From the beach, the Mad Monk passed as a shadow over many miles of dunes, the pampas blades bowing backwards to admit him through. And in the sky dark clouds began to rally – and in the wings of his nose came the scent of storm. So he abandoned the plains of dunes in favour of a seashore cave, a humble shelter for his noble head. And in this cave he resided for some short duration of days, as the rain came down to drench the land, and the wet of the weather to welcome him. And in that cave he built from some logs and branches a fire for himself, one that he lit from a spark of some stones he scraped, and the warmth it lent, and the light at night it gave, were pleasing to his senses. And for food he fed on some crabs that ambled naively into that cave, lured by the firelight. He cooked their flesh in the flame, and ate heartily, relishing the crunch of their crabby shells under his iron canines. And for dessert he dined on an earthworm, seasoned with sea salt, made juicier through liberal sprinkling of the silvery slime of snail (it was his custom to collect such slime). And when he was not eating or sleeping or surveying the storm’s progress, he would doodle on the walls of the cave, anointing his fingertips with pigments of his own produce, and making bold strokes on the flatter sections of stone. He drew dragons and demons, visions of the otherworld and of paradise, sometimes even attempting the beloved face of Watt once known. And sometimes he took stabs at sketching his own self, though through lack of a mirror, the results were mediocre. Still and all, he found it a pleasant pastime, and he reckoned he would improve, through dint of sheer persistence.
And one day there came into the cave a darting Hare, whom the Mad Monk caught easily, and would have killed and cooked and eaten, had not the Hare, who possessed great powers of persuasion, made a moving appeal for his life to be spared. He was young, and his whole life lay before him. What is more, he knew the Mad Monk of old, so he claimed, for when a baby he remembered having been introduced to that same worthy gentleman by his father, one of the pillars of the haring community, who had dealt with fairies and druids and shamans and suchlike singular folk, of whom the Mad Monk was one of the more colourful. His father had hailed the Mad Monk a hero such as might redeem the world from the ruin with which it flirted, and he made it plain to his impressionable son that such was the sort of chap he would have him try in his own little life to live up to, and strive to emulate, for all he never could nor would. And as long as he lived the young Hare would never forget the words of his father apropos that paragon of all earthly creatures, that glory of the world and God in man.
So thus did the loquacious Hare plead his case and charm the Mad Monk through flattery and flowery words and cloying compliments, and though outwardly the Mad Monk affected to disdain the praise, within he was secretly delighted. And when the pageant of praise was winding down, the Mad Monk bade the Hare be quiet, and run along like a good fellow and leave him alone – ‘for my appetite that once yearned foryour flesh is dissipated and quenched, so well wrought your roguish ruse of waffle’.
But the Hare, getting cocky, would not leave. He had come to the cave with a specific purpose, to seek advice from a man known far and wide to be wise.
‘Hang on now, my hopping hare of bandy bow legs! Leaving aside whether or not I do be wise, how is it that you came to know that advice such as you seek would be readily found from one such as me in this particular godforsaken cave of all caves on the coast?’
The Hare smiled, knowing something the Mad Monk didn’t, and elaborated. The Mad Monk’s coming was no secret among the learned. For months prior to his landing, the advent of his return had been much spoken of. It all began when a ghost was seen wandering the hills, caressing the goats, murmuring sweet nothings in their ears and babbling unto them prophetic gobbledygook to make their hairs stand on end. This ghost took the shape of a bald old man with a very long beard and glowing eyes, who spoke in lofty language, foretelling his brother’s impending arrival to redeem the wretched.
The Mad Monk started at the employment of the word ‘brother’ with reference to this prophet, and felt a chill to his heart. For he recognized in the description the person of his own dead brother Elijah, who knew all, and of what he knew told only a little, and that little whenever and to whomsoever few he chose. And he felt a quiet horror then.
The Hare continued. The appearance of this spectral soothsayer was surely a portent, and the goats had not been slow to spread what he said. They told other goats, goats overheard by donkeys, who told other donkeys, who told the asses, who told the horses, who told the cattle, who told the pigs, who told the sheep, who told the dogs, who told the cats, who told the rats, who told the mice, who told the geese, who told the chickens, who told the ducks, who told the swans, who told the herons, who told the cormorants, who told the otters, who told the jackdaws, who told the –
‘Enough,’ said the Mad Monk with some firmness. And then he felt a great weariness that gave way to doubt, and to the threshold of terror. For the weight of expectancy was doomed to dog him now, in a way it would not have done had his coming to the country been made in secret. But contrary to his wishes, the multitude both high and low had long known, and thanks to the gossiping of his brother’s ghost, the numbers of those in the know had day by day the greater grown. And they expected much of him, more than any mere mortal man, more than even his own immortal self, the very God in man, could ever live up to. And now his strong shoulders began sadly to sag, under strain from all the daunting weight of promise they sweating bore.
Sitting there brooding darkly, scratching his beard, digesting all he heard with a liberal dose of doubt, the Mad Monk forgot about the cocky Hare seated there before him on the floor of the cave, by light of the flickering fire, eagerly eyeing him, awaiting the moment when the old man would ask of him at last the precise advice his youthful ignorance had sought.
And then the Mad Monk shook himself, remembering of a sudden something the youth had said, with regard to the reason for his coming to the cave.
‘Sorry about that, lad,’ he said more amiably. ‘Me mind’s a muddle, I’m afraid. Thanks for the telling. But I seem to recall that you had need of advice to ask me? I beg you, pray, spit it out, and we’ll see what needs or can be done, if anything at all.’
The Hare grew shyer, a faint blush stealing to his furry cheeks.
‘Dear sir,’ he said, hopping gingerly in his shyness from one hare’s foot to the other. ‘It is long past the last March’s mating season. My fellows and brethren males, as is common and can only be expected, went mad with mating, impregnating females all over the shop with proper impunity. And being as I was at the time newly come of age, it was my expected duty to do ditto. And I tried. But somehow, for whatever why, I could not bring myself so to do as they did. My heart was not in it. I failed in my function.’
‘You are impotent, I take it?’ said the Mad Monk drily, stifling a yawn, with a sneer to his voice, already feeling a bit bored.
The Hare blushed redder and blanched. ‘Oh no, no, not at all – or at least, not always – only sometimes – intermittently impotent it is I am, you might well say. But I –’
‘I see.’ The Mad Monk cut across him, doing his best to be indulgent. ‘Well now, Lordy knows this is a vexing matter, but not so new that I have not met it scores of times before. Your affliction is as old as the hills, as old as tyrant time, that traitor time in many men the primary cause. Cannot say I have ever known it personally, this sapping of the vital spirits, no, not I, who was always from birth a virile bounder enviably laden with a lucky loot of the bindu, but I’ve always done my best to help the poor bastards who are less lucky. A quiver of aphrodisiac arrows it was once my pleasure to keep, which arrows I administered with glee to the wretches, that they may know again the joy of fecundity. Is that why you have come? Because I must have you know, those arrows are stowed away in my desert hideaway in care of the Puck, who will be coming later, who may or may not bring them. I make no promises. I give thee no false hopes. In the meantime, I can cook up a potion of potency that may alleviate thy malady, if only temporarily, until the cure more lasting may come. Or not. Nothing is certain. Will that do? Is that all?’
Throughout this disinterested expostulation, the Hare wrung his paws and ground teeth in dismay for having got the emphasis and the wording wrong.
‘No, sir, that is not all,’ he said finally, raising his nervous head to face down the godly yellow eyes of eagle, set in the fine face crackled by light of fire’s flame. ‘My concerns go beyond the mechanical squirt of seed. For I, uncommonly among my kind, have higher aims in mind, not so easily brought off, when you are an animal as I am.’
‘Higher aims,’ the Mad Monk drawled, tasting the sounds. ‘That sounds funny. Can’t say I’ve met many hares as yourself who ever bother to aim higher, who care to do more than their allotment of life permits, and their cast of mind allows, they who do no more than feed, and fuck, and try not to get killed. You begin to intrigue me, boy. In what way, then, is it that you aim higher and do so differ from your flat-headed peers?’
‘It will sound ridiculous for me to say it,’ the humble Hare said shyly, ‘but say it I must. Unlike my contemporaries, I did not care to bound from bed to bed and from woman to woman, leaving in my leaky trail a wake of children. For, you see, there’s ever only been one for me. Bare but one. Only one especial lady for whom I ever had any attention or deep affection, any real care at all, ever since birth. It is more than physical – it is spiritual, if you’ll allow me to say so. Only for her would I squander my goods, do deeds of service and run errant errands. Only for her would I lend my life in sacrifice if the barrel of the hunter’s cruel gun at her were pointed, if it meant I would die so long as she would remain and live and last. For her alone do I feel the noblest of sentiments, the greatest gift and the most galling curse, making of all my life a melancholic agony, and making me mad, mad, mad, madness that knows not the calendar’s dictation nor the schedule of the seasons, madness beyond mere March, a lasting passion that never leaves me.’
His little voice broke, and he hesitated. And the Mad Monk felt a quickening excitement to hear the Hare so speak, whose eager eyes bulged as his fervour grew, tall the shadow he threw on the cave’s craggy walls, dark shadow forged by the firelight that flickered (night by now had fallen thickly), as he spoke with feeling of his nameless passion, erect ears aquiver as they tautened and pricked.
And in the quiet of hesitation, the patter of rain and sound of storm filled the gap and howled, as the Mad Monk knelt forward closer to the Hare, to whom he now whispered hoarsely, his curiosity to satisfy: ‘And what is the name of that feeling of which you speak?’
The Hare shivered; swallowed; then said: ‘Love, sir.’
And the Mad Monk sighed; and shut his eyes; and spoke slowly: ‘Ah . . . yes. Love. Sweetest of dreams, our life’s bitterest mystery, our foremost misery. I know the feeling well, old as I am, and have felt so oft in my time its prick and sting, its brief and intermittent bliss that will so swiftly turn to rancour, that yet will come again to be a craving for sating, wringing our anguished hearts until we can take no more – though forever always we eternally do come back for more. Only ask the ages, and you shall see it is so. It is the oldest of ailments, the most delicious, the most destructive, affecting all manner of men from all walks of life high and low from top to toe. Still and all, for such as yourself, I mean a Hare, to speak of it so finely, is decidedly rare. Please elaborate, my boy – impart unto me the circumstances – the state – the condition of this love – the nature and character of this lady on whom you would shower it – and tell me how real – how true – how lasting this love – do but tell me all this, and ask my advice, and we shall see for sure how I might help, if help I can, as I hope I can.’
With quiet tears, the Hare expanded, and the Mad Monk with shut eyes nodded and sighed in sympathy, swaying from side to side as he listened to the Hare speak impassioned of his lady love, the one and only, a darling damsel with luscious legs and floppy ears, so sweet, so kind, so gently tender her nature, possessed of a pair of eyes, and a speaking voice, that were the most beautiful and divine he had ever been blessed to behold, or ever had the happiness to hear. She was as young as he was, lived not far nearby, and he had known her from their infancy, they were childhood friends who bonded as babies, who grew up together amid the tall grass of hill and dale and vale, among whose blades and thickets they tumbled and played their childish games, knowing not a care in the world – until, slowly but surely, over the years there was begot in his aching heart a bubble of love for none but this fairest lady, love that grew and grew, giving him now, in the throes of his young manhood, nothing but the vilest spleen. And the core and crux of his angst was his deep uncertainty as to the pitch and degree of her feelings for him, his awful doubts as to whether what he felt was fully reciprocated.
And the Mad Monk sadly smiled to hear this, recognizing the seed of the oldest story – the potential unrequited that ever beguiled, ever destroyed.
The Hare, by his own admission, had not the requisite cockiness to make his move to stake his claim, to pluck his pick and take his choice and bewitching woman woo – so greatly in cowardice did he fear her rebuttal. And she had recently begun to disgust him by her seeming fickleness, having, during the month of last March when high on her first heat, gone about gadding with the other braver boys, hopping around and pulling hairs, earning a reputation as a ready ride. Already pregnant, she was expecting now a batch of babes – begat in delirious frenzy, their fathers gone away elsewhere, to fresher pastures for ploughing, such as knew no love. And relations nowadays between himself and herself were strained – he wondered had she done it all just to make him jealous, to spurn him on to claim her as she knew (she must know) he dearly wanted to, or whether indeed he were wasting his time and ought to swallow pride and strive to quash his doomed and futile impotent love. And wondering whether indeed she were only just another fickle hare-brained female fool, happily ignorant of any higher feeling such as that selfsame love he felt, that made him so miserable.
The Hare fell quiet and waited for the advice to be dispensed. But it did not come. Still the Mad Monk sat on silent with eyes closed, seeming to be sleeping. The Hare wondered had he bored him overmuch. But he was mistaken to wonder thus. For the Mad Monk had heard all intently and interestedly, and now was in the midst of formulating a scheme, cogs and wheels grinding and clacking as he thought things through. For he was of the opinion that it was not mere advice the young Hare needed, verbal advice that could get lost, or be misunderstood, or ignored, or forgotten. Rather, practical and active assistance, such as at which he excelled, was needed. For he was since time immemorial one of the most devoted servants of true love in all its forms, and the very best friend and encourager of young love in particular. He liked this young Hare who had given him valuable information, and the picture painted of his passion’s plight had touched the old man keenly, and he was determined to do well by him. In his strong heart warm sentiment stirred, and he decided that, once more again, as so oft before he’d been, it was meet that he, the Mad Monk, should be matchmaker one more time.
‘Come, boy,’ he said, opening his eyes, ‘no more dallying. Let us make tracks. Take me to the place where this lady lives. By the mass, I must glimpse this girl with mine own eyes afore I do more. And then – then – I shall well make it worth thy while.’
And these words puzzled the Hare – yet also excited him – and kindled in his starving soul a smidgen of hope. And so they got up to their feet, and stretched and sighed, and the Mad Monk fashioned a crude umbrella to shield them from the waning storm, its spokes of stick and its tattered canvas dried seaweed, and blew out in a breath the fire no longer needed, and bade fond farewell to his doodles and daubs on the craggy walls, and picked up the little lithe Hare not half so cocky, who fitted snugly in his large palm where he would not get so wet, and in such manner arrayed did the Mad Monk and the Hare quit the cave and go out into the world, in search of the lady that the latter loved, the woman who, through the machinations of the former, he might somehow still win.
‘Hare in Love’ is an extract from The Abode of Fancy, Sam Coll’s first novel.
Artwork © Zhou Hongbin and Magda Danysz Gallery, Shanghai/Paris