The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Fiction: Jack Harte

Excerpt from   Arcana   a work in progress


Introductory note:

This is an episode from Arcana, a story written in the style of the heroic sagas, but with anti-heroic intent. Zaja is a Jesus Christ figure, re-located to Ireland. The saga evolves in 22 episodes, pitched against the Major Arcana of the Tarot.

It will be launched on World Book Night, 23 April next, on the Internet from the Irish Writers' Centre, Dublin, and in different translations from other locations around the world, including a Spanish translation from Linares, Mexico.


6   Zaja’s Education

 By Jack Harte (Ireland). Published in Issue 25.

When Zaja was dispatched on his learning Quest, he was brought first to the South kingdom, where he was accepted with hospitality fit for a King’s son. He learned from their artists and acquired the skills of hand and eye. When the time came for him to leave it was with a heavy heart he set out for the West Kingdom.

In the West Kingdom Zaja was similarly greeted with warmth and hospitality. He learned from their poets the subtlety of words, how they are manipulated into verse and story, receptacles that could store the knowledge and wisdom of countless generations. And it was with a heavy heart that he finally bade farewell to them and turned to the North.

In the North Kingdom the whole extended family of the King took Zaja to their hearts and he felt as one of them. They had a passion for argument and the favourite entertainment at the court was disputation. Zaja learned rhetoric and logic and metaphysics from their philosophers and before he left he could hold forth with the best of them, teasing an argument out into the early hours, until the cock’s crow imposed its own logic.

By the time he reached the East Kingdom Zaja was an accomplished young man. He was greeted formally and civilly there, but he sensed immediately that the culture was different. He was assigned a place as a cadet in the military academy. But after three days listening to young men bragging of their fighting skills and the tally of their killings, Zaja knew that this place was not for him.

One youth was celebrated in particular and admired by all as the cream of the academy, destined for a glorious career as a warrior. He was a nephew of the King who himself came one day to observe the exercises of the cadet corps. Impressed by the athletic feats of his nephew, he laughed and called the captain who was training the cadets. ‘Take good care of that young man,’ he said. ‘He will make a great warrior one day. He has the soul of a dog.’ And from that day on the young man assumed the name ‘Shumaka’, their old term for a hunting hound.

Zaja was perplexed as to what he might usefully learn in this place. He refused to handle weapons and had no inclination towards athletic exercises. One day the trainer brought them around a well into which he threw an apple. ‘Now, who can retrieve the apple using only his bow and arrows?’ The cadets peered at the apple in the bottom of the well.

‘A string to the arrow?’

‘No string, just your bow and arrows.’

The cadets looked and thought and considered and were puzzled. Then Shumaka stepped forward. He glanced at the apple, took an arrow from his quiver, and shot into the well piercing the apple. Then he shot another arrow, which lodged in the shaft of the first one. With another he did the same, then again and again, until he was able to reach in and lift the line of arrows, with the apple dangling from the final one. There was spontaneous applause for his feat. The small band of his most ardent followers broke into a chant they had concocted and were wont to use at every opportunity:

Shumaka, Shumaka,

Fear, fear, fear.’

But Zaja raised his voice above the clamour of adulation. ‘If the task is to retrieve the apple, would not a forked stick have achieved it more easily?’

There was silence as the crowd gauged the thrust of the question and the implied insult to Shumaka’s feat.

Shumaka waxed into a warrior’s rage. He approached Zaja, sword in hand. ‘The only use I would make of a forked stick is to ram it up your arse and roast you on a spit like a suckling pig.’

‘Spoken like a true dog,’ replied Zaja.

‘A hound, a hunting hound. I would challenge you to single combat, but it would be akin to challenging an old woman. I would be the laughing stock of the land.’

‘You will be the laughing stock of the land anyway.’

‘Beware the tooth of the hound,’ replied Shumaka with ferocious menace, and he walked off, followed by his band of admirers.

Some time later Zaja was passing a group of children playing with a skipping rope and chanting their rhymes. He approached them.

‘Would you like a new skipping rhyme?’ he asked.

‘We would,’ they responded in enthusiastic unison.

‘Spin the rope so and I will give you one.’

They spun the rope, and Zaja skipped, reciting

            ‘Shumaka, Shumaka,

            One, two, three,

            Shumaka, Shumaka,

            Who is he?

            Shumaka, Shumaka,

            Lifts his knee

            Shumaka, Shumaka,

            Dog wets tree.’

They burst out laughing, especially at the way he mimicked a dog raising his leg to piddle while carrying on skipping on one foot. It was clear that they knew Shumaka by reputation.

One of them said, ‘Shumaka won’t like that.’

‘Of course he will,’ said Zaja. ‘It is funny and Shumaka has a wonderful sense of humour. He will enjoy the joke.’

They started skipping again, this time to the Shumaka rhyme, competing with one another to do the funniest mimic of a dog piddling. Within days every child in the kingdom had learned the new skipping rhyme, and they chanted and hopped with mischievous glee. However, one morning a child was found hanging from a tree, a skipping rope around his neck as a hangman’s noose. That put an end to the rhyme, to the skipping, and to the joyful voices of the children playing.

At the end of the season it was time for Shumaka’s group to graduate from the Academy. Everyone waited in expectation to see what feat Shumaka would present as his graduation piece, since it was widely recognised that he was the most promising cadet that had ever passed through the Academy. Others were preparing to demonstrate their achievement in archery, in sword fighting, in hurling the spear, and were fine-tuning their performances in the days leading up to the graduation. But Shumaka disappeared for three days, and the banquet had begun when the young man entered the great hall. He had a knapsack on his back and he walked directly up to the top table, then shook out the knapsack in front of the king. Out dropped three heads.

‘Those are the heads of the three warrior sons of Conall, Lord of Annally, who has been withholding tribute due to the King. I challenged each of them in turn to single combat, and killed all three of them. Loud are the wails of the women of Annally tonight, keening the flower of their manhood.’

There was frenzied applause from the assembled guests, and Shumaka’s followers banged their feet on the ground and chanted:

Shumaka, Shumaka,

Fear, fear, fear.’

The Commander of the army, who was seated at the right hand of the King, declared proudly, ‘Who will deny that we have in Shumaka a hero to rival any we have ever had in the past?’

Zaja stood up. ‘I do,’ he said. A tense hush descended on the hall.

‘I want to ask Shumaka why it was necessary to kill these three young men, the sons of Conall, Lord of Annally. Will the Lord now happily pay the tribute due to the King? No? Will he already be plotting his revenge? Most definitely. So if Shumaka has not resolved the problem that existed between the King and the Lord, and indeed has aggravated it, why does he gloat over the agony of the women of Annally?’

Shumaka turned in white anger towards Zaja. ‘If it does not bring a solution, it will bring war, and the opportunity of covering ourselves in glory.’

‘Where is the glory in pointless slaughter? Where is the satisfaction in listening to the sorrowful wailing of mothers? This is not glory. This is ignominy.’

‘These are the words of a coward, and I am relieved that they are not uttered by a fellow countryman. Were you not protected by the King’s grace, I would challenge you to combat, but we will meet again, if you ever learn to string a bow or to draw a sword from a scabbard.’

‘Why bother with a sword or a bow when one can be equally effective with a skipping rope.’

Absolute silence now fell on the assembly. Everyone knew about the skipping rhyme and had no doubt as to why the child had died, but no one had ever raised the issue.

Shumaka was dumbstruck. To react would be to acknowledge involvement in the crime, so he turned away. But Zaja knew that his life was now in danger, and he left the hall. Shumaka and his band of henchmen could not leave until the feast was over, so he had a few hours to escape. And he fled.


More about Jack Harte...