Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE WOMAN WHO SWALLOWED
THE BOOK OF KELLS

b y   i a n   w i l d   ~   e n n i s k e a n ,   w e s t   c o r k ,   i r e l a n d

THE DAY that Freya swallowed The Book of Kells was quite eventful. Travelling back to Cork on Larnród Eireann, she'd had some difficulty in concealing the fact that her stomach was sticking out at weird angles under the skin. She told an old man opposite that she was having a triangular baby. Talk about indigestion! When she belched, the air stank of old vellum. On reflection, she regretted hitting two security guards with a crowbar, but it was that or eating photographic facsimiles of the original. The taste wasn't the same.

Her oral fixation with religious texts started at the age of six when she had been made to eat Old Testament passages dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah for saying Shit. Her parents had a talent for imaginative punishment that comes only with genuine religious fanaticism. Freya was twenty by the time she discovered -- to her dismay -- that other sinners thought eating bibles was weird. By then it was too late. She couldn't kick the habit and she had developed a connoisseur's palate where religious texts were concerned.

It's fashionable these days to blame the parents, but they had only been doing their best. When every evening their daughter told them she was going upstairs to pray, they never thought for a moment that she was actually using these long hours of solitude to nibble at stolen religious tomes like an enormous mouse at a block of cheese. Freya would lie on her bed and gnaw, eyes bloodshot, mouth foaming, until she got an almighty rush from this frenzied mastication. The only trouble was, the longer she went on, the rarer were the manuscripts she had to devour to get a buzz. One thing had led to another until . . . well, The Book Of Kells had just seemed too mouth-watering to leave alone. Maybe it was an irreplaceable item of national heritage and of incalculable historical importance, but so was the potato, and people were always eating those.

When Freya arrived home from Dublin, her parents were arguing as usual. They hardly noticed her going upstairs, they were so busy throwing plates at each other. Once in the sanctuary of her room, Freya stripped off in front of the mirror. The book was taking a long time to digest. Her stomach still looked as if she'd swallowed a pyramid side-on. She knew she would have to lie low for a few days until the whole coloured manuscript had travelled the long sausage of her intestines. No clothes she tried on could adequately hide the bulge. She would have to feign illness. If her parents got a close look at her abdomen, they would assume she was pregnant and probably have her kneecapped by the local priest.

Freya was in bed when her parents finally looked in.

"You alright, girl?" her dad asked, a huge shard of ceramic still sticking out of his head like a broken satellite dish.

"I've got a bit of a funny tummy."

"It´s all those beans you eat, " said her mother with the sympathy of a firing squad. "There isn't a single line in the scriptures about eating baked beans. God's probably put a curse on your blasphemous stomach for not sticking to loaves and fish."

Her dad said: "We just saw on the telly. Someone's stolen The Book O'Kells from Trinity. Isn't that terrible?" He sneered: "Yer mammy thinks that God fancied a read, but when he put his big hand down to get it, he knocked the two security guards flat."

"I did not say that."

"You did! How could ye explain it otherwise? Would it be Christian fer God to knock 'em on the head on purpose?"

"T'would if they were shinners."

"Ah shut up, woman."

"I won't."

" Ye will."

Another argument began. Her parents went into their own room where there were more painful objects to throw. Dad's fist came through the wall.

"Missed," jeered her mother's distant voice.

But the dysfunctions of Freya's family life faded beside the peculiar sensations caused by the religious toxicity of The Book of Kells. As Freya lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, a hand holding a quill appeared and wrote: initium. The red word looked like it was drawn in blood. In fact drips of red seemed to appear across the plaster. Feeling distinctly unwell, Freya started to hear voices in her stomach whenever she hiccuped. The ceilings and walls had become a golden blaze of orpiment, and funny dogs were wriggling like snakes on the carpet. Then fish started to swim towards her over the bedspread. Fish! In early Christendom the fish was a symbol for Christ! It was time to crawl to the bathroom.

Fortunately, the argument between her parents was still raging -- though now in an unfamiliar Gaelic. Shooing half a dozen peacocks out of the bath, Freya locked the door and sat on the toilet. It was vital that she kept calm. She'd heard Religion was the opium of the masses, but this was ridiculous. She picked up the RTE Guide from where her father had dropped it. Even this was transmogrified. It was all in Latin. Gay Byrne looked all flat with feet stuck out at right angles. The text was in dense black calligraphy. Then Freya heard angry screaming from inside the toilet. She'd started to poo little brown monks!

The drenched scribes chased her from the bathroom, shouting at the top of their squeaky voices -- shaking fists that clenched miniature goose quills at her. No wonder her innards felt relieved. On the landing, Freya met her mother, who seemed to have lost a dimension and walked like Captain Pugwash.

"Mam! You've got a halo!"

Invisible angels sang in an eerie choir. Mam was too busy calling the last shots of her argument. She threw a copper pot into the bedroom. Freya heard it reverberate like a gong as it hit her father's head. Though everybody seemed to be speaking an ancient dialect, Freya could understand every word.

"Take that you oaf!"

She turned to her daughter.

"What are all these smelly little scribes doing all over the place?"

Then she noticed her daughter's belly.

"My God! You're pregnant!"

A posse of Lilliputian monks grabbed Freya's ankles.

"She's not with child!"

"She's with book!"

"She's a heathen!"

"She's swallowed a de luxe edition of the gospels!"

"She's swallowed The Book of Kells!"

Dad staggered like a cardboard cut-out onto the landing, still dazed from contact with the copper bowl. Both parents looked at their daughter's belly with horror. Aghast that their own daughter would be going to Hell.

"Freya!"

"You?"

The mammy fainted. Dad's two-dimensional halo went up and down rapidly above him, like an indecisive flying saucer trying to land. Kicking away the monks who were stabbing her shins with quills, Freya ran. Fortunately, her dad could only pursue her sideways.

Once she was out of the house Freya walked quickly down to the city centre. Everything seemed normal for a Friday evening. Except for the calligraphy street signs and restaurants advertising speciaIs of wild boar. She thought that probably a breath of fresh air was all she needed. It was merely a question of staying out until the effects of the swallowing wore off. Freya wished she'd never touched the stupid book. Maybe if she ate some kind of antidote it would help? A tabloid newspaper -- The Sun or something. Maybe if she could make herself sick, the visions would pass? She stopped at Patrick's Bridge to stick her fingers down her throat. Then she noticed something which made her forget all about prodding her tonsils: Viking longboats were sailing up the River Lee!

There must have been twenty of them, rowing up from Cork harbour. People congregated on the bridge to watch.

"Is this part of the Arts Festival?" somebody asked nearby.

"Stupid waste of Corporation money! Think how much it must have cost to make them boats and costumes, and hire all those actors for the night. And there's people homeless on the streets. Still, it’s very authentic. They look fierce. Are they real bows and arrows they're… urrghh!"

The man fell over with a feathered shaft in his chest. The crowd started to scream and panic as huge blonde-haired warriors bearing axes surged up the riverside steps and hacked at astonished tourists.

Freya legged it down Patrick Street. Behind her, Vikings roared and smashed the front windows of Easons. Crowds ran past her, wailing, panicking, bleeding. From behind a telephone kiosk, she watched Abrakedabra being looted and ravenous Vikings emerging with huge hunks of meat on a spit. Hundreds were dead and dismembered before Gards in squad cars screeched along Patrick Street. They'd barely stopped when axed windscreens burst like ponds getting bricked. Further down the road, the invaders were pillaging Argos. Vast muscular Norsemen came out loaded with colour TVs and hi-fis.

A distraught Freya ran home. She kept looking over her shoulder, knowing somehow in her guts, that the Vikings had come for her. She needed protection, but the authorities would be appalled by what she had done. They'd give her life and get doctors to remove the book's remains by caesarean.

Freya ran along her street, and she saw the front door of her house had been kicked off its hinges. Inside, the living room was wrecked. The telly screen looked like a newsreader had staged a breakout. But all the glass was inside. Religious icons had been yanked off the walls and snapped. In the middle of the carpet, the two-dimensional figures of her parents had been ripped to bits. Blood stained the floor like ink. Holding the disembodied head of her mother, Freya said:

"Mammy? What happened?"

Throughout the house tiny scribes had been squashed underfoot like turds.

In shock, Freya staggered up to her room, where on so many evenings she had secretly eaten psalms, hymn books, and tasty bits of Genesis. Her stomach was no longer angular and fat. It seemed the book had been absorbed, and had become part of her. A low, deathly choir was still faintly hanging on somewhere in the attic perhaps, but little men tugging each other's beards had vanished from the wallpaper. Crying blindly, Freya opened the door of her room and stumbled towards her bed. She knelt beside it, hands clenched in prayer. But a word lodged in her throat like a sharp bone. She could not utter the word: Christ.

Then from downstairs, she heard guttural voices shout: "Freya! Freya!"

She leapt over her bed, flattening herself against a wall. They had come for her! Expecting to be murdered or raped, she shrieked as a band of filthy Vikings entered her room and roared in triumph -- raising their bloodied axes to the roof. But unexpectedly, the winged helmets bowed. On their knees, the pagans announced that she was their Goddess.

A few hours later, looking over the side of a longboat, with a heap of plundered washing machines, microwaves and exercise bikes nearby, Freya watched the sun set on a calm sea. Her warriors rowed, their bare muscles glistening with sweat. In Nordic song, they were creating the saga of Freya: The Woman Who Swallowed The Book Of Kells. It all seemed so inevitable. So right. And though Freya stared long and deep into the darkening waters, she didn't see one single fish.

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