Saturn Devouring His Sons

I kept a long knife and a torch at my bedside as I waited breathlessly for him in the dark.

He casts a vast shadow over this world. We shudder through bedtime stories and make paintings, statues, and build shrines dedicated to his likeness. The few who have lived to see him say that he is a long-limbed giant with wild lidless eyes and a mane of pallid hair, his skin translucent and blue-veined.

They say he lurks beneath the earth’s surface, scratching and clawing through tunnels of his making with his taloned fingernails. They say that this world is his dominion, that the White Titan is our King. At night he takes command of his kingdom, ripping the ground and buildings asunder, and snatching men, women, and children from beds and cradles. Some claim that he kills anyone or anything that might one day threaten his crown. Others whisper that he murders without reason, that he is mad, capricious, and indiscriminate.

It seems then as if our whole world is deaf to anguished cries. That we are all rendered impotent from fear. That rather than confront the darkness that lives beneath the world’s surface we choose instead to hold inefficacious vigils for the victims to mask our cowardice and failings.

I would lay sleepless in my bed, exhausted and terrified in the flickering darkness. I would imagine the floor rumbling beneath me, the boards breaking apart like an insect’s hive. I would see the pale malevolent fingers emerging from the dirt, groping blindly around the crumbling edifice of my house. Every evening my floor would rupture to reveal a subterranean hell made of raw bleeding flesh and gaping bloodshot eyes. Repeatedly I fell into fissures filled with his hot fetid breath and gnashing gore-stained teeth.

By day I beseeched the village elders for anything that might possibly defeat the Pale King. They laughed their sad laughter and shook their frail heads. One cannot defeat the Pale King, they said, for he is the all-father and the devourer of everything. He is the lord of time, and he shall inform you when yours is up. I told them that I could not live like this, that I would not have my time dictated to me. I vowed to locate the White Titan of my own volition, to meet his deranged gaze on my terms, and, if possible, discern his true nature.

I dug for days, excavating deeper and deeper into the very bowels of the Earth. I discovered a tunnel the size of a cathedral, filled with the putrid aromas of faeces, rot, death, and human skulls that protruded from giant casings, their mouths smiling in the lantern’s light, and I knew that I had entered his domain. When I finally readied myself, I forced myself onwards to walk the pungent path.

My legs were slow and aching when I heard the White Titan, chewing listlessly in the dark. I heard the bones snapping and breaking between his teeth and low defeated moans emanating from his still-living prey. I unsheathed my knife as I crept closer and lifted my lantern high to fully behold the Pale King.

He was everything that they claimed he would be – immense and malformed, his skin as white as a maggot with claws like a mole, his hair a colourless cascade. In his hands he held a blooded torso, with two legs performing a futile death-throes dance. As the light exposed the White Titan, his eyes bulged with feral alarm, and I saw our ruler for what he truly was – craven, paranoid, and ashamed.

He screamed, and I screamed with him. As our voices meshed and melded, they seemed almost to create whole other worlds within that forsaken symphony: I felt I could hear every war ever fought or that ever would be, and the detonation of weapons of mass destruction obliterating millions. I heard the furious voices of innocent people betrayed and murdered by the very people entrusted to protect them, and the desperate sound of refugees escaping carpet bombings abandoned to drown in distant seas.

Jake Kendall

3 Questions for Jake

What was your process for creating this work?

In the depths of lockdown I spent much time reading about the Greek myths through various forms and mediums. The titan Saturn deposes his father Uranus and is cursed to suffer the same fate. In the way that many mythological beings fulfil their dramatic destinies by attempting to deny them, Saturn begins to eat his children until finally, his wife succeeds in hiding one, Jupiter, who usurps his father.

In his older age Francisco Goya retired from court painting and moved to the outskirts of Madrid to live a hermetic life. He covered his walls with a series of ambiguous and menacing works known collectively as the Black Paintings. One of them depicted Saturn Devouring His Sons. The work is one of the most disturbing images in art; Goya diverges from established convention by depicting the victim as fully-grown and bloodied and the titan wide-eyed and deranged. Critics have come to see his Saturn as standing for paranoid authority, and his children, the victim, as the innocent people that suffer as a consequence of the greed, incompetence, and hubris of the ruling classes.

Goya uses the myths of the Greeks to talk about Spain during the Napoleonic era and the endless disasters of war that he witnessed first-hand. Similarly I wanted to continue this storytelling tradition by asking what would Goya have to say about the world today?

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

Flash fiction is a form that allows great freedom for prose writers. To me, flash is almost an entirely different form of writing to short stories and novels. Because the works are short and self-contained, writers can explore ideas that would become exhausting in longer form storytelling, and can push form and language in experimental ways. In some ways, a work of flash can seem almost like the nexus point between poetry and short story writing.

What is the significance of this work to you?

I spent several years working in a museum of art and archaeology, immersing myself in antiquity and painting. As a writer, I often find inspiration from the rich history of visual art and try to find interesting ways to make prose and painting talk to each other. I have written stories that attempt Cubist prose styles, several surrealist and existential nightmares, and stories that are washed in strong suggestions of colour and mood. At the moment, I am working on a collection of short stories that each engage with some aspect of the visual arts, a collection that is both a love-letter to painting and an exploration of creative obsession.

Jake Kendall is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s MSc programme in Creative Writing. Increasingly he takes inspiration from the visual arts. You can follow him on Twitter @jakendallox

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