Prose

A Thing with Feathers: Part 1

5 March 2019

1.

“Mr Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –
If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –
I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn –”
          Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, April 1862

So. Emily Dickinson died in Amherst Massachusetts, 1886, in the same house she was born. The physician attending her had diagnosed Bright’s disease, inflammation of the kidneys and accompanying cardio-problems, as the cause of death. She had instructed her sister, Lavinia, to burn their correspondence.

At her funeral Thomas Higginson—the critic/radical abolitionist with whom Dickinson had ambivalently shared her poetry—read Emily Brontë’s ‘No coward soul is mine’. When Emily’s sister Charlotte discovered the poetry and insisted on publication to support their increasingly destitute family, she was horrified but acquiesced. They appeared with Charlotte and Anne’s work under masculine pseudonyms: Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, in accordance with the letters of their first names. Only two copies were sold.

Anne and Emily, as children, created a shared imaginary world called Gondal. During their lives, and at different ages, they created several such games/worlds. First, the Glasstown confederacy, their older siblings joining in: island nations, like Yorkshire, derived from a box of tin-soldiers given to their brother, named after British luminaries like Wellington, the explorer William Parry and Arctic navigator John Ross. Each capital was called Glasstown. Charlotte describes,

Mine was the prettiest of the whole & perfect in every part. Emily’s was a Grave looking fellow we called him Gravey. Anne’s was a queer little thing very much like herself. [H]e was called Waiting Boy”…

This later became “Angria”, a world/game in which the Duke of Wellington and his large sons were heroes. Anne and Emily—as the youngest—were often given subordinate roles.

They staged a rebellion, and christened the world of Gondal, for the two of them. Eventually, their games—like people in ancient myth—transformed into prose, poetry and diary entries, and have been called early examples of speculative fiction, coded auto/biography and Real Person fan fics. The prose is lost, but poems from Gondal survive. Apparently, but it’s not sure in any case, Anne and Emily played Gondal to the ends of their lives.

2.

We pause, listening politely to them finish, waiting for Dominos and soft drink. We offer our pronouns, however many. We talk about gender assignation and our characters. On the table is a mess of D&D sheets and prismatic, n-sided dice, glittering higher-dimensions of geometry. This is the pre-session, we agreed, in that no game-play happens. We simply describe our characters and the Dungeon Master, after outlining the fictional multiverse of the campaign/story, will help us map how they relate to one another, which is a hassle for Emily Dickinson, who is present, waiting for introduction. The DM ssshhhes, lowers the lights, cinematically but subtly, as if slightly embarrassed:

So. The premise is there are three planar components to the multiverse. The inner planes are the houses of elementals: dimensions of the spirits, and energies that set the universe going like a fat gold watch. There are dimensions here for the elements, for matter and antimatter, and however many smaller planes for all the forces that roll through the cosmos.

The outer planes, by contrast, are governed by conscious thought and belief, organised by alignment—imagine Good and Evil, Law and Chaos on x/y axis—into a Great Wheel, like a flat earth resting on a turtle. The Outlands, the wastes of true neutrality, sit at the centre, with all the other refractions of the outer planes—the lawful good Mt Celestia, the chaotic evil Abyss, the neutral evil Hades, etc.—radiating from it like individual spokes, or beams of light. Have you read The Dark Tower, by Stephen King? It’s like that, without cowboys.

In the centre of the Outlands—residing at every point in space, the circumference of which is nowhere—is an infinite mountain, above which hovers a torus. On its interior side is Sigil (pronounced “Siggle”), the city of doors and nexus of the planes. I haven’t seen the ending of Interstellar, but apparently it employs a nth-dimensional quantum realm that transcends space and time, and Sigil is like that. It bridges the material and immaterial planes, the real and unreal. Presiding over it is the Lady of Pain, a god-like figure who has outlawed the worship of gods. The outer planes are strewn with the corpses of gods skewered with needles and blades like the ones that form her crown. Every plane and world is linked to Sigil: there is a door from which you could go from a high-fantasy, Lord of the Rings allegory to a sci-fi future to a world where the Glasstown confederacy, Angria and Gondal all exist in physical space, in the same way England exists, or Emily Bronte’s poetry does, or the colour red.

The last is prime material plane aka the real world. We can safely ignore it for the time being, except that we are sitting there currently, drinking monster energy drinks for spoons, discussing our D&D characters.

3.

Andi (she/her) is a druid whose mums run a local tavern and who taught her to supervise the natural order and defend it from imbalance, even in Sigil, a steampunk nightmare. Drimlock (he/him) is a dwarven bard and soft-boy guitarist, the kind that plays ‘Yellow’ on Swanston Street, on the Chinatown entrance in the style of Passenger and Ed Sheeran, in sincere, recurrent pronouns. He performs in Andi’s mum’s tavern and hates a fantasy band called The Smiths, led by a fantasy person called Morrissey. Kazimir (they/them) is an arrakocra—a bird person, if angels had bird features as well as wings—assassin who drinks to forget at Andi’s mum’s tavern and is Drimlock’s long suffering room-mate, alongside 12 roosters, who between them have emptied their tenement. This is a running gag.

We decide Emily Dickinson, the bard (she/her), arrives in Sigil at the Slags—imagine the Texas-sized heap of garbage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or the burning tyre piles in America that never go out. We discuss how she came to be there. Did she fall asleep in Amherst one day and come to in a literal hell-scape? It could be an astral projection of hers, she could be dead or dying, did she find a portal to Sigil from our world? Is this Emily Dickinson from our world, or an adjacent one, of minute changes? Or a resident of the Slags who—for whatever reason—passes out one day and awakens with the memories and writings of Emily Dickinson from Earth lodged in their brain? Are they recognisably who we’d point to and say “Emily Dickinson”? They may not even be human. We wonder how long it would take Emily Dickinson to acclimatise to Sigil. What happens that Emily Dickinson becomes a D&D character? Someone at the table mentions Gondal in passing, and the idea of coded biography, through the medium of Shatter —a spell dealing 3d8 thunder damage— imagined worlds and charisma modifiers.

So. We give her a minimum of two weeks, in a shelter for denizens of the Hive—Sigil’s slums—without housing. She makes a friend named Veronique and is discharged, found by Andi’s mum and passed on to Rosa, of the Black Rose Anarchist bookstore, which we name together. She writes poetry and violent agitprop for a faction called “The revolutionary league” as well as journalism for a New York Times style newspaper. Even if she didn’t think she were dreaming, the only frame of reference she’d have is literature, fantasy or no. She goes on a date with Veronique and runs into everyone at Andi’s Mums’ bar.

This is where we break for pizza.


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