Albatross

February 10, 2014 § 12 Comments

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A Short Story. Part One of Two

Every day the woman came: her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she prayed, her lips fluttering sounds no one could understand. The dying storm caught the words and flung them, like icy fragments, back in her face.

              She paced back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slipped them off and lined them up neatly beside the black, iron bed. She knew he would have liked her wearing his boots, would have understood. She wore his army greatcoat too, even though people stared. Anghared didn’t care. She wrapped the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulled its collar tight over her nose. She had to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drank in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smoked when his boat worked the fishing grounds.

She stopped in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and stepping gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall met the waves, looked down to where the slimy film of weed settled and thrived in the cracks between the cobbles. The moon was full, casting its sheen deep into the water. Dragged by the moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish clustered tight against the wall, floating like thickened water, without apparent plan or will. It was time for the females to drop their eggs, and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal began to dance its ritual that made new life, and Anghared hugged Penn’s coat tight to her belly. Eyes wide, she smiled at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn,’ she said. ‘We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ Anghared didn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters waited and snapped their claws with hunger.

The next day she came again. This time the moon was hidden and the jellyfish gone.

‘Go home,’ said Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’

‘When?’ she asked.

‘As I said, when it is time.’

‘But when will that be?’

‘Be patient. Anghared,’ soothed Efa.

‘But I want to see him.’

‘He will come. But you may not recognise him.’

The other wives, as was their custom when a fisherman did not return, came to the wall every day for seven days. They stood back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women held the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turned white, and the old wives brought fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretended to fish; but they were simply waiting too. When they stood too close to Anghared, or when they lifted an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowered her gaze and gently turned her back. Her face grew stiff, and lines like grey commas stretched around the edges of her mouth.

              Sometimes she was there before dawn when the smacks left for the fishing grounds. They sailed silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flowed like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes caught in the nets. Penn said the old men called this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish,’ he said.

‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he laughed. ‘There’s no such thing as magic. It’s just plankton. When it comes, so do the hungry fish. All we have to do is catch them.’

The fishermen cast their eyes down to their boots as they passed through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They made no sound of greeting, but raised their arms as a mark of respect, as a sign they knew she must keep vigil.

Efa watched every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she said on the seventh day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’

‘There is no child,’ retorted Anghared bitterly.

‘You know that’s your sickness,’ said Efa sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’

~

The full moon came once more, and still she waited. The plankton glittered, and the jellyfish came back and thickened the water by the harbour wall. And still he didn’t come.

~

The men sailed into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird had drowned: caught on the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They hauled it off the deck and left it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard, hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lay there untouched, unburied – no one would return the bad omen to the sea.

At night, when the clouds were masking the moon, Efa squatted on the cobbles and plucked the long white feathers from its wings.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Anghared.

‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure that Penn’s soul is liberated.’

‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’

Efa shook her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he is free.’

The albatross shrank and blackened on the harbour wall, and the child growing in Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat could no longer be kept a secret.

~

To be continued Wednesday 12th. Feb

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