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I am spelling this the way it sounds, though I suppose, too, it might, in English, be spelled with a 'K'. The particular expression, above, which I have chosen to refer to the phenomenon, antedates English, at least as we know it. It derives from some other language, I think a very old language, perhaps from some predecessor of Danish, or from Jutish, or Saxon, or, perhaps more likely, from one of the older Celtic tongues. It seems clear that its original language is no longer spoken, but the word has lingered, or survived, threading its way toward us through various languages, most recently a Scottish Gaelic, until it nestles now in English, at least locally, almost as though hiding, a word never forgotten, occasionally recalled, and appearing now and again, though commonly only in whispers, as among my current neighbors, who are simple, ignorant, sea-faring village folk. So, you see, we do not know where the word came from, that is, in the beginning. It may have been coined hundreds of years ago, perhaps thousands of years ago, perhaps from a time when Stonehenge lay in the distant future, by shell peoples, or by the paddlers of round, leather boats, the latter gathering and fishing near the shores of what we now think of as the western North Atlantic, but it is heard, too, interestingly, but as one would suppose from linguistic affinities, in this case old Gaelic, to the west, at the edges of the Irish Sea, again, of course, among sea-faring village folk. It seems to be known in various places elsewhere in northern Europe, in the Wirral in Wales, for example, and perhaps anywhere here in the north, anywhere where there are simple folk, ignorance, superstition, and dark caves, washed by tidal floods, narrow waterways, cold waters, unseen, treacherous currents, lonely pebbled beaches, extended rocky shores, cruel, shadowed inlets. So it is an old word and seems to have been used, and is occasionally still used, though seldom before outsiders, to refer to the phenomenon. There are some more modern equivalents, too, but it seems to me more appropriate to use the older word, as do the villagers. The older word is more darkly reverent, I think; it is perhaps thus closer to the phenomenon.
So that is the word we will use. Calpa.
In English I do not think we have another word as well suited to the phenomenon. So we shall use it.
Too, I think it may prefer that word.
I find that I prefer it.
It is the case, however, or so it seems to me, that there is another word, if one may use that expression, in some language, a language quite unlike those with which you are likely to be familiar, for the phenomenon, a word in its own tongue, so to speak. In that language, in some sound, or something analogous to a sound, possibly even in some alphabet or syllabary, or in something analogous to such things, it occurs.
I have heard it, so to speak.
How might stars, or hurricanes, or stones, or tornadoes, or storms, or swift currents of water, lurking beneath a placid surface, speak? Such things do not, of course, speak, but, if they could, how might they speak? Could we hear them? Not the fury, not the inert passivity, not the incandescent tumult, but the words, the meaning? Could we hear it? These are analogies, of course, and doubtless not all that helpful. I am sorry. There seems to be little help for that. Still, suppose that there were things quite unlike ourselves, dark things, hard to touch, which could come and go, and were not much like things with which we were familiar, not like stones, and storms, and stars, but things distant from us, things alien to us, and that they could speak to one another, though we could not hear them. Does the ant hear the declamations of the market, do the flies understand the noises of the abattoir, or merely dumbly rejoice in the welcome, red feasting?
Who knows in what worlds we live?
Sometimes it seems to me I have access to that language, but only in dreams. To be sure, this could be madness. Surely I remember the hoofprints on the beach. They were real enough. Surely I remember what happened to the room. That was real enough, too. Certainly, at best, these hints, or recollections, or songs, or cries, are remote. More interestingly the sounds do not seem to be those natural to a human throat. Too, which mostly puzzles me, is that they do not seem to resemble the sounds of birds, or animals, either, with which I might be familiar.
Sometimes I think these things, the whispers, to be of the nature of the footfalls of spiders, but, of course, one cannot hear such things. Though doubtless they make a sound. Loud enough to the spider. Loud enough doubtless to the entangled fly, its senses strained, listening. At other times I think perhaps it sounds like darkness, but darkness makes no sound, not in any normal sense, not as we think of it. But if it could make a sound, as it encroaches, as it comes closer and closer, perhaps it would be like that. Sometimes it is easier to understand, like the tiny crackle of leaves in a forest, as though stirred by the movement of something near us, unseen, or like wind, as it moves about among cliffs, or prowls in caves, near the shore.
Those things are easier to understand.
I suppose I cannot make this clear. I do not think there is any help for that.
It is said that one cannot imagine anything an acquaintance with which one has not had first. One can imagine the golden mountain, of course, though one had never seen a golden mountain, but that idea, allegedly, is the combination of the ideas of gold and mountain, with both of which we are familiar. There is, of course, Hume's missing shade of blue, that shade, though not hitherto encountered, whose appearance might be conjectured from those of previously experienced contiguous shades. But even that is controversial. It seems plausible that, in the sensory modality at least, one could not imagine a sensory continuum unlike any hitherto experienced. The child who is blind from birth may become a physicist and understand better than many of the sighted the causes of color, the properties of surfaces, the agitation of atmospheres, the physics of illumination, familiarizing himself with abstractions, befriending equations, and such, but he will never see the blue of the sky, the red of the rose.
But I think I have seen this thing, or heard it, so to speak, this different thing, this dark thing, which is hard to touch, which can come and go. How this can be I have no idea.
The villagers, of course, at least some of them, usually the very old ones, insist that it can be sensed, at least at times, though what it is they sense they do not know. "It is here," they will whisper. Or they will say, "It is there, now, down on the beach." And then the villagers will hurry home, close the shutters, and bolt the doors.
One man had claimed to see it, last year, at night, in the moonlight on the beach, a fisherman, but his description made little sense. Perhaps one sees it as only one can see it, not perhaps as it is, but as it appears within one's own categories, textured, colored and shaped, tamed, enculturated, to reside within comforting fences, those of a required, quotidian familiarity. The man died at sea.
Let me tell you about the phenomenon, or, better perhaps, about the legends.
We will call it the calpa, as that word has been used, and, I think, for that of which I would speak.
It is a strange feeling, rather perhaps as though the ant suddenly understood the speech rushing over him, like clouds on a suddenly intelligible, stormy morning, or the flies suddenly grasping the meaning of the squeals and the blood.
The thing could understand itself, of course. But how could one of us, you, or me, understand it, we a strutting mammal vain in our costume of bones and blood, dragging our murderous past behind us, like a shadow, denied, not looked at. One does not look back. Why should the phenomenon seek us out, if it does? Does it sense an affinity there? Does it need us? And, if so, for what? Or is it a vengeful, malicious, tormented thing? Or is it innocent, carelessly, unwittingly, destroying things in its passage? Is it to be blamed, any more than an avalanche, or deep, chill water? Any more than a force of nature? For I am not like the villagers. I am not superstitious. I do not think it is evil, or a demon or a devil, a preternatural being of some sort. I am sure that it is a part of nature, a nature unfamiliar to us perhaps, but doubtless with its own conditions and laws. Nature generates only her own. But how much of nature do we know? We reach out, apprehensive and curious within our cabinet of sensations, and extend our fingertips, and touch nature, but what part of it, how much of it? I think only a small part. And the phenomenon, too, I think, restless, raging, within its lair, sometimes puts out its paw, and touches nature, too, but perhaps another part. But sometimes I think that the fingertips and the paw, occasionally, perhaps at a doorway, at a narrow place, touch one another. I have felt it touch my shoulder. Heavy, and cold. And I cried out. Too, it must, for a single moment, have felt my fingers, reaching past the paw, or hand, in its flowing, freezing, cold, salty mane. For it drew back, and was gone.
Why had I reached toward it?
Why had I not recoiled, and shrunk away?
And had it reached out, to touch me?
Had it thought to announce its presence?
Its space is doubtless as real to it as ours is to us. And perhaps it shares our space, but we do not, entirely, share its.
Its space may enclose ours, as the sea encloses the land.
My grandfather spent time in this village, on holiday, coming up from London, and my father, too. I suppose it is a family tradition, or such. It seemed the thing to do, to come here.
They, my grandfather, my father, never told me the stories, if they knew them. I think they did. I heard them only here, and in the third time I came, last fall.
The villagers, you see, though kindly enough, and friendly enough, at least on the whole, tend to be a close lot, and reticent. I suppose this is not unlike villagers in many places. They are hard to get to know at first. Typically, they tend to put aside, or resist, questions. Sometimes it seems they are suspicious of outsiders. They know their own, keep to their own, fend against the outside, and keep their secrets.
Will the ant go about its business, as usual, will the fly continue to feed? Yes, after a time, for the ant is an ant, and the fly a fly.
And so, too, we, in the village, will continue about our business. It is not clear there is anything else to do.
It comes from the waters, it is said, and reenters them. Normally, it does little harm.
I am sure it bears you no ill will.
The owl bears the mouse no hostility. Perhaps it is even benevolently disposed toward it, or, at the least, regards it with a benign moral neutrality. The lion does not begrudge the antelope its grass. The wolf does not bestir itself to agitate against the lamb. In nature each has its own place.
Some think the calpa is evil. But it is not evil. I can assure you of that. But then neither is the owl evil, nor the lion or the wolf. Nature is not evil, but it is itself. That is its reality. It is merely that its moral categories, if it has them, are not yours.
The calpa bears you no ill will. It is, however, territorial, and will kill to conceal its presence.
It would be well for you to understand that.
No one knows where lies the house of the calpa.
Also it must breed, and seeks shallower spaces, waters where first, perhaps, it was spawned.
Coming back, one supposes, in each generation, from unimaginable journeys in alien seas.
I think men project their own fears on the calpa, that they tend to see it, or understand it, in terms of their own categories. But their categories, I fear, are not those of the calpa..
I remember the raving, the incoherence of the fisherman, drunken, ranting in the pub, crying "fishlike and human," who later drowned.
But there are many descriptions of the calpa. Crustacean like, the bird with human eyes, the cat, the subtle serpent.
Let the ant and the fly understand men as best they can, but they can do so only as they can.
They can have only the ant's and the fly's understanding of man. How adequate can that be? Adequate enough perhaps, for the ant and the fly.
It was four weeks ago, early in the morning, well before breakfast, come down from the house, that I was wandering on the beach, considering an article on the difficulties of economic calculation in guild socialism, when, bemused, the tide recently ebbed, I noted a set of unusual marks in the sand. It was not clear how they might have been formed, if not as some sort of hoax. More than anything they resembled the prints of a gigantic animal, hoofed, a horse or something horselike. I traced them back to where they seemed to emerge actually from the waters. That seemed to me puzzling. I supposed that the horse, for such it seemed to be, must have raced along the beach, and, here and there, entered into shallow water, run there, and then come back on the beach, this accounting for its seeming emergence from the water. I tried to confirm this line of reasoning by walking along the beach, and locating an entry point from the shore, but, in the time I was willing to give it, I found no such sign of entering the water. But, as hunger began to tell on me, I retraced my steps, to return to the house where I was staying, the same, incidentally, where my grandfather, and my father, long ago, had stayed. Even to the same room, with the single, large window. The hoofprints, for such I supposed they must be, if not a hoax, were those of an animal, unshod. The few horses in the village, except for colts, were, as far as I knew, shod. The prints, as I have said, were large, and, to speak honestly, seemingly much too large for a horse, as we understand such animals, too large even for one of the gigantic beasts bred for heavy haulage. They were also deep, very deep, the beach gouged. I wondered at how weighty the beast, and how swift, sharp and terrible must have been the hoofs which could have made such marks. Could sand have bled, the beach would have been covered with blood.
It seemed as though a gigantic beast, a horse, or some hoofed, horselike thing, had raced along the beach in the night.
Looking more closely, I discerned, then with amusement and chagrin, that the putative stride of the beast was incongruous, the distances between prints, and this convinced me of the joke some prankster, doubtless one of the village boys, had seen fit to play on the well-dressed, formal Londoner, the naive stranger, come here again, uninvited, on holiday.
The prints were so far separated that it seemed the beast, between its gougelike strikings of the earth, must almost have flown across the beach, so far apart were the impacts of those mighty hoofs.
Surely the hoax might have been more cleverly perpetrated.
What a fool I had been!
I looked about, and called out, but no one answered. It seemed likely to me that the lad, or fellow, responsible for this hoax would have enjoyed witnessing my concern.
I clapped my hands, and laughed, saluting whoever might be watching. I had been gullible for a moment.
But no one revealed his presence.
No one stood up, and waved.
A small scuttling thing concealed within its carapace, disturbed, moved backward toward the water. It avoided one of the deep, dark marks. I continued to look about, but saw no one. Sometimes the cat from Hill House, where I had my room, followed me. She was a golden-haired Persian, odd for the area, a stray, come in from somewhere. She had, as cats will, settled in at Hill House, adopting it as her own, apparently recently, a few days before I arrived. I was fond of her. Guilelessly ruthless, affectionate, innocently merciless, loving, agile, graceful, furtive, stealthy, beautiful, watchful, she had all the sinuous charm, the patience and cunning, the moral freedom, of her breed. I sometimes bought fish in the market, putting it in a pan near the house for her. But I did not see her among the rocks, or on the nearest, graveled path, that which I had descended to the beach. A bird flew by, skimming the waters. Some cattle would be grazing, above, I supposed, somewhere. I supposed, too, high above, in its hole in the turf would be one or more waiting, coiled serpents, harmless things, waiting for the heat of the day.
It was a peaceful morning.
Excerpted from The Calpa & Notes Pertaining to a Panel in Salon D by John Norman. Copyright © 2011 John Norman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted October 30, 2014