albatross continued

February 12, 2014 § 16 Comments

albatross-help

 a short story: second and final part

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.

‘I am sorry,’ said the priest. ‘Your husband’s body has been found in the bay.’

‘If I have lost him,’ she wept. ‘I do not want to live.’

‘Come to confession,’ he said. ‘Your evil thoughts must be purged.’

‘I will not,’ she wailed. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’

~

The women no longer came to the harbour wall; but still she stood, her back hardened against the wind.

‘Why do you watch?’ asked Efa.

‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’

‘And can he hear?’

‘Of course,’ she replied coldly. ‘He sings too.’

‘Of what does he sing?’

‘I cannot say. He speaks in another tongue.’

Efa opened her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. The child will believe it is unwanted.’

‘The child is right,’ she replied, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’

~

Efa went to the church. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she told the priest.

‘That would be wrong in the eyes of the Lord,’ he said. ‘It will be a sin if she takes her own life.’

‘But she needs our help. She says she has no life without him. She is broken.’

‘I will pray for her soul,’ he said. ‘But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’

~

The church was full. Anghared gripped the pew until her knuckles turned white: Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body was lowered into the ground, Efa held her tight. ‘Stand back. You may fall.’

‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spat. ‘He lied to me.’

‘How did he lie?’

Anghared pointed at the coffin.

‘Wait a little longer,’ she replied. ‘Then you will understand.’

The two women stood silently by the grave until they were alone. Soon the priest returned. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’

‘There is no God,’ she said bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.

Efa closed her eyes for a moment then opened her bag. She took out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranged them on the mound of newly turned earth.

‘Take them away,’ ordered the priest raising his hands. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’  Efa gathered up the feathers and threw them angrily in the air. They floated and twisted around Anghared’s head.

~

The women jeered at Efa and called her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they said. But Efa took no notice, and sensing that her time was near, knocked on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she said simply.

‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’

‘But I have food and blankets,’ said Efa. ‘And healing herbs.’ She laid them on the kitchen table, and handed her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’

Anghared was hungry so she ate the offered food, and then the pains began. Sudden and sharp, they shot through her body like a warning. ‘I must be very sick,’ she groaned, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covered her with blankets, and boiled water to make medicine from the birthing herbs; but still Anghared cried with pain.

‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ sighed Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’

Anghared tossed and turned on the floor shrieking with pain. As the moon came up, her bloody waters broke. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moaned.

              But still the child would not come. ‘We must find him,’ said Efa. ‘We must go now.’ Anghared had no strength left to fight, and allowed Efa to help her to her feet. She draped the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking her weight, helped her outside. Every few yards she stood quietly as Anghared breathed through her pain. ‘It’s not far now,’ she said. They came to the lych gate at the church. ‘I will wait here for you. Go to him.’ The gate creaked its opening, and the arc of a new moon cast empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggled up the path to the new mound of earth.

Efa sank onto the bench inside the gate and closed her eyes. As her breathing slowed, a chill crept through her body and entered her heart. She began to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thought. We should not be here. An owl hooted. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she let her eyes close, and fell into a fitful sleep.

~

She woke to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she saw a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thought. Efa held her breath, and waited.

A blackbird landed on the lych gate roof and began to sing. The sun rose behind the steeple. Efa walked slowly up the path, and as she approached Penn’s grave, she cried out. The ground was covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lay curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat lay bundled on the ground beside her.

‘Anghared?’ she whispered, expecting no answer.

‘We are here,’ breathed Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’

‘But are you not alone? And why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa heard a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reached inside for the boy child.

‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. My heart is alive again.’

*

Image courtesy national geographic

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§ 16 Responses to albatross continued

  • I enjoyed the symbolism in your story -‘The ground was covered with pure white feathers’ for example – and the way that you have given Anghared the opportunity to see life as being cyclic. Whether it is or not is debatable, her life instinct, for example, may be subconsciously stronger than she realises. The links to the nature in which she lives, however, are clear, yet subtle, and I like the way that they have impacted upon her life. I found the way that this piece touched on both spirituality and religion effectively written as neither came across as being superior in any way, and the tension between them (where there should really be harmony) was tangible. A wonderful write, Rachael.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Chris. Although I worked for hours on the piece, it is nowhere near complete. I think the nuances are perhaps too subtle for many readers. I suspect it will be something I’ll work on over the years.
      Thank you for giving it so much thought. It makes all the difference. 🙂

  • Miranda Stone says:

    This is beautifully written, Rachael. I like the minimalist language and the simple sentence structure you use to tell the story. Though it has plenty of elements of magical realism, the prose never becomes wordy or superfluous. Like Chris, I also detected the tension between spirituality and organized religion, but I felt that the spirituality and earth wisdom trumped religion in this story. Efa is decried a witch, but she is the one who is present to comfort Anghared and help her give birth. Without Efa, Anghared, would have never experienced her epiphany at the end of the story. The priest, on the other hand, is useless, wanting Anghared to follow his instructions, and when she doesn’t, he turns his back on her in her time of need. A rich, complex story. I’ve read it twice, but I plan to read it again after thinking on it a bit. Well done, my friend.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thank you, my friend. I was going to use this opportunity to be hypercritical of the story, but I won’t ! It’s simply work in progress. I’m pleased you thought the language and sentence structure worked. My intention here was to a create a world that was familiar yet strange and a little otherworldly (?) to our modern sensibilities – rather like a myth, I suppose.

      I’m fond of the magical realism genre – particularly the well known South American authors. Do you think there is a link with that genre and the Gothic?

      It might be time to dip into Allende, et al, again.

      • Miranda Stone says:

        Well, I’m glad you decided not to be hypercritical of the story, because there’s certainly no need for that! For a work in progress, you’ve made great strides with this one. I remember thinking to myself while reading the story, “This is the kind of tale that creates legends.” I definitely picked up on the otherworldly aspect of the story. In college, I read many South American authors who employed magical realism in their work, and I’ve always been fond of it as well. I’m not sure about the general Gothic genre, but I know that magical realism is certainly a strong element in the Southern Gothic subgenre. Excellent work here, Rachael. I always admire writers who can create worlds like these in their stories.

  • NEO says:

    I’m certainly no expert but, part of what I enjoy in your writing is that it is subtle, one must pay attention, especially to details. Not enough fiction is written this way.

    Perhap if you were writing the great British novel, with hundreds of pages it would be different but, I really like that in these stories.

    You are one of the few writers whom when you do these multi part stories, i end wondering where is she going. A fascinatingly good job. 🙂

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thank you for those thoughtful comments, Neo. I know my writing is not to everyone’s taste, partly as the reader does have to do some thinking for themselves, and that’s fine. Also, (in the second paragraph) you’re quite right – this style would definitely not work for a novel. I tried it, and found it rather hard to sustain the plot and pace.

      I hope you are keeping well in mind and body. The weather system that has turned your beautiful country white, now appears to be responsible for flooding and Force 9-10 gales in this overcrowded island. As is usual in the UK, everyone complains, our news media twitters inanely and repeats itself, and our politicians make themselves look silly by making big, important noises… C’est la vie. 🙂

      • NEO says:

        With reference to you newsmen and politicians, there is no better proof that we are indeed cousins. 🙂

        Nobody’s is, I suspect. I can certainly see that, sometimes even in a short story, or a blog post I’ll end up backing up to see what I missed. But part of that is self discipline, I tend to skim, and so you help me as well. 🙂

        Your weather sound atrocious, even compared to ours at the moment, still we’ll all make it through, I suspect, other than a few unlucky ones.

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    Indeed. On all three counts.
    I hear your dear friend Bosco has lost his tongue for the time being…You are all such patient souls on AATW. 🙂

  • mikesteeden says:

    Couldn’t comment yesterday as time pressures got in the way. However, I couldn’t leave your fine story to just a ‘like.’ I see others have already made observations. All I would say is that I enjoyed this two-part piece for what it is, namely a good read. Your choice of character names fix the period of time it is set in superbly as well. I liked this a lot.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      A ‘good read.’ That’s a fine compliment. 🙂

      • mikesteeden says:

        Thank you. Sometimes I think too much. All the best things I’ve ever read (the stories that have stayed with me that is) were ‘good reads.’ I think that is the bottom line really – anyway that two part tale was much enjoyed by this reader.

  • A really gripping tale, I really enjoyed the folky myth feel to the whole piece and the sense of mystery and “other” that was present throughout..
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

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