February 12, 2014 § 16 Comments
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