First quest

A quest towards self-publication: entry 8

Frank Ryan 25 February 2007

Frank Ryan

In fiction, it is supposed
that we lie in order to tell the truth

Editor's note: is pleased to continue our weekly blog from Frank Ryan, a scientist, doctor and best-selling author who is currently attempting to publish and promote his latest novel (written in the lab lit genre) via an untraditional route.

I wake on the beach of bones – yet how different it looks in the light of day. There is an unnatural pearly lambency to the light in which black crags of volcanic stone poke out of the graveyard. I feel a sudden pang of worry. Could my memory of the Book drinking the peaty elixir possibly be real? This suggests a bizarre personality change. And to add to my anxiety I recall the rubicund glitter that animated its eyes. Am I the pawn of dark and almighty forces, much as you read about in the legends of old?

‘We must be careful,’ I whisper to fellow dragon liberators who have materialised by my side, Val Kyrie to my left and Teri Minator to my right. We are each clad in full helm and mail, and armoured with sword and shield.

Teri exclaims, ‘Look, Grandad, there are rock pools!’

‘Where are your brains?’

‘Terri’s brains are in his bottom,’ Val Kyrie grinningly replies.

I notice, glancing around me, that there are gleaming white sun chairs laid out on the sand. Most sit empty. Their intended occupants are strolling in tepid sunshine, hundreds of ghostly figures wearing a medley of historical garments. That could be Gutenberg – talking animatedly with Homer and Virgil. I scan somewhat anxiously until I spot, close by, a young girl with shoulder-length brown curly hair paddling with her ankle-length tartan skirt raised to expose her calves.

I feel a tug at my arm. Val asks me, ‘Who are all these people?’

‘I think they’re the ghosts of famous writers. Why don’t you go over and play with Beatrix.’

‘Who’s Beatrix?’

‘That’s her over there, paddling. I think she could be feeling rather sad because she’s only in black and white.’

I take them over. ‘Miss Potter – allow me to introduce Val Kyrie and Teri Minator.’

She wafts her face with a fanning action of her straw boater. ‘Hello, Val and Teri! I’ve been dying to meet you!’

They hesitate, suddenly puzzled and shy. I quickly interpose, ‘They’re interested in a story about a rabbit called Peter.’

How, I cannot help but wonder, has the Book created this most precious and intimate of places, a communion of the imaginations? I leave my young companions to paddle and chatter with this heroine of mine who, twice thwarted, once in science and again in her literary creativity, yet triumphed in the end. Her dragon flew free.

Nearby a knot of people has clustered around one of the black slabs of stone. As I approach it, I observe how the stone resembles an altar, with a cup-shaped depression on the upper surface. The shape might easily accommodate a single large egg, perhaps a foot and a half long. At the corner of my eye I glimpse two figures slinking through the background. One is squat, with a waddling bottom, and the other is ominously tall and thin, wearing a monocle. When I look again, they are gone.

‘Frank Ryan, I presume?’

The speaker is a woman of medium height, slim, with aquiline features above a swan neck. Her dark tight curls are drawn close about the dome of her high brow. How could I fail to recognise Mary Shelley, in her Regency dress?

I give the slight bow that appears de rigeur. ‘You were expecting me, Madam?’

‘We were summoned to meet a fellow dragon liberator!’

‘How much do you know of me – and my quest?’

‘Enough to be concerned about its purpose, and fate.’

‘Then we really do share something of our themes – our inspirations?’

‘Indeed we do. But you are a physician in the guise of warrior! Assuming physicians have not changed beyond context in two centuries, you will have witnessed much heartbreak.’

‘May I offer my deepest condolences for your losses.’

‘Do you refer to my mother or my children?’

I remind myself that Mary’s mother, the celebrated intellectual and rebel, Mary Wollstonecraft, died from puerperal fever after Mary Shelley’s birth and Mary Shelley herself bore four children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. ‘I refer to them all, Madam – how could they not be linked in your imagination. But you were too young to feel the pain with your mother, except in retrospect. But in the case of your children, it must have been a very great burden to bear.’

‘Many is the time I have questioned why the Creator should so frequently enshroud the gift of life with grief.’

‘In my day, we physicians look more to natural causes.’

‘Doctor Frank – if I might be so bold – even in my day physicians had long abandoned spirituality for agues and humours.’

‘Madam – the malaria that took little William was caused neither by providence nor bad air but by a living microbe that inhabits the saliva of the mosquito.’

‘Even if I were to accept your naturalistic explanation, yet would such understanding have made a whit of difference to his fate?’

‘In 1819? No, it would not.’

‘Then providence was not altogether an unrealistic attribution?’

I am obliged to agree. What point would there be in explaining that the bite of mosquitoes infuses a protist that can swim, eel-like, through human tissues? It would not comfort her in the slightest. More likely it would add to her nightmares. ‘I can see,’ I speak gently, ‘how such proximity to death must have been inspirational.’

‘In fiction, it is supposed that we lie in order to tell the truth. And what of you! Who has more proximity to death than you, a physician?’

‘There are commonalities, as I freely admit, between our two creations and possibly their inspirations too. Each of us conceived a dragon in a dream and felt driven to observe what would happen if it were to be liberated.’

‘A dark and dangerous dragon, Sir, would you not confess?’

‘Yes, I would.’

‘And in the dream that invoked it – where do you perceive your natural causes?’

Her question troubles me. ‘Indeed I have no ready answer.’

‘Is it not true that if one were to place a mirror in front of every need and desire, there one would discover its price.’

I am about to ask her what she means when the air is rent by a terrible roar. Suddenly my small companions are back beside me, clasping for my hands. ‘Grandad – there’s a giant chained to the rocks!’

I make my apologies to Mary Shelley and allow myself to be tugged across the beach to where, at the end of a rough stone jetty, I see the figure of a man, big as a house and naked as a newborn child, shackled to a rising scarp of the black volcanic stone, his feet drenched with every crash of surf.

Teri asks me: ‘Who is he, Grandad?’ ‘His name is Prometheus and he’s what we call a Titan.’

Val asks, ‘Why’s he chained to the rock?’

‘I’m afraid he’s being punished by Zeus, the leader of gods.’

‘What did he do?’

‘Some people say that he stole the fire from the altar of Zeus himself.’

Val persists, ‘How can you steal fire?’

‘Fire in this sense is not what it appears to be. It’s a metaphor for something else. What he really stole was reason.’

‘What kind of reason?’

‘Reason in this sense means the ability to think for ourselves. The gods wanted to keep us in ignorance, like pet monkeys, bowing down and adoring them.’

Teri exclaims, ‘They weren’t very nice.’

‘No – they weren’t.’

‘Grandad – who’s the lady you were talking to?’

‘Her name is Mary Shelley.’

‘Did she write about Prometheus?’

‘Yes she did, in a kind of way. She wrote about a doctor called Frankenstein, who made a man out of bits of other people – he came alive with lightning. She called Dr. Frankenstein “The New Prometheus”.’

‘That’s silly.’

‘Well, not so silly as you might imagine. For example, when people die because their hearts stop, we doctors give them electric shocks to wake them up again.’

Both their eyes grow large, staring up at the face of the Titan.

All of a sudden an eagle begins to tear with claws and beak at the belly of the Titan and he turns his face up to the sky and roars.

‘Grandad, I’m frightened.’

‘So am I.’

‘What are we going to do?’

I recall the red glow about the Book’s eyes, the unreal quality of the light on arrival, the sense of being manipulated. ‘I think we’ve been set a challenge. And that challenge is to free Prometheus from his chains.’

(To be the next installment, we'll discover the price of reason)