December 2, 2015 § 12 Comments
a short story: second and final part
The men sail into the harbour with the albatross, their faces set and dark. The bird has drowned, caught by the long lines streamed out like deadly necklaces behind their boats. They haul it off the deck and leave it lying like a soft, white pillow on the wall, its hard hooked beak open wide as if still gasping for life. It lies there untouched, unburied – no one will return this bad omen to the sea.
That night when the clouds are masking the moon, Efa squats on the cobbles and plucks the long white feathers from its wings.
Anghared watches. ‘Why are you doing that?’
‘The albatross no longer needs them. I am making sure Penn’s soul will be liberated.’
‘I don’t understand. Are you making spells?’
Efa shakes her head. ‘Every albatross has the soul of a dead sailor inside. I am simply making sure he will be free.’
The albatross shrinks and blackens on the harbour wall, and the child inside Anghared’s wasting body beneath the greatcoat can no longer be kept a secret.
The priest lays a a hand on her shoulder. ‘I am sorry,’ he says. ‘Penn’s body has been found in the bay.’
She begins to shiver. ‘In that case, I do not want to live.’
‘Come to confession. Your evil thoughts must be purged.’
‘I will not,’ she wails. ‘I have done nothing wrong.’
The women no longer come to the harbour wall, but Anghared continues to stand, her back hard against the wind.
‘Why do you still wait?’ asks the harbour master’s wife.
‘I am not. I am singing to Penn.’
‘And can he hear?’
‘Of course.He sings back.’
‘Of what does he sing?’
‘I will not say. You would not understand.’
Efa opens her arms. ‘Come to my house and eat. You are wasting away. This child will think it is unwanted.’
‘Perhaps the child is right,’ says Anghared, turning away. ‘I want Penn.’
Efa goes to the priest. ‘She’ll go the way of her husband,’ she says.
‘That is wrong in the eyes of the Lord. 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.’
‘Then I will pray for her soul. But if she will not admit her sin, there is nothing to be done.’
The church is full. Anghared grips the pew until her knuckles turn white, Penn’s coat hanging from her shrunken frame, her belly full and round. As his body is lowered to the ground, Efa holds her tight. ‘Stand back. You will fall.’
‘I shall fall if I want!’ she spits. ‘You lied to me.’
‘How did I lie?’
Anghared points at the coffin.
‘Wait a little longer,’ says Efa.
The two women stand silently by the grave until they are alone. Soon the priest returns. ‘Come to confession now, my child. God wants to hear of your sinful thoughts.’
‘There can be no God!’ she says bitterly. ‘And I am not your child.’
Efa closes her eyes for a moment then opens her bag. She takes out the albatross feathers one by one, and arranges them on the mound of newly turned earth.
‘Take them away!’ orders the priest, crossing himself. ‘I will not have a pagan act on God’s soil.’ Efa gathers the feathers and throws them in the air. They float and twist around Anghared’s head.
When the women of the village hear what Efa has done they jeer and call her a witch. ‘Keep away from Anghared,’ they say. But Efa takes no notice, and sensing that her time is near, knocks on Anghared’s door. ‘I have come to help,’ she says simply.
‘The others say I should not have you in my house. I have no need of you.’
‘I have food and blankets. And healing herbs.’ She lays them on the kitchen table and hands her a bunch of sage leaves. ‘To protect you from evil.’
Anghared is hungry so she eats the proffered meal. Then the pains begin. Sudden and sharp they shoot through her body as a warning. ‘I want to die,’ she groans, curling her body into a tight coil upon the kitchen floor. Efa covers her with blankets, and boils a kettle of water to make medicine from the birthing herbs. But still Anghared shrieks.
‘You are stopping this child from coming,’ says Efa. ‘It will not be born until it knows it will be loved.’
Anghared tosses and turns on the floor. As the moon comes up, her bloody waters burst. ‘My back will break in two,’ she moans.
But still the child will not come. Efa paces the floor. ‘We must find him, and we must go now.’ Anghared has no strength left to argue and allows Efa to help her to her feet. Draping the greatcoat around her shoulders, and taking most of Anghared’s weight, she helps her outside. Every few yards she stands quietly as Anghared breathes through her pain. They come to the lych gate. ‘I will wait here for you,’ she says. ‘Now go.’ The gate creaks its opening, and the arc of the new moon casts empty shadows on the gravestones. Anghared struggles up the path and disappears.
Efa sits inside the lych gate and closes her eyes. As her breathing slows, a chill creeps through her body and fills her heart. She begins to shiver. This is a place of death, not life, she thinks. We should not be here. An owl hoots. It’s warning me. I have done wrong. Exhausted, she lets her eyes close.
She wakes to a shuddering in the early morning air. Opening her eyes, she sees a great white bird lifting itself clumsily into the light. Something has ended, she thinks.
The sun rises behind the steeple. A blackbird lands on the lych gate roof and begins to sing. Efa walks slowly up the path. As she reaches the grave she cries out. The ground is covered with pure white feathers. Anghared lies curled up beneath them, the rise and fall of her chest invisible. Penn’s greatcoat is bundled on the ground beside her.
‘Are you all right?’ she whispers, expecting no answer.
‘We are here,’ breathes Anghared, wrapping her arms around the greatcoat. ‘We are all here. I am whole again.’
‘Why do you not cover yourself?’ Efa hears a whimper inside the greatcoat, and Anghared reaches inside for the boy child.
‘He kept his promise. I will never be alone. I am alive again.’
Image courtesy National Geographic