister. We were only set free after she finally showed up, gave some uniform some money, smiled winningly and flirtatiously at the right people and was heard berating us as she stomped us to her car.

“Next time” Big sister snarled “Phone someone else instead”.

Dreamflesh revisited

In the 1990s one of my favourite small press publications was the seminal  Unlimited Dream Company series – Towards 2012 – it’s editor – Gyrus – produced a stable of beautifully themed cutting edge factual anthologies at the end of the twentieth century.

In 2006 Gyrus started a new journal – Dreamflesh, which he subtitled “A Journal of  Body, Psyche, Ecological Crisis and Archaeologies of Consciousness”. The list of contributors was an impressive roll call of writers working in marginal spiritual and philosophical paradigm, the whole was a smorgasbord of the strange and the alluring.

Dreamflesh Journal cover art by Amodali

Dreamflesh Journal cover art by Amodali

This month Gyrus has been posting the whole journal online, reprinting the articles and drawing out ideas that have persisted and flourished in the intervening 11 years.

In the web reprise  Gyrus summarises the  project: “Dreamflesh Journal documented an eclectic range of ideas, investigations and experiments informed by this complex ecopsychological framework. Essays, interviews and art ranged over many facets of human and non-human life that seem to be important to this transition: dreams, altered states, visionary media, occultism, sexuality & gender, animism, collective intelligences, psychosomatic healing, bodily symbolism, cognitive linguistics, new materialism, creatively disciplined prehistorical and anthropological studies, images & spirit (iconoclasm, idolatry, anthropomorphism, fetishism), death & dying, depth psychology, ecology… to name a few.”

Back in 2005, when I first heard that Gyrus was planning to edit a new journal I wrote a piece specially, my concern was female facial and body hair and I enjoyed myself writing a selected history of hirsute women. Then I sent in off to Gyrus.

A few months later  I heard it had been accepted. I was delighted to have my piece included in Dreamflesh, it  gave me the biggest readership I had ever had, I felt like I’d arrived, more than this, I felt I’d  been accepted into a publication so inspiring that it left me in awe. And the Journal was certainly well-received, The Guardian called it “a bastion of the esoteric”, and not long after the Journal was released it was reviewed in Fortean Times “There is a dimension way, way out where flesh and dream coalesce, explored by people with names such as Orryelle Defenstrate-Bascule, Gyrus, Bella Basura, Pablo Amaringo and Lars Holger Holm, not to mention the formidible Dave Lee”. And that wasn’t all, wonderfully, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the transgender founder of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, wrote of Dreamflesh “I felt EXCITED as I read. No mean feat. I truly was inspired”.

In the original introduction to the Journal Gyrus evaluated the role of traditional publishing in an increasingly digitized world, “The existence of the web can goad us into a sharper awareness of how print media impact the environment, in turn encouraging us all — in both writing and reading — to try to make every piece of paper and every drop of ink count. ”

 

Links

Strawberry fair Armpit Hair

Dreamflesh

 

 

 

 

Fish Mythology – Flash Fiction

Finally, I have managed to capture in words my tumultuous feelings around the death earlier this year of my one-time Hero, freak out to the Teenage Moon Dream oh yeah! – David Bowie. The piece is a 100 word Flash Fiction story, that has a specifically East-Anglian setting because I live in East-Anglia.The piece, Fish Mythology, is sub-titled “if David Bowie had been born an Eel instead”

 

Fish Mythology By Bella Basura

Eel Bowie-Fish

 Here Eel Bowie-Fish fell, brandy-drunk, face down in the Ouse.
Down where Bulrush buds waver in clear still water, beneath we writhing bottom-feeder shoals, we elvers and catfish, he deep under layers of earthy mud, dark dead debris.

Here in leaf-litter and rot lies the corpse of old Eel Bowie-Fish, who lead us to conquer the Isle of Ely, on the Fen he crawled on his fins, on the floodplain he walked on his tail, like a bishop, into the Cathedral, resplendent in his flowing robes.
But here lies Eel Bowie-Fish , decomposing in slow-motion undulations, while we pick his bones white.

Bella Basura’s in progress Flash Fiction Anthology – The Short Answer

Bella Basura
Feb. 2016

HOME TOWN

Home Town

Visit my Gallery

I’m re-posting this detournment because a friend recently introduced to friend who used to live in my home town, listening to him, it struck me how negative my view of the old place was. Maybe that’s because I went to school there and he chose to move to the town as a young adult. He spoke of a scene and good times, but I mainly remember always being in a rush to catch a train out of there.

NOTE
Over the next few weeks I intend doing maintenance on my site – mending broken links and re-jigging the archive – so please bear with me if it all goes to shit and falls off the internet. It is temporary. I will be back.

Strawberry Fair Armpit Hair

…Similarly, the radical lesbian photographer, Della Grace, championed this theatrical masculine posturing during the drag-king craze of the early 1990’s. If I remember aright, drag-kings were gangs of beautiful light-hearted lesbian women who invaded clubs dressed in mens suits. They greased back their hair, stuffed paunches under their shirts, packed dildos in their pants & faked or grew facial hair. They were playing with notions of gender identity, & having a laugh. Della Grace immersed herself in this scene & photographed it from within. When asked how she came to grow a moustache herself, she replied that she just stopped plucking it….READ MORE

Tales From the Laboratorium

Meanwhile…
Voice over: What IS Doctor Gordon doing? Why, he’s dawdling and meandering through                        the Bella Basura back catalogue…

Cue:  scary, slow, plinky-plink avant-garde 1970s electronic music

A title sequence of still images: zooming out from blurred meaningless close ups in b/w                                      that take the form of simulacra – a man eating a magic mushroom, a                                 terrapin, a needle and a  spoon, the Willendorf Venus, an inverted                                        pentagram, the great pyramid of Giza, other stupid things –                                                    meaningless.  A skull.

Titles: lurch out over the images in bold Baskerville typeface

Tales From the Laboratorium
Narrated by Doctor Gordon Tripp

Final image : The Doc sitting in a winged red comfy chair in his Laboratorium smoking a                     roll up, candle-lit, of course.

Doc: The BBC have banished me  to the bowels of Bella Basura’s archive. To find examples of her oeuvre, to find the treasure buried beneath the shit, the diamonds in the dung-heap. Indeed I have been commissioned to curate the befuddled maunderings  of the hebephrenic poet-thing called Bella Basura into a coherent structured TV mini-series.

Cue: a few bars of Doc Gordon’s theme tune – Terrapin – Syd Barrett .

Doc: Enigmatically, to  say La Basura, as she became known in later days, was an enigma, is an enigma, in and of itself. Thus I shall refrain from further myth-creation and tell it like it was, and go straight for the jugular. I first encountered Bella Basura (banshee howl) whilst she was a participant on a government sponsored Enterprise Allowance Scheme that meant her dole money was paid directly into a government sponsored bank account while she pursued the tremulous task of being a free-lance writer. Basura (banshee howl) used the money – £36  a week at the time – to bum around Amsterdam inventing characters for an imaginary novel. She did this solidly for a year, the whole duration of the scheme, and that was the year we met. It was the early 1990s and although it now sounds glamorous and implausible , it was universally perceived at the time as a government policy to massage the unemployment figures and also as a convenient loophole for creative slacker-types. Bella (banshee howl) didn’t mind. In fact, she still uses her year as “a freelance author in Holland” on her CV, obviously it looks better than “on benefits”
(clap of thunder).
Clearly, I digress (sputtering).
(Sputtering ) (Again).

About a year after I met Basura (banshee howl), that is 6 months after the end of her Enterprise Allowance , she turned up unannounced and needy at my Laboratorium in Camberwell, South London. Broken and dishevelled as ever, it was obvious that she was back on the dole, and to no beneficial end.  She burbled at length at me and eventually left suddenly, enstupored and intoxicated in some indeterminate manner, she left incoherently stumbling, spewing A4 pages. As she stumbled she knocked against the kitchen table and sent a thick purple crayon careening to the floor where she insensately ground it into the kitchen lino with her great wasted hobnail boot. This created a weirdly tentacled stain that I have never been able to erase, to this very day, no matter what products are used.

For over a decade in the slow-burning bile of resentment and envy, that I naturally excel in, I pointedly reminded Bella (banshee howl) of the incurable stain every time she visited me . Thus does a Scorpio deal with a Leo. Or (symbol for scorpio) square (symbol for leo), for those with astrological leanings.
(a clap of thunder)
Clearly, I digress.

The horrors  which Basura (banshee howl) barely speaks of in this piece are almost beyond words. Unspeakable to some. And yet Basura (banshee howl) is a poet and words are her craft, her tools in trade, the building blocks of her very brain. So mouth the words she must, in essence she told me she had encountered a ghost of the future, a future-shadow. A premonition no less that had begun to imbed its tentacles deep into poor Bella’s (banshee howl) fragile mind, she began writing ceaselessly and frantically.

In actuality, there was much rumour back in those far-flung days of the coming to our shores of a dark new American-style benefit system called “work-fare” and it would force claimants into unpaid jobs in supermarkets in order to  deserve or  ‘earn’ their dole-money. Myself I thought it an urban myth, but I was wrong. It was nothing less than a precursor, a progenitor and the true birth-mother to the terrors of “Work Programme”, under whose draconian tyrannies we now toil.

The following piece  is one of Bella Basura’s earliest expositions of this dreadful prediction…

Fade to black

 

 

Temporary suspension of blog-sequence

Unfortunately I have been forced to suspend further blog postings in The Wall of Girls Blog-sequence as I have been sent on a DWP Work Programme. This means I shall be expected to attend a full-time two week course until I find a job. Please watch out for further posting, which hopefully will resume soon.

In the meantime, please occupy yourselves with these thoughts on life on the dole, which were written between 1997 and 2001.

Godseekers Allowance
The Truth about the Cult of St. Giro
Uncanny Experiences in the Temple of Jobcentre
Which fed to my second novel – The Muse Trap

Please also don’t forget the online serialisation of my first novel
Thee Twisted Times ov Bella Basura