March 12, 2017 § 10 Comments
‘Pilgrim,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think death is the end of everything?’
‘Can’t hear you. Hang on while I make this hole bigger.’
‘But hey,’ Tina continued. ‘I shan’t be going anywhere for a while. And neither will you.’ She brushed away a tear.
Pilgrim pulled the ski out of the air hole and wriggled around to face her. ‘What did you say?’
‘Forget it. Doesn’t matter.’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘The instructor pointed you out the other day. He said Search and Rescue found the colour of your suit the easiest to spot in the snow. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Well, I’ve done the first thing, so we won’t run out of oxygen. Now we need to dig ourselves out.’
‘How can you be so calm? What if we can’t get out?’
Pilgrim heaved himself into the full lotus position, closed his eyes and put his palms together.
‘Hey. Get real!’ she sneered, staring at him in disbelief. ‘You’re not actually praying are you?’
‘Kind of,’ he said. ‘I won’t be long.’
Tina fidgeted then maneuvered into something like a half lotus. She put her palms together too and waited. But nothing happened – so she rummaged in her backpack and pulled out a cigarette. ‘You don’t mind, do you? In the circumstances, and all that.’
‘Close your eyes and empty your mind,’ he said gently.
‘Can’t,’ she said, flicking open her lighter.
‘OK, if you can’t, look at the daylight coming from the air hole and concentrate on that instead. And by the way, you’re using up oxygen with that lighter.’
Tina shrugged and snapped it shut. She stared at the air hole, but all she could think about was frostbite and dying. ‘I’m freezing and I can’t concentrate.’
‘Ok,’ said Pilgrim, opening his eyes. ‘Time to dig. Are you afraid of dying then?’ he asked, as he scraped away at the snow with the ski.
‘Hell! So you did hear what I said. Actually I’m shit scared.’
‘How should I know? Maybe I’m frightened it’s going to hurt. Maybe I’m frightened of what comes afterwards.’
‘What does come afterwards then?’
‘Going to hell, I suppose. The Bible says unbelievers go to Hades when they die, and then they go to hell or the Lake Of Fire. John 3:36. See. I’m not that ignorant. I’m not a Christian, so that’s where I’m heading next, right?’
He carried on digging. ‘I’m listening.’
‘Can’t say I’ve ever needed to give it any thought,’ she continued. ‘I work all hours in the City. Too busy earning the next crust for that shiny yellow 911.’ Tina smirked. ‘Actually Pilgrim, I don’t think anything happens to us when we die. When the body wears out, that’s it. Finito. Curtains.’
‘So why are you frightened of going to hell if it’s not going to happen?’
‘Because maybe, just maybe, I’m wrong.’
‘About there being a god of course.’ Tina stopped digging and lay on her back. ‘Gimme a break.’
‘Half an hour more, then we’ll stop.’
‘I’m stopping for five, then I’ll make the air hole bigger,’ she said. ‘It looks like it might be closing up.’
‘Could be it’s just getting dark,’ suggested Pilgrim.
‘Can you hear that rumbling?’ shrieked Tina. ‘Shit! Another avalanche.’
‘Come here,’ he said, putting his arms around her shoulders. He was whispering to himself. He was praying again.Then the rumbling stopped. ‘We’re safe for now.’
‘So, you’re a Christian, then?’ she asked.
‘Not any more.’
‘But weren’t you praying just now?’
‘Not exactly. I was reciting a mantra.’
‘Well, what are you then?’
‘Suppose I’m a kind of Buddhist.’
‘Aren’t they the guys who believe in karma? Like if you do something bad, you’re born again as a dung beetle or something? Yeah, I remember now. In Tibet they chop you up and feed you to the vultures. Sky burial. Saw it on the telly. Gross.’
‘I know it sounds bad to you, but the ground is frozen solid in Tibet – it isn’t possible to have earth burials.’
‘Couldn’t they just burn the bodies and chuck them in the river like the Hindus?’
‘No,’ said Pilgrim gently. ‘That would pollute the water, and in any case there are hardly any trees in Tibet.’
‘But giving your granny’s remains to the vultures. That’s just disgusting.’
‘Vultures are sacred there. The body is given as an offering.’
‘But isn’t the body sacred, too?’
Pilgrim explained that Buddhists believed it was just a vessel for the soul, and when it had worn out and was no longer needed, it should be put to good use rather than wasted.
‘So what do you think happens when you die?’ asked Tina.
‘The soul is born again into a new body.’
‘Sounds cool,’ said Tina.’ So however much I drink or overdo the coke, it doesn’t matter because I’ll always get a new body, right?’
Pilgrim nodded his head gently. ‘Kind of.’
‘So that’s why you’re not afraid of dying then.’
‘We need to dig some more,’ he said.
‘My boyfriend’s going to be wondering where I am.’
‘He wasn’t on the slopes when the avalanche happened?’
‘No, he was sleeping off a serious hangover.’
She talked about their privileged lifestyle. The fast cars, the holidays, the parties. ‘And what about you,’ she asked. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
‘I’ve never had one.’
‘Never. How old are you?’
‘Twenty eight. It just never happened. I like my own company and I don’t meet new people much.’
‘What about work. Don’t you meet girls there?’
‘It isn’t that sort of place. I work in British Rail’s Complaints Department so most people are looking for a scapegoat rather than a friend.’
Pilgrim stopped digging and knelt beside her. ‘I need to close my eyes for ten. Just ten. Maybe you could check the air hole.’
‘If we get close, we can keep each other warm,’ she suggested, as she shuffled up and laid her head on his shoulder. ‘You’re shy, aren’t you?’
‘Um, I suppose I must be.’
What’s your favourite thing in the world?’
‘Easy. Going places on my bike and reading. And yours?’
‘Easy,’ she said, closing her eyes. ‘Sex.’
‘I never had the opportunity,’ replied Pilgrim sitting bolt upright. ‘We better get digging again.’
‘Yes, I suppose we should. In a minute, OK?’ And she held out her arms. ‘I still feel really sleepy.’
‘Mmm, me too. Did you check the air hole? We might be running low on oxygen.’
Tina yawned. ‘I’ll do it in a minute. Pilgrim?’
‘Mmm?’ He barely whispered.
‘What’s the most important thing to you in the world?’
‘Being happy. And you?’
‘Same, I guess.’
Pilgrim shivered. ‘I am suddenly so, so cold.’
‘And me. I could sleep forever.’
And they lay down in the snow, curled themselves around one another, and went to sleep.
image courtesy NDTV
September 19, 2016 § 3 Comments
His mother was a wild creature and knew how to run. With the brown hair-like fleece of her feral descendants, she was living archaeology to the ancient sheep of the Asian mountains. Her son had slit yellow eyes and he slid out of her into the long grass when no one was looking. He was a good size and already at the teat when I found him. Feisty and proud with sharp, thick horns, I kept him as breeding stock.
That was eleven years ago. Every November he did his job. I put him in with the ewes, and five months later each one scraped a shallow bowl in the home field then lay down and pushed out his lambs.
He stayed wild – he never let me know him. And he hated the sheep dog – teaching his brothers and sisters to scatter. Eleven is old for a sheep and he knew. His age could be counted on the rings of his horns. He was a fighter, and his battle scars were shiny and white upon his forehead. He had been warring again with his younger brothers to keep his place in the flock when I found him. His body looked wrong, his neck crooked. Perhaps dislocated.
The man came with the captive bolt in a black case. I made myself watch. I thought the killing would be easy, but his skull was old and thick. The ram fell forward when the crack came. Then he got up. Teetered. Shook himself. The man fetched a bolt strong enough for a cow. A louder crack, and the blood came like a bung lost from a barrel.
I walked away to be sick.
Soon after, the lambs came. A brown ewe scraped and lay down to push her baby out. All day it wouldn’t come. I washed my hands and put my fingers inside. Legs. Two back ones and a tail. Sticky yellow shit and blood stains on my hands.
I waited for her to squeeze and carefully twisted the lamb out of her. Long and thin, it stretched out on the ground. With no breath.
I cleared the mucus from its mouth, its nose. Rubbed it gently. Spluttering. It shook itself to life.
The mother heard the life noise. A lick, a snicker. The only sound she ever made.
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
December 1, 2015 § 9 Comments
A short story: part one
Every day the woman comes, her face turned towards the ocean, her back poker straight to fight the wind. All day she whispers, her lips fluttering sounds no one can understand. The dying storm catches the words and flings them back in her face.
She paces back and forth along the harbour wall, her bare feet sliding raw inside sea boots too big for her. Each night she slips them off and lines them up beside the black iron bed. She knows he would have liked her wearing his boots, he would have understood. She wears his army greatcoat too even though people stare. Anghared doesn’t care. She wraps the thick coat around her body like a shroud, and pulls its collar tight over her nose. She has to have the smell of him, make him flesh and blood again. She drinks in his sweat, his salt, the cigarettes he smokes when his boat works the fishing grounds.
She stops in her tracks as if remembering something long forgotten, and steps gingerly to the edge where the harbour wall meets the waves. She looks down to where the slimy film of weed settles and thrives in the cracks between the cobbles. Dragged by the full moon like a compass point to the north, a shoal of jellyfish cluster tight against the wall, floating like thickened water without apparent plan or will. It is time for the females to drop their eggs and for the males to squirt their sperm into the sea. The shoal begins to dance its ritual that makes new life, and Anghared hugs Penn’s coat tight to her belly. She smiles at the brightening horizon. ‘It’s a sign, Penn. We too have made new life, and when you return, you will see.’ She doesn’t see the eggs sinking to the bottom where the lobsters wait and snap their claws in anticipation.
The next day she comes again. This time the moon is hidden and the jellyfish gone.
‘Go home,’ says Efa, the harbourmaster’s wife. ‘Nothing good will come of this. Penn will come back when it’s time.’
‘When?’ she asks.
‘As I said, when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Be patient, Anghared,’ the woman soothes.
‘But I want to see him now.’
‘Trust me. He will come, but you may not recognise him.’
The other wives as is their custom when a fisherman does not return, come to the wall every day for seven days. They stand back from the edge near the slime of seaweed with their mouths set in a sharp, thin line. The younger women hold the hands of their children so tight their knuckles turn white, and the old wives bring fishing rods on their backs with bread and currants for bait, and pretend to fish; but they are simply waiting too. When they stand too close to Anghared or when they lift an arm to put around her shoulders, she lowers her gaze and turns her back. Her face grows stiff, and lines like grey commas stretch around the edges of her mouth.
Sometimes she is there before dawn when the smacks leave for the fishing grounds. They sail silent and colourless out of the glassy harbour, sometimes followed by flecks of phosphorescence that flow like the tails of the manta ray the men sometimes catch in the nets. Penn says the old men call this glittering the stars of the sea. ‘It means the boats will return with their holds full of fish.’
‘Like a sort of magic?’ she asks.
‘No,’ he laughs. ‘There’s no such thing. 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 pass through the harbour mouth, the greatcoat flapping around Anghared’s body like a clumsy bird struggling to take flight. They make no sound of greeting but each raises an arm as a mark of respect, as a sign they know she must keep vigil.
Efa watches every day from her cottage at the end of the harbour wall. ‘Come away,’ she says on the eighth day, pulling at the young woman’s sleeve. ‘At least when the child is born it will have the soul of its father.’
‘There will be no child,’ retorts Anghared bitterly.
‘You know that’s your sadness speaking,’ Efa replies sternly. ‘You can’t hide it from me. It has been growing in your belly for six weeks now.’
The full moon comes once more, and still she waits. The plankton glitters, and the jellyfish come back and thicken the water by the harbour wall. And still he doesn’t come…
A revised story written and blogged a while back. The concluding part should come tomorrow… 🙂
November 10, 2015 § 11 Comments
October 15, 2015 § 13 Comments
His mother was a wild creature and knew how to run. With the brown hair-like fleece of her feral descendants, she was living archaeology to the ancient sheep of the Asian mountains. Her son had slit yellow eyes, and slid onto the long grass when no one was looking. He was a good size and already at the teat when I found him. Feisty and proud with sharp, thick horns, I kept him as breeding stock.
That was eleven years ago. Every November he did his job. I put him in with the ewes, and five months later each one scraped a shallow bowl in the home field, lay down, and pushed out his lambs.
He stayed wild – he never let me know him. And he hated the sheep dog – teaching his family to scatter. Eleven is old for a sheep, and he knew. His age could be counted on the rings of his horns – his battle scars shiny and white on his forehead. He was a fighter – and had been battling again with his younger brothers to keep his place in the flock when I found him. His body looked wrong, his neck crooked. Perhaps dislocated.
The man came with the captive bolt in a shiny, black case. I made myself watch. I thought the killing would be easy, but the skull was old and thick. The ram fell forward when the crack came. Then he got up. Teetered. Shook himself. The man fetched a bolt strong enough for a cow. A louder crack, and the blood came like a bung lost from a barrel.
I walked away to be sick.
A while after that the lambs came. A brown ewe scraped and lay down to push her baby out. All day it wouldn’t come. I washed my hands and put my fingers inside. Legs. Two back ones and a tail. Sticky yellow shit and blood stains on my hands.
I waited for her to squeeze, and carefully twisted the lamb out of her. Long and thin, it stretched out on the ground. With no breath.
I cleared the mucus from its mouth, its nose. Rubbed it gently. Spluttering. It shook itself to life.
The mother heard the life noise. A lick, a snicker. The only sound she ever made.
I wrote the bare bones of this about ten years ago when I thought it was going to be a poem. I picked it up in 2012 and let it finish itself. I blogged it under the same title in 2013. It mostly really happened.