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.
February 21, 2016 § 13 Comments
A short story written some years ago when I lived miles from anywhere with working collies who slept on my bed, a pile of anarchist sheep with strange shaped horns who liked to go walkabout in the night, and some little black Celtic cows…
and an overactive imagination…
‘That’s what I’ll do,’ I said, as I slid a finger up his backbone and made the short, black fur stand on end. His tail twitched, and Gus’s claws slid out of his front paws as a warning. ‘Don’t you see?’ I crooned, putting the flat of my hand on his neck and smoothing the fur back into a shine. ‘Bertha knows everything. She’ll tell us.’ The tail relaxed into a question mark, and the grey slit eyes stared into mine like two empty mirrors.
Gus wasn’t mine. He wasn’t anyone’s really, but he hung out with me when he had nothing better to do. I’d been telling him about the plan because thinking out loud made it clearer in my head. I was going to need Bertha. She was brighter than me, so I was going to follow her around ’til she showed me what she knew. Dogs were clever, and she was a border collie which put her at the top of the smart pooch list. Her nose was one of the cleverest bits about her, and she could sniff out the chocolate biscuits Dad squirreled away for special, even though he never hid them in the same place twice.
Bertha was one of those dogs that pleased herself. She belonged to whoever had what she was after. Sometimes she was my dog if I had something nice in my pocket, then she’d be Mum’s if it was walkies time, but mostly Dad was flavour of the month. The reason was simple: she liked being in the back of his pickup with her head stuck out of the tractor cab window catching flies and keeping an eye on things. That was her job when she wasn’t rounding up sheep. Dad said she wasn’t Mum’s anymore since she’d buggered off. ‘Abandoned us’, he said, squinting as if the sun was in his eyes.
All Bertha did these days was go off on what Dad called one of her adventures, and he said there was nothing he could do to stop her. ‘It’s not as if I haven’t tried,’ he complained. If he locked her in the house she drove him crackers with her howling, and if he tied her up in the barn, the neighbours complained the racket echoed down their valley like she was stuck in a tunnel. ‘She’ll stop running off when she gets used to how things are,’ he said, pinching my cheek a bit too hard. ‘Or if she’s really stupid she’ll find herself looking down the barrel of a shotgun. Either way, we’ll have to put up with it.’
It had been all right in the beginning. By the beginning I mean when we started having two in our family instead of three. Bertha was all over me. She waited the other side of the back door when she heard the school bus stop at the bottom of our drive, ready to lick my face clean and knock me over. She was nearly as big as me when she stood on her back legs, and our eyes got so close I could see two little faces grinning back at me. But I knew it wouldn’t be like that forever, because I was still growing, and she wasn’t.
I thought it’d be easy following Bertha around, but it turned out she was smarter than I thought. She kept giving me the slip. Gus tried to help by waving his tail around like it was one of those snakes that came out of its basket in India when someone played a tune, but that didn’t work. I thought he was giving me clues so I’d follow where the tail pointed. Sometimes I thought I was getting somewhere, but the tail kept changing its mind.
What Gus and I did find out was Bertha spent a lot of time hanging around the dustbins standing on her back legs and pushing them over. She wriggled inside and rummaged ’til she found the leftovers. All you could see was a black tail with a white tip waving about; but we could hear her: it was the only time she ever made noises like a pig. Her liking the dustbins explained why she smelled so bad, but it wasn’t her fault – it was Dad’s because he kept forgetting to fill her food bowl. She took to digging holes in the compost heap too because that was where the grass snakes lived, and Bertha knew how good they were to eat.
So far my plan wasn’t working – all I’d found out was where she went scavenging. But after Dad put padlocks on the bins, I found her digging up the garden. He said he didn’t care – the garden had been Mum’s business. Bertha uprooted dandelions and ground elder that Mum would have hoed out anyway, but then she started on the rose bushes. Mum wouldn’t have been happy about that. Then Bertha found it – and with her nose covered in soil and dribble, she presented Dad with one of Mum’s old gardening gloves. Sometimes I thought Bertha knew how to smile. ‘Look what she’s got,’ I grinned. ‘Isn’t she clever?’
Dad pulled a face and threw the stinky glove in the bin. ‘She lost that years ago. No use to her now, is it?’
‘But Dad, she’s only trying to help find Mum.’
‘I know where she is,’ he said crossly. ‘Living the high life with that new fancy man.’
Gus got bored after that and spent his days sitting on the doorstep stretching out each leg and cleaning himself over and over, but Bertha kept on hunting. Every day for a week she took one of Mum’s shoes in her mouth from the pile in the porch and trotted up close to the garden fence. She went round and round the edge for what seemed like hours, then disappeared when I turned my back. But I knew she was up to something. And she knew I knew.
On Saturday she took one of Mum’s red sandals in her mouth and began doing her round -and-round game again. When she thought I wasn’t looking she slunk through the gap in the fence to the sheep field. This time Gus and I followed. Bertha made herself small, flattening her ears, her tail trailing along the ground. She got to the barn, had a quick look to see where I was, and veered through the big barn doors. Then she did something weird, she went straight out through the back door. She was trying to throw us off the scent – but I ran hard leaving Gus behind, and spotted her squeezing through the five-bar into the sheep field.
Again, she kept close to the line of the hedge trying to look like she wasn’t there. Then I lost her. But there was only one place she could have gone – the old coppice wood where the barn owls lived. ‘Bertha!’ I shouted. ‘Bertha. Come out!’ But as usual these days, she pretended to be deaf.
I plunged into the overgrown wood, I’d never been there by myself as it gave me the creeps. I didn’t like it. It was dark. I stopped to listen. I could hear my heart. Gus’s tail was flicking. Then I heard it. It was like breathing – but faster – like someone was running too hard. I crept closer. It was an animal noise – something was grunting.
Pushing through the rose brambles, the smell reminded me of Mum’s perfume and made me want to cry. The thorns tore at my clothes and ripped at my skin. I licked my wrists and tasted my blood. ‘Bertha. Bertha!’ I yelled. ‘Where are you?’ The grunting stopped and Bertha yelped. There she was – between two hazel bushes, her tail wagging with excitement, her behind spattered with dirt. Bertha was digging a big hole – and around the hole were Mum’s shoes. The shiny black fur on Gus’s back rose, and he spat.
What have you got there, girl?’ I whispered. The smell of roses still filled the air, but now it mingled with something sharper, stronger. It was a nice smell at first – and then it wasn’t.
Bertha howled and wagged her tail; Gus slid into the undergrowth. She’d found what I’d been looking for.
Image courtesy Charis P Sallo
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… 🙂
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.
May 15, 2014 § 29 Comments
March 5, 2014 § 18 Comments
A fragment of a longer piece
Come away with me, she said in the letter that made her body shiver. There are eagles and dolphins, and perhaps the whales will sing.
She didn’t know why he’d agreed; she did not know him well, but she wanted him, and had to believe. Over five hundred miles he drove as she dreamed. She waited in the rain where the road slipped into the sea, where the fishermen harvested the langoustines. She would be safe. She would sit in the lap of the Gods.
But he had changed. His back was bent, there was no kiss.
‘Come to my bed’, she said.
‘No’, he replied. ‘I feel her here with me.’
She took him to the North Sea where the whales blew. The wind was so fierce he didn’t see the tears. He was blind to her pain. They followed the curve of the bay to where the tide fed the estuary, where the old, granite mountains grew sharp and wild into the sky. She willed him to hold her hand, but she stood alone. ‘Stay with me a while’, she said.
‘I can’t, he said. ‘It wouldn’t work’.
‘Then leave me alone,’ she cried. I know what I want.’
That night they slept in separate rooms, and in the morning he was gone. Her menstrual blood gushed furious from her body, and reminded her she was a woman. She ran to the bay to look for their footprints. She needed to find them, she needed hope. She followed them along the sand, but then they stopped, swallowed by the tide. And then she knew. She lay down, rolling over and over in the wet sand until she broke, until the pain came out raw and stinging on her skin. It felt better than the pain inside.
She took the wine she had bought for their supper and drank it on the granite slabs. The water crashed onto the rocks and slid over her feet. She was suddenly frightened of her own will. She would slip, she would disappear, she would be nothing.
She threw the empty bottle into the sea, all her wishes lost inside.