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

The Strangeness Of Skin – third and final part

October 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

The story ends.

Would be so happy to receive any feedback.

Every day the child crouched high in the eagle’s nest. Her clothes grew ragged and she forgot to pull the tangles from her hair. She prized limpets off the rocks with her teeth, and swallowed whole the tiny fishes trapped in the pools.

The rocks told her she had lived in the bay in another time long ago. She hadn’t burst bloody from a woman’s body – but had hidden, fully formed inside a shark’s egg safe under a rock on the seashore. There was a shock of black hair on her head, and words and songs inside ready to come out. They said she did not need to be taught how to swim, for she had brought the knowing with her for this life. Hepzibah hooted like an owl – she didn’t believe any of it.

The child saw many things after that. One day her mother appeared – she paced the seashore as if she was hunting for something. Soon she came every day, careless of unfinished chores. She would wade to the flat rock partly hidden in the breakers, rounded by the storms, and she would weep. Always her face was turned away from the shore, and as the tide returned she would let the water wet the hem of her dress. She cupped her hands together, caught the tip of a wave, and splashed her face with the cold, salty water.

 The child didn’t understand any of this, and Phoebe would not answer her questions when they returned to the cave to sleep.

 ‘It is not time,’ she said.

 After that day Phoebe didn’t go home. She sat on the rock day and night – her dress rotting from the sea salt, her hair hanging long and sticky like the sea kelp.

 

The nights grew shorter and the sun warmed the sea. The eagles came to watch, circling above her with their young. Hepzibah, tired from the watching, fell asleep among the bones. When she woke, her mother had gone.

‘Tell me where she is,’ she asked the rocks.

‘The wind is angry,’ they replied. ‘It won’t speak of it. The sea does not know what to do – but your mother wants to come home. Ask your people.’

 

‘What have you done!’ Hepzibah demanded. Everyone was silent but the woman with the herbs and the strong hands.

‘She has gone to her other place.’

‘What other place?’

‘She has gone back to the sea to be with her own.’

‘But we are her people. Why?’

 

The old woman took her to a hole at the base of the cliff. ‘This is where she hid her clothes. The others made a fire of them so she couldn’t return. She is not one of us.’

‘The rocks say you have upset the wind,’ wailed Hepzibah. ‘You have put us in danger.’ But the woman turned away – she did not want to hear what the wild, angry child had to say.

 

‘They won’t listen,’ she told the rocks.

‘Go to the hole in the cliff. If the wind won’t forgive your people you will be safe there.’

 

The night before it happened, Hepzibah dreamed:

Skin and hearts felt the coming of a great storm, and Phoebe’s people fell to their knees and prayed for the wind and water spirits to be calm. But the spirits felt only the sadness of the child and the meanness of her people. They flew into a rage. The sea heaved and rolled itself into their cave like shards of broken glittering glass, and the rain grew wild in sympathy and streamed through the roof. The fishing boats were ground to sharp matchwood, and the cave collapsed and folded itself into rubble. Her people breathed in the sticky, dark water until they could breathe no more.

 

The night after the dream Hepzibah slept in the hole in the rock. When she woke she saw the cave had been destroyed and her people drowned. She crawled deep inside the darkness of the hole and felt a skin soft as her mother’s, but icy as the wind. Hepzibah slipped inside. She tried to walk, but the skin would not let her. She slithered to the bottom of the cliff and began to cry.

 A voice called from the sea. ‘Stop it at once. Hobble child. Your legs are now a tail. A tail for swimming.’

‘I don’t know how to swim,’ wailed Hepzibah.

‘Come. You do – and so do I.’

 

 

*

The Strangeness of Skin. Part Two

October 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

The second of three parts of my contemporary interpretation of a Northern European myth. To be concluded tomorrow.

‘Why did you give me this bad name?’ Hepzibah screamed at her mother. ‘It doesn’t come out from my mouth right. Everyone laughs at me.’ The child’s tongue was stubborn, and made her speak with the hiss of a snake.

‘What’s your name?’ sang the other children who lived in the cave – and so Hepzibah told them. Again and again they asked, and again and again she answered until she grew tired of their teasing.  Soon, they too lost interest as she learned to look straight through them. Then they ignored her too. Hepzibah became invisible.

‘I don’t remember who named you,’ replied Phoebe. ‘It just came to me. Perhaps it was the sea.’ Then she remembered where she’d heard the hiss before: from the fisherman’s lips. He had whispered his passion with a lisp.

‘I cannot trust words,’ he said. ‘They don’t say what I want them to say.’ His body had been more eloquent than his mouth.

‘And I don’t trust eyes,’ said Phoebe, closing them tight as he kissed her.

          Phoebe, it was agreed, was a beautiful woman. She had the dark eyes of the seal pups that came looking for their mothers in the shallows. Her hair was as silky as kelp, and she wound it around her head and fastened it with twigs. Hepzibah had never seen any other part of her mother’s body, for she hid it day and night with high neck dresses in the shape of a sack with long sleeves that kept her fingers warm, and skirts that dragged in the sand.

          ‘What’s wrong with your mother?’ the children teased. ‘Why does she hobble? Why can’t she run like the wind? Why doesn’t she swim in the sea like our mothers?’

Hepzibah hid from the teasing behind her mother’s skirts, but Phoebe pushed her away.

‘Your mother is a cripple,’ they taunted.

‘She is not,’ said Hepzibah quietly.

Phoebe remained silent.

One day she crept up behind her mother as she plucked the soft down from three fat puffins, and felt for her legs through the cloth of the thick dress. The flesh felt smooth and soft and rounded. Phoebe swung around and the feathers filled the air like flakes of snow. 

           ‘No!’ her mother cried, her face twisting itself into an angry knot. ‘You hurt me girl. What are you wanting?’

‘They say there is something wrong with your legs,’ said the child. ‘They want to know why do you not like the water. I want you to teach me how to swim.’

Phoebe rubbed her body gently beneath her skirt. ‘My mother didn’t think it was right for me to go in the sea; and the rocks say there are bad creatures in there which will hurt us.’

‘What creatures, Mother?’

‘I have never seen them, but the rocks tell me they are there.’

Hepzibah ignored the taunting after that because Phoebe said the rocks whispered more sense than they did. ‘Can you teach me how to hear them?’

‘Tomorrow I will teach you how to listen.’

 

Hepzibah listened hard to what her mother said, and soon she began to hear the sounds. But they made no sense.

‘They speak in a foreign tongue.’

‘Then every day,’ said Phoebe, ‘you must climb high into an empty eagles nest, and wait until you know the words. You must be careful you don’t fall.’

 The child grew her nails long, and threw her shoes away so she could grip the rocks with her toes. She tied a stick to her back to protect herself from the eagles. But the birds kept away, and in time, Hepzibah learned to climb and understand the language of the ancient cliffs.

The Strangeness Of Skin

October 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

A short story in daily instalments. A variation of a northern European folk tale.

Image

Phoebe, a private woman who didn’t like words, had been slicing the insides out of herring when the fourth child decided to be born. Hepzibah ejected herself feet first with a fierce wail that should have woken the dead. She came out wide-eyed and wilful onto a sleeping ledge – lined with heather that itched and lice that sucked – deep inside a cave large enough to echo the indignity of it for a long time afterwards. The woman with the herbs and strong hands was shooed away after she cut the cord, and Phoebe curled up with the child and hid away like an animal.

The cave lay inside a bay that wasn’t sheltered from the north wind. Shaped like the inside of a horse’s foot, its sand was pale and silky as the skin on Phoebe’s cheek, its shoreline stained with glittering mica like the speckles on the egg of an Arctic tern. The cliff grew out of rock that had started its life a long time ago. Bleak and brooding to the eye, the women said it whispered stories to the few who knew how to listen. Sea eagles lodged themselves above the cave on ledges overflowing with fish bones, and whales snorted fountains and frightened off the fish.

Phoebe knew she was different from the others. She could read the weather, the tides, and the songs of the whales – but the language of her body was foreign. She complained bitterly of backache for months before Hepzibah was born, and for three months after that. She complained about the others in her belly too, not understanding that what had been planted there was the result of unexpected and agreeable moments of passion.

What Phoebe recalled about the men, and this was of far more significance to her than the length of their noses or the colour of their skin, was that all of the fathers had arrived in her bed from the sea. They neither knew nor cared that she had been seduced by the salty taste of their skin. All had made a career of travelling the oceans, but none had stayed long enough to put down roots or learn how to properly love a woman.

Hepzibah’s father arrived on a boat out for the herring. He had sought shelter from a storm and impregnated the child seed without preamble or finesse – then sailed away when the sun came out without so much as a thank you for his night’s brief lodging.

The other women knew that her children had different fathers; but Phoebe felt neither guilt nor indifference, even though they pointed their fingers and whispered behind her back. In a family with only a reluctant matriarch for its backbone, the distribution of love was thin on the ground, and none of Hepzibah’s siblings took much notice of their new half blood sister. Phoebe let her offspring take care of themselves. Families like these made silent children with secrets.

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