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

Albatross

February 10, 2014 § 12 Comments

Image

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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