AN EVIL GENIUS
An early version of this story was published in The Cormorant 13. 2 (1997): 9-24.
“Les moulins de vent avec leurs grands bras de toiles,
ou nous jètent dans la boue....” “... ou nous lancent aux étoiles.”
Edmond Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac.
And this girl calls me on the phone and she says: "Excuse me, for asking but are you Welsh?"
And I say: "Well, now that depends."
And she says: "On what?"
And I say: "On the weather, on what day of the week it is, on who's asking, and on why they're asking."
"Oh!" she says, "I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself. My name's Karen. And I want to ask you some questions about Wales."
"Whales? Great big fish, Karen. You put salt on their tails and eat them with kippers for tea."
"Not whales, with an aitch, but Wales, with a capital W and no aitch! Now: let me rephrase my question: would you be willing to answer some questions about Wales as in Welshmen?"
"Well," I say, "I guess that depends on the questions. But go ahead, ask me, and I'll see what I can do."
Dai Jones, our old Welsh farming neighbour, is walking home in the Pyle Corner evening, the sweet-breathed cows ahead of him; they flow like a black and white stream, prevented from over-flowing and flooding the fields by banks of hedges at either side of the lane. Dai's sheep dogs Floss and Jess walk beside him, for company. The slow cow at the back is hurried on with a bark from the dogs or a gentle prod from the stick Dai carries; occasionally Dai will reach forward and twist her tail. When this happens, the cow lurches forward, her pace quickening. Safe behind a five-barred gate, away from the river of cows, we wait in the twilight:
"Nos da, Dai!"
"Nos da, mun!"
Marooned here in New Brunswick, I wander the roads around my home staring as long as sheep or cows; I walk around my little acre, here where I have founded my Castell Coch, my Fairy Castle, my weathered stone farmhouse of wood and yellow plastic siding. Indoors at night I can peer still into the fire's warmth and friends smile out at me from the flames; they open their arms and their lips move in greeting. "Seek and you will find; knock and things will open." But when I knock and memory's door swings open wide, who knows what Jack and Crossbones will spring grinning from the flames?
"Do Welshmen put leeks in their hats on St. David's Day?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Do Welshmen put leeks in their hats on St. David's Day?"
"Look, girlo," I say, "Use your common sense: would you, as a Canadian, put a leak in your bucket? No. Of course you wouldn't. All the water would run out and you’d get your feet wet. In Wales it rains all the time, so why would a Welshman put a leak in his hat? He'd be running around all day long with water pouring down his face and with his head wet. The rain would get in his eyes and he wouldn't see anything. Of course Welshmen don't put leaks in their hats. What do you think we are, stupid?"
In exile from the land of my fathers, the land of my birth, I come face to face with doubt and fear. I am deceived by my senses; in what can I put my trust? I am subject to delusions. I cannot separate wakefulness from sleep nor dreams from reality nor the truth from these pictures I create in the flames. And I read that "... there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place and that nonetheless I perceive these things and they seem good to me. And this is the most harrowing possibility of all, that our world is commanded by a deity who deceives humanity and we cannot avoid being misled for there may be systematic deception and then all is lost. And even the most reliable information is dubious, for we may be faced with an evil genius who is deceiving us and then there can be no reassurance in the foundations of our knowledge."
"No!" She says, "Not leaks: leeks! You know, the national symbol of Wales. They are your national emblem, aren't they?"
"Now," I say, "I'm not saying 'Yes' and I'm not saying 'No', but let me ask you a question: who do you think you are anyway? The Spanish Inquisition? Torquemada? What on earth are you asking me all these questions for? Are you trying to persecute me?"
One night, my wife set fire to all my books and two men came and walled up the library of my house and when I left my sickbed to walk to my library to choose a book, I could not find the library and my wife said to me "What room? What books? For the devil himself has carried them away. He alighted from a serpent, entered the room, and filled the house with smoke. When he was gone, I saw neither books nor room!" Then I sighed and said: "She is a sage enchantress, this enemy of mine, and has become an evil genius who deceives and she has taken away my only route to glory."
"It's St. David's Day,” Karen tells me, “And I'm doing a programme on St. David for the local radio station here in Fredericton. What do you know about St. David?"
"I think I can reveal without breaking the official secrets act that he's the patron Saint of Wales."
"Can you tell me anything else about him?"
"Well, we believe he was a very holy man and actually existed unlike many false saints, the English George, and people like that, from Greece, who were figments of the Church's imagination."
"Is that all you can tell me?"
"Are you Welsh? No? Then that’s about all I am currently willing to say.”
Dewi Sant, according to the encyclopaedia, was the son of a Cardigan village chief and he founded a dozen churches and chapels and monasteries from Pembroke to Croyland. He went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but not so far as we know to Santiago de Compostela which was still not holy and wouldn't become a tourist trap for another 300 years or more. Or was it 600? Anyway, in Jerusalem he was consecrated bishop and they say he was extremely strict, drinking only water, which he certainly wouldn't have done, had he travelled in Spain. Not that Spain was Spain, for then it was Al-Andalus and Santiago wasn't yet Santiago. For nothing remains the same for any length of time and change and tears are in all things. He was called Dyfrwr, the waterman, because he only drank water and when he died he told his followers three things: to keep the faith; to teach the children, and there was something else, but I can't remember what it was; though "Trust in the power of prayer!" were said to have been his final words. Yet others, more enthusiastic, say his final words were "Cliff Morgan, Barry John, and Jonathan Davies” though no one present knew what those names meant. Still others say he cried out loud, just once: "1903: it was not a try!" And then subsided. All agree that there was something mystical about his death. Some said they saw a mysterious triple crown floating above his head and others that they heard a heavenly sound as of angels singing hymns and arias... But all this depends on a story of his life written down in 1090, more than 400 years after his death!
"Well," says Karen, "Let me read you what it says here: it says -- St. David -- patron saint of Wales -- advised the Welsh to put a leek in their hats before a battle with the Saxons in 640 so the Welsh would recognize each other in battle. The Saxons who did not have any means of identifying each other fought among themselves and there was great laughter. – Sorry: I mean s-laughter! I left the initial s off. – Consequently Welshmen always put leeks in their hats on St. David's Day -- what do you say about that?"
"There's clever you are! If you know all that, why are you asking me the questions?"
"I want to hear what a real Welshman thinks of the St. David's Day legend."
"I've never heard that one before. But the English were always telling lies about the Welsh, especially when they started out as Saxons and hadn’t yet added the Anglo bit. Sounds typical. Sounds very probable. Definitely an interesting theory, like circumspect relativity. But all lies in the long run, of that I'm sure."
"What do you mean ‘All lies’? It's written down, here in my encyclopaedia."
"Encyclopaedia? You didn't tell me you had an encyclopaedia! But if you read it in the encyclopaedia, then it must be a lie. All encyclopaedias were written by the English. And published by the English. For the use of the English. Anything they write about the Welsh is all lies and falsehood."
And a great host was there and Christ himself took the soul of David our saint; Saint David, Dewi Sant. And the date was March the First, and Welshmen still wear Dewi Sant's leek in their buttonhole to mark the passing of the patron saint of Wales. And passing like that he would have made a wonderful outside half, like Cliff Morgan, or Barry John, or Jonathan Davies, even if he did drink nothing more than water. But it's lies, all lies! And who can know? For in another book we read that " ... the association of leeks with St. David's Day has not been satisfactorily explained; St. David's symbol is a dove; a dove of peace." So what is St. David doing, with the dove of peace on his shoulder like Long John Silver on a pirate ship with his parrot, leading Welshmen into battle against Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen, and every Welsh soldier with a leak in his hat, and the rain pouring down, and the weapons getting rusty, and the bowstrings getting wet? Or maybe it was raining and the Saxon hats were all filling with water; the peaks of their caps were all drooping down into their eyes until they couldn't see the Welsh, the cunning Welsh, the brilliantly ingenious Welsh who, at the command of the saint, our sant, our Dewi Sant, had sold all their hats to the Saxons before the battle. Or perhaps we had all put leaks in the Saxons and in their hats: leaks made with arrows and our national emblem is a homophonic pun!
"I can't accept that. I've got it here written down in print."
"So what? Just because it's in print doesn't mean it's true. Never trust anything, especially if it's in print. And always read the small print, especially if it's written in Welsh. Everyone tells and writes lies nowadays. Do you believe everything you read in the evening paper?"
"Of course I don't; but what about you? Can I trust you?"
"Are you an English Canadian?"
"Yes, I suppose I am."
“Then you most definitely can not trust me. Never trust a Welshman, especially on St. David's Day."
"Can I quote you on that?"
"Of course you can't."
"But who can I trust? I've got to trust someone. I've got a program to research."
"Okay: I give in! You can trust me. So what exactly do you want to know?"
“I want to know everything,” said fray Luis de León, “From the beginning to the end, from Omega to Alpha and back again! How the Eternal Hand levelled the cement at the foundations of the world; how the sea is kept within its bounds; why the earth trembles and shakes; why the seas rage and become furious; where fountains spring from; who feeds the rivers' everlasting flow; what causes the frost to burn, the fire to freeze; what causes summer and winter; why one's breath hangs balanced in the air; in what dark furnace lightning bolts are forged; where snow comes from and where it goes; why the thunder sounds and why God moves his chariot amongst the clouds...”
"When you lived in Wales, what did you do on St. David's Day?"
"Well that depended."
"On the weather. On what day of the week it was..."
"Come on. Tell the truth now."
"I am telling you the truth. If St. David's Day fell on a Saturday and there was a rugby international in Cardiff Arms Park, why we all went to the game and to the Queen's and the Angel and the Sandringham and the Woodville and the Birchgrove and the Nine Giants and the Ffynnon Wen and the Con Club and that was one sort of St. David's Day. And if we won, of course, which we usually did in those days and I hardly remember Wales ever losing a game in my youth, why, if we won well we celebrated, like ..."
I pause to gather my thoughts.
And how did we know whether we won or lost? Because we were there, of course! We saw and felt and touched and climbed the goal-posts and we went on a crusade and followed pieces of the true posts like pieces of the true cross! And if all the pieces of the verified posts were added together, there would be one enormous cross bar weighing over a hundred tons! And the pieces would be everywhere: in Llanelli and Castell Nedd and Camarthen and Caer Ffryddyn and Haverford West; with a bit in the Royal Oak and another in the Villiers Arms, and another in the Mexico Fountain, and another in the White Rose, and another in the Dunvant Arms and another in the Plough and Harrow! And this is my childhood: I rock back and forth on my wooden rocking horse and up to the skies, I go, where seven little goats are playing amongst the stars and the earth is as small as an orange pip ... And I was there! I was actually there! And I could touch the goats and pull their little beards. And there I was in Stradey along with over a million singing Welshmen and we fitted into a ground that would hold about fifteen thousand, though less than ten thousand tickets were sold. And Llanelli defeated Zeland Newydd by 9 points to 3. And the whole of Wales went as mad as a hatter and all the pubs ran dry and everyone was there, even the policemen on traffic duty.
"...But if we lost, well, we celebrated that too, and doubly so since it was St. David's Day. But if St. David's Day fell on a Sunday, then we all went to church and did sober things like that. And sung a few hymns in Welsh and English; well, mainly in English with a couple of hymns in Latin, mind. And if we didn't know the words, well, we hummed the tunes. Because we all knew the tunes."
But later on an evil genius took over and he transformed the world. And I went to Bishopston Valley and there, by the tadpole pond, I met a fair huntress who sent ahead to tell her hunter-husband that she had met a man who was actually there at the game; and she told her husband to make things ready for me. And she invited me home to her farmhouse castle for tea. And when I arrived, the farmhouse walls were painted in red and white and green, and there was a large red dragon painted above the fireplace and on the walls were pictures of Cliff Morgan, Barry John and Jonathan Davies, and the farmhouse was all decked out with boughs of holly and we sang "Fa-la-la-la-la" as we stood round the piano and waited for the kettle to boil. And then they brought me Teisen Lap and little Welshcakes, but when I asked, they said they had run out of laverbread, though a young girl said, quite mischievously I thought, there was some from the cows, if I cared for that; but I answered her "Nay! For a laver like that I can have any day." Then there was a silence, and they asked me in the most humble terms to tell them of the match between Llanelli and Zeland Newydd, for the husband said, "I was milking the cows at the time and quite unable to be there." And then they sprinkled sweet smelling waters upon me and, for the first time in my adventures, I knew I was a true Welshman and not an imaginary one.
Today is the day of the Annual St. David's Day Dinner. The President of the Central New Brunswick Welsh Society is addressing the dinner guests. Since he has got nothing to say, he has translated Max Boyce jokes into English and tells them one after another: "And one morning there was a hammering on the door, and four workmen were standing there, and the leader said to me 'Sorry to trouble you, but can I use your phone? Private, like?' And I said 'Yes!' and I went to the kitchen to listen on the extension. Well, the foreman called his boss and he said 'Hello Gwynfor, Dai here. We've got an emergency at work; the shovels haven't arrived.' And Gwynfor’s voice came down the line 'Never mind, Dai, you'll just have to lean on each other for a bit till the shovels get there.'" Then there’s the one about the snails: "And my uncle was out in the garden and he saw two snails eating the cabbages. So he called the local pest control officer. Well, about two days later the man arrived in a little red van with CYMRU written on it. He went out into the garden and fifteen minutes after "STAMP!" he got one snail. Over he came a little later, panting: 'Sorry, Mr. Miller,' he said. 'I got one, but the other was too fast for me and got away.'"
And now it's my turn, so I stand up and I repeat my story about the local radio station: "This guy calls me this morning and he says 'Can you answer me a question about Welshmen?' and I say 'Sure: tell me what you want to know.' And he says 'Do Welshmen put a leek in their hats on St. David's Day?' and I say 'No. Would you put a leak in a bucket? In Wales it always rains on St. David's Day. We wouldn't put a leak in our hats. We'd all be running around with our heads wet. What do you think we are, stupid? But,' I tell him, 'I have met a few rugby players who have strapped leeks to their ankles.' 'Really?' he says, 'Now that's an interesting custom, why do they do that?' 'It's an old Welsh custome,' I say, 'It cures water on the knee!' I roar with laughter and he says 'Sir, be careful please, you're on the air!'"
Then the President stops talking the second time round and it’s time for the annual quiz. The question master wants everyone to know that he comes from merthyr Tydfil, though nobody can spell it, and he stands on his hind legs and brays in a voice like beaten brass: “Welsh bumper stickers for the winner!”
- And out come the questions –
- Who was the singing star born in Pontypridd in 1940?
- What is the Welsh dish caws pobi known as in English?
- What’s the name of the blind sailor in Under Milkwood?
- Who was the Welshman that won the world snooker championship?
- What is the name of the village drowned under the waters of Tryweryn Lake?
- Where in Wales is Welsh Whisky bottled?
- What novel, set in Wales, won the Booker Prize in 1987?
- Who was the author of that novel?
- What order of monks lives on Caldey Island?
- Where and what are Flatholm and Steepholm?
- Where is the Worm’s Head?
- What was the disaster that took place at Dolgarrog Gwynedd in November '25?
- Who was the Swansea singer and comedian knighted in 1981?
- Which town is the capital of the cockle trade?
- Who was the Canadian writer who published I Bought a Mountain in 1940?
- Name the two ice hockey teams playing in Wales?
- What rivers flow through Swansea, Cardigan, Brecon, Newtown, and Llangollen?
- What is porphyra umbilicalis?
- Name the six Welsh cathedral cities?
I sit there in silence, for I cannot answer these questions. But I can remember the little old ladies from Penclawdd – with their black shawls and their baskets and their donkeys and we used to meet them with their high hats in Swansea Market selling their cockles. And on Saturday mornings, my grandfather used to take me down to the market to work on the market stalls with his friends and I remember the greengrocer and the ice cream man. I often weighed 4 ounces of boiled sweets for a customer and I used to love the winter warmers, filled with cloves. But if I went back now, would anyone remember me? No, for nothing is ever the same. People have moved, their children have emigrated, and the old ones are long since dead. There’s no going back! And my hands are trembling. I cannot stop my hands from trembling! I pick up the questions and I read them again and again. But they have become meaningless and I do not know the answers.
Now the Welsh choir is standing to attention at one end of the room. Old men in white shirts; young women in white blouses; some of them with Welsh names and features; many of them never having seen Wales, though it has been there in their houses, in a picture on the wall, in an old black Bible kept in an upstairs drawer. And the choir sings Cwm Rhondda and Ar Hyd a Nos and the dining room guests are joining in and now the whole room now is singing or humming the tune and people are glad to pretend to be Welsh and are proud of the thimbleful of Welsh blood flowing through their veins. And now it's time for the answers to the questions.
So the people count their answers and the winner has six answers right and the runner-up has got only four correct. And this is what it is to be Welsh and to live in exile: it's to lose your friends and your parents and your memories. It’s to forget the place names and the sounds of the tiny winding rushing rivers and the bridges and the night climbing down the long dark evenings. It's to forget the taste of laverbread and teisen lap and Welsh cakes and crempog and caws wedi pobi except on special nights like these when, once a year, we gather and see old friends. For tonight, the songs of Wales are with us and every one is a poet and a singer and a comedian. Several people might even be wearing plastic leeks and tinfoil daffodils, though they might not know why they’re wearing them. One couple have painted dragons on their faces and tonight they’re Welsh and proud of it. We raise our glasses and our voices and we toast our heritage in water, wine, beer, and song.
But outside, on the long walk back to the places we now call home, there are dark shadows raised against the stars. And the shadows are those of the pithead wheels that go endlessly round and round and mercilessly grind the miners’ bones to dust. We climb into bed and we lie there dreaming. And as we dream, we saddle our blind pit ponies, and we charge into the gathering shadows. And as we charge, the shadows turn from pithead wheels, to windmills to giants that reach out and grasp for us and we no longer know whether they will throw us into the mud or lift us to the stars.
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