To my wife
Sonnet, to Beryl.
Sing to the Lord a glad new Song
Ar Lan y Mor
Jesus we have come to honour
The Night that is Different
Lady of Foxdale (extract)
Daughter of the King (Extract)
The Night That is Different by Malcolm Cowen
"If you seek his monument, look around you"
Epitaph to Sir Christopher Wren
He was dying alone. Outside death waited in the poisoned wind that howled
across the land where no life had been for a thousand years, and inside
him death grew slowly. He knew he was dying, but the knowledge had only
driven him to work harder, more furiously, seeking the cure not for his
own death, but for the dead planet outside.
To him it sometimes seemed as if he had always been here, as if all the
rest of his life was nothing more than a dream. In fact it was only fourteen
months since he had first heard of the project, and he himself was only
26 years old.
He was not a stranger to death, he had seen it many times since his ninth
birthday, but tonight the first sight of it came back clearly to his mind,
its horror unchanged by the years. It had been a Friday night, and he
was with his father and brother coming home. They were walking, because
his father was strict about that, and he had dawdled behind on some pretext
or other, as small boys do, while his father and brother walked on ahead.
It was that which saved him. The other two had just walked out from the
far end of the tunnel under the monorail when half a dozen dark figures
jumped them from above. It was a Purity Band. They must have been lying
in wait, knowing that it was Friday, knowing that they would have to pass
He saw the bodies afterward, the Purists must have used everything they
had, sticks, knives, broken bottles, anything that could maim or kill.
He had hidden in the shadow of a doorway and listened, frozen with fear,
while they boasted to each other about their "victory", as the
Party newspapers would have called it. He thought that they might have
looked for him as well, but gradually the sound of their boasting disappeared
into the distance. Eventually he had come out from hiding and run home
to tell his mother. Only afterwards, he remembered, had he broken down
He was past tears now, but he could still remember other times when he
had cried; when his mother had died of overwork, and a lack of simple
drugs any citizen would have had immediately; when he himself had fallen
foul of a Purity Band who had been in a good mood, and only beaten him
up a little; when he had come home to find his furniture and clothes dumped
in the street for anyone to ransack, and someone else installed in his
flat, and known he dare not protest, he had no rights.
But he could also remember the tears he and all his people had cried at
the Deliverance, when the new ruler's coup d'etat had destroyed the old
regime and the tyranny that had gone with with it. He could remember hearing
the Edict of Tolerance read out over the radio. His sisters had cried
tears of joy, and he found that his eyes were full as well.
As soon as the restrictions were lifted he had applied for a place at
the University. In fact he had been the first one of his people to be
accepted. There had been problems over diet, special arrangements had
had to be made, because he could not eat the normal food of most of his
He had done well in biochemistry, and it was as a direct result that he
had been invited to join the Project. There were many others better qualified,
but none of his people. He had been approached at first with the general
proposal, the public version, of finding a new home for their people,
where they could have a nation of their own again. Only later after he
had accepted and joined the Project did he learn the full truth. The "new"
home was not to be new, but the old home, the planet from which his ancestors
had fled a thousand years ago, during the Last War, socalled because it
had destroyed all life on the planet in a senseless conflict with their
own neighbours and nearest kin, and created the desolation that now lay
outside his window.
The aim of the project was simple. To clean away the poisonous waste,
and to make the land clean and wholesome and pleasant again. His task
would be to open the way. The only poisons left in the atmosphere were
chemical. The biological had become extinct, the radioactives had decayed,
even most of the more deadly and complex nerve gases had decayed. Only
the poisoned atmosphere and the dead soil were left, and it was theoretically
possible to breed mutated strains of plants which could survive the poisons,
and break them down, cleaning the air and soil, and providing the basis
for an ecology. Reclamation would follow, slowly but surely, provided
he could turn theory into practice, and make the dead land bloom.
Outside the window now he could see the first signs of his success. Rows
of plants, the front rows mostly withered and dead, but a few still green
and struggling, while towards the back, a group of plants grew vigorously,
dark green leaves forming a small bush, and in the heart of the bush the
first red blooms beginning to show. Where once these hardiest plants had
pioneered, eventually the less hardy ones would be able to grow, and after
them, when they had cleaned the soil, and built up a first layer of humus,
other plants could grow, and then as the air became cleaner, animals would
be introduced, and then his people would return and the old promise would
be fulfilled again.
And he would see none of it, because by then he would be dead, and others
would inherit the land. According to the doctors he had about six to eight
weeks to live, no more.
"If we could have treated it a few years ago", one of them had
said, and looked professionally sad, as if it was just bad luck that a
few years ago he had not been a citizen, and therefore had no medical
treatment, apart from that prescribed for his people in their own Law.
The greatest irony was that it was only that sentence of death which had
made success possible. At first after discovering his condition the Project
Team had reacted, as was to expected, by looking for a replacement. For
his part he had spent four days and nights trying to drink himself insensible,
to forget that in a few months he would be dead.
On the fourth day he had been thrown out of the last pub, as a drunken
nuisance and ended up wandering around the town crying to himself. When
he finally sobered up enough to recognise his whereabouts, he was back
in his old childhood surroundings. In front of him was the tunnel under
the old monorail. The track was rotting now, the line had been closed
down some years earlier, but the tunnel was still open. In front of him
was the house in whose doorway he had hidden that night. The roof had
fallen in, and the windows had no glass, but the doorway was still intact.
He stood and looked at it as if he were in a dream, reaching out to touch
the words on the plaque beside the door, until suddenly he came to himself,
with the realisation that he was stiff with cold, and with standing too
still too long. The sun had risen, and all the shadows in the old ruined
house had gone.
It was as if the shadows had gone from his mind as well. He went back
to his flat, cleaned himself up, drank black coffee until his head cleared,
then went back to Project Control. It took him a week of arguing and persuading
before they agreed to take him back. In the end they only gave in when
he pointed out that since they would not need to supply food and fuel
for a two-way trip, there would be room for more experimental plants,
and so more chance of success. He could transmit his results back, and
the next manned expedition could salvage the ship. They were reluctant,
but they had no alternative. There was literally no other person among
his people with the same qualifications, and to choose an outsider would
The doctors had given him 10 months of active life, then gradually increasing
disability and pain for two months, then the end. At peace now he had
watched the extra boxes of seeds and seedtrays being loaded. Among those
last boxes he now knew had been the seeds of the dark green bush with
red flowers, which grew outside his window. It was not a plant they had
many hopes for, but thousands of years ago the robe of his people's High
Priests and the pillars of the their temple had been decorated with it,
so they included it as a last experiment. In the end it had been the one
wholly successful experiment, but that one was enough.
Throughout the flight he worked from waking till sleeping, driven by his
all too literal deadline. Once in orbit he worked for 36 hours nonstop
collating the old maps with the torn and ruined land below him. In theory
any place on the planet would serve. In practice for him and for all his
people only one place, one small country on the whole globe would do.
He located the general area quickly, to the east of a large inland sea.
It took a little longer to fit together the more detailed geography. He
was looking for a hill, with the ruins of a city on it. It had had many
names in the past, but he thought of it not by the common name, but by
the name it had been given back at the dawn of his people's history, Moriah.
He found the place at last, but even the ruins of the city had decayed,
leaving only a grey-brown cloak of sand and rubble. In two places only
was there any change in the desolation, one was an old wall which had
withstood the ages, and still rose its massive blocks against the rubble.
The other place was by a skull-shaped rocky outcrop to the north of the
dead city, here there seemed to be less rubble, and the high ground offered
He chose this as his test site, and carefully planted the seeds he had
brought so far. He made for himself an airtight shelter in one of the
caves in the side of the rocky knoll, and he waited, watching the new
life grow outside, and knowing death was growing inside him.
Now at last his work was complete. His report had been sent, and there
was nothing more to do. Soon the great seed-bearing ships would come,
provided by a government who wanted to wipe out the guilt of centuries
of persecution. Armies of robots would spread out with vast stores of
the one successful strain of seed. Later they would go out again with
seeds of the other plants which had shown some promise in his trial beds.
The work he had done would be repeated on a scale a million times greater,
and within 50 years the air would become breathable again. Then his people
could return to build a new home on the land they had redeemed.
Except of course that in a few months he would be dead, and he would see
none of it.
Since that night by the ruined house by the monorail he had often thought
about his death. He knew his supplies would outlast him, but he also knew
his last weeks would be painful. Properly speaking, suicide was forbidden
to his people, but the doctors back at Project Control had given him a
small box with three small capsules in it. "Any one", they said,
"will be enough". He had kept them, and decided long ago how
he would use them. Today was the most important day in his people's calendar,
it was also his chosen day.
He had woken at his normal time, and performed his morning chores for
the last time. He completed his log, giving details of what he intended
to do, then set about the preparation for his last meal. He took meat
from the freezer (it should have been fresh, but never mind), and the
flat cakes of bread. While the meat cooked he took the remaining seeds
and filled his pockets with them, then he laid the places at the table
in the proper fashion.
Before he ate, he dressed himself in his protective suit, leaving only
the helmet tipped back, but otherwise ready to leave at a moments notice.
He ate slowly tasting the bitter herbs and the heavy bread. It felt strange.
He had never before eaten this meal alone, even during the worst of the
persecution they had always managed to meet if not as a family, at least
as guests of another family, to eat together and to hear the ancient ritual
of words said, question and answer. Now he could only repeat them in his
mind, until he came to the last words, the wish to meet next year, in
their old home. He was the first in a thousand years to gain that wish
and to claim his inheritance. At that point he broke down and wept for
Afterwards he cleared away, and tidied up, them picked up the small box
of capsules, and walked out of the ship. As he closed the airlock door
he reached out and touched the engraved panel beside the door, and repeated
to himself for the last time the words it bore.
He had chosen that if he must die, then at least he rather have his body
serve some useful purpose, with its abundance of organic chemicals, by
serving as a source of food for the plants, so he walked towards where
the ground seemed best. As he walked he scattered seeds around him.
When he reached the spot he had chosen, sheltered from the worst winds,
he stopped and took out all the remaining seeds and spread them around
himself. Then he took the box of capsules, and placed it on the ground,
while he took off his protective suit, keeping only the breathing mask
and air supply. The air stung his flesh, but it did not matter for a few
moments. Then he knelt down on the ground, and looked around him for the
last time. He prayed briefly to the God of his people. He thanked him
for his inheritance around him, asked him to accept his imperfect sacrifice,
and to let his mercy pass over the land, to heal it.
Then he threw his mask away, leaned forward and took up a capsule. He
bent down and kissed the land on which he sat, put the capsule in his
mouth and bit hard.
The settlers came years later. They wore no protective suits, only breathing
masks, for the air was cleaner now. They found the ship and read the log,
then they went outside to look for the body.
Beyond the ship was a small plot full of plants of all kinds, with prominent
among them a bush with dark green leaves and small red flowers. To one
side a trail of vegetation led away toward a rise in the ground, which
stood a little apart from the bulk of the hill on which the old city had
had been built. They followed the line of vegetation and at its far end
found the caves and the remains of the airtent. But there was no sign
of a body, except that in the shadow of the knoll, on a patch of better
ground rose the largest clump of bushes of all.
The leader of the group paused for a while, then gave certain orders to
one of his crew. That night the group departed. They took with them the
spaceship, and a memory; they left behind them a marker stone, with the
dead man's name on it. They did not place the marker by the spaceship,
they left it by the rocky outcrop, where all around the marker the bright
red flowers of the pomegranate bushes danced for joy in the sweetening
wind, before the God of Heaven, in the city of David, in Jerusalem, in
the land of Moriah.
Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleylot!
"Why is this night different?"
"We were once slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, but the Lord our God brought
us out from there with a mighty hand,"
From the Sedar - for Passover Eve.