Albatross (continued)

December 2, 2015 § 12 Comments

 

albatross-help

 

 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

Albatross

December 1, 2015 § 9 Comments

albatross-help

 

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…   🙂

circle

October 15, 2015 § 13 Comments

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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.

Bottle

May 15, 2014 § 29 Comments

This story has been removed from the blog as it has been published by the journal ‘Ariadne’s Thread.’

10th. Feb 2015

 

 

w-corfe-witch_bottle

 

Photo courtesy Times Online

 

 

 

Breaking

March 5, 2014 § 18 Comments

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 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.

Where The Wild Roses Grow

February 24, 2014 § 20 Comments

 Image

            ‘That’s what I’ll do,’ I said, as I slid a finger up his backbone making the short, black fur stand on end. Gus’s tail twitched, and the 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 clear 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, and I didn’t. 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, then she’d been Mum’s; 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 he put padlocks on the bins, I found her digging up the garden. Dad 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 we 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.

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

Geometry – Part Two

February 4, 2014 § 8 Comments

 point-of-ayr-lighthouse-21A Short Story

‘Cod and chips, please. Twice,’  Dorcas smiled.

‘Anything you say,’ replied the chip shop man with a wink. ‘Have you got a young man, then?’

‘Nope. But seeing as you’re asking, one’s for Old Salty. He could use some company. Don’t tell I said.’

He sat on the bow of his boat, his face turned to the sun.

‘Ahoy,’ she shouted. ‘You’ll hurt your eyes if you do that.’

‘They’re closed. I was smelling the sea.’

‘Why?’

‘That’s a funny question. Because I miss it, of course.’

‘I’ve bought you some fish and chips.’

He grunted. ‘You’d better come up then.’ He pointed to the ladder and threw down a bucket on the end of a rope.

‘What’s that for?’

‘Dog.’

‘Bouncer won’t go in there.’

‘Kipper will.’

‘Well Bouncer won’t.’ Dorcas put the fish and chips in the bucket, and stuffed Bouncer into her armpit. ‘Can you smell the sea, then?’

‘I can. There’s an onshore breeze today. It helps me remember. I couldn’t remember anything yesterday – the smell went somewhere else. Must be the wind.’

She handed him his tea wrapped in last week’s newspaper. He pointed to the steps that led down to the cabin. ‘You’d better come below to eat. It’s more civilised.’

             Every space in the cabin was covered with shells. Oysters, cockles, periwinkles. Shells for mussels and hermit crabs, and a clam shell big enough for an octopus to sleep in.

            ‘Why have you collected so many?’

            ‘My memories are inside. They tell me stories.’

            ‘What’s that big one?’

            ‘Nautilus. From Australia. Found it on the beach there. I used to be a sailor.’

            ‘But you don’t go to sea anymore?’

            ‘No. Delilah didn’t like it.’ He closed his eyes and began to sing:

‘The seashell spoke in whispers,

Then it began to sing

Of corals and dolphins and shipwrecked gold,

And many a beautiful thing.

Of whales that keened,

Of crabs that danced,

Or the grace of the dolphin ballet.

Of mermaid’s tears that are shed for the dead,

And of seahorses racing away.’

              ‘Lovely,’ she sighed. ‘Did you make that up?’

‘Delilah’s favourite.’ His bottom lip loosened, and the old man turned away.

Dorcas was beginning to think Old Salty might be the same breed of person as her.  She liked to recall their meals together, and she sang his song on the way to the chip shop. Every Saturday she brushed her hair until it shone and put on a clean dress. Armed with supper, she would whistle her arrival. He welcomed her with his customary grunt, and soon it became clear he had tidied the boat, and trimmed his beard into a neat curve that followed the shape of his chin. After tea, they sat on the cabin roof in a comfortable silence watching the sun disappear beneath the sea. The dogs ran around the boat in circles chasing their tails. Maybe they understand one another too, she thought.

‘Will you always live here?’

‘No such thing as always.’

‘But isn’t this your home?’

‘Don’t have one. It’s just where I stay.’

‘Don’t you get lonely all by yourself?’

He looked in the direction of the sea. ‘Don’t you?’

Dorcas didn’t answer straight away. ‘I don’t know that I do. I think I quite like things as they are.’

Old Salty sighed. ‘You can call me Samuel if you like. It’s the name I was born with.’

‘Thank you,’ she said, putting her hand on his shoulder.

‘Are you sure?’

‘I am. But it’s a fact, Delilah didn’t like it.’

‘Well I do. It was my grandfather’s name.’

As she climbed down the ladder, Samuel put a plastic bag in the bucket. ‘Look inside when you get home.’ It’s contents tinkled as it hit the sand.

‘I can’t take your shells,’ she said. ‘They’re your memories. How will you know what to remember?’

‘Don’t need them now. Past is past.’

His face began to redden, so Dorcas changed the subject. ‘Where do you go in your little boat?’

‘Down what’s left of the estuary towards the sea.’

‘I’ve never been in a boat.’

‘One day I’ll take you,’ he replied.

Every day Dorcas took the dog along the old seabed at first light. Samuel and Kipper would wait for her like statues half hidden in the marsh. As they walked, the dogs arced like ripples around their feet. She collected an armful of sea lavender to decorate the lighthouse, and Samuel took a knife from his pocket and began cutting a plant that grew close by.

‘What’s that?’ she asked.

‘Food.’

‘Doesn’t look like it. Surely you can’t eat seaweed?’

‘It isn’t seaweed. Poor man’s asparagus. It’s samphire: marsh samphire.’

‘Shall we eat it together?’

He shook his head slowly and handed her the bag. ‘Boil for ten minutes and eat with butter.’

‘Please come.’

‘Not this time,’ he said coughing nervously. ‘But will you come to the boat? I want to show you something.’ They walked silently, their eyes staring straight ahead.

Samuel had hung dresses in the cabin. Like offerings, she thought.

‘They were Delilah’s. I don’t think she’ll be back for them. Might fit you.’

The dresses had full swirling skirts and fitted bodices. They were printed with flowers and butterflies. ‘She liked nice things,’ he said. His eyes grew glassy, and Dorcas turned away so she wouldn’t see his pain.

‘That’s beautiful,’ she exclaimed, picking up a pale blue cotton dress with a pattern of tiny shells.

            ‘Take it. I have no use for it.’

            Dorcas knew she was about to become a liar. ‘I couldn’t. It looks far too small for me.’

~

‘My usual please,’ he said quietly to Dorcas across the counter.

‘Thank you for the dress you left on my doorstep,’ she said. ‘It’s beautiful. Would you like to come for tea tomorrow and have a look at where I live?’

            ‘I don’t need to see any old lighthouse. I know what they look like. Thank you anyway.’

‘Please,’ she pleaded. ‘I want to show you something too.’

            ‘Just five minutes then.’

Samuel stood at the threshold hopping from one foot to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. He had shaved his beard, and his chin had red scratches where he’d cut himself. His body said he was about to bolt. Dorcas had put on the blue dress. Samuel opened his eyes wide and breathed out deeply.

‘Come in. Please come in,’ she said. ‘Kettle’s on.’

            ‘You look just like she did thirty years ago.’

Dorcas didn’t answer at once. ‘Here,’ she said slowly, holding out a wooden frame. ‘I did a drawing of the nautilus shell. And I made a frame out of driftwood.’

‘Thank you. Delilah liked to draw you know.’ He looked about him. ‘Someone’s been meddling with that table, I see.’

‘The floors aren’t level. Things kept rolling about.’

            ‘It was Delilah’s. The table.’

            ‘What did you say?’

‘Table belonged to Delilah. Too big to fit in the boat.’

‘You mean you were the lighthouse keeper?’ Samuel nodded. ‘Where is she now?’

            ‘I don’t know. Was a long time ago – when the sea was still here. I didn’t want her to go. She wanted a child but it never came. It made her ill. Twenty years ago it was.’

            ‘Are you waiting for her?’

Samuel lowered his gaze. ‘She won’t come back, will she?’ he asked, like he wasn’t sure whether it was a question.

‘I don’t know,’ she replied gently.

‘No, I know she won’t.’

Dorcas turned off the kettle. ‘Shall I show you around?’

‘I don’t need to see any more. But thank you.’ Samuel stood in the doorway.

‘The coracle is outside. I thought you and Bouncer might like it.’ She opened her mouth to speak. ‘But….’

‘Excuse me,’ he interrupted. ‘I have a lot to do.’

            Dorcas climbed the stairs to the lantern room and watched him go, his back bent so much more than usual. She wanted to help this kind, humble man, but knew he wouldn’t allow such intimacy. He has done so much for me, she thought. Given me my life back. I am not frightened of life anymore. But Dorcas knew it was different for Samuel. The more he had talked of Delilah, the more disturbed and restless he became. She lay down on the bed and Bouncer curled up beside her.

She woke at dusk to the smell of burning, to the sound of Bouncer’s warning bark. Samuel’s boat was ablaze.

            The wood was dry and burnt like tinder. Dorcas pushed her way through the crowd. There was little left. Just a pile of hissing ash. A burnt black tangle of rigging wire. The metal compass lay useless in the sand. Bouncer lifted his leg and the circle of glass sizzled and exploded. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘Samuel wants us to go for a sail. He wants us to be free. Just like him.’

Geometry – Part One

February 3, 2014 § 7 Comments

point-of-ayr-lighthouse-21

A Short Story

Confused by memories of ships that passed in the night, the lighthouse stood solitary in the sand, disturbed only by the screech of seagulls bickering over nesting space. One winter, men came and meddled with nature. They built groins in the next bay and moved sand around with giant diggers. When they had gone, the harvest moon whipped up the coast into a wild storm. The tide went out as usual – but it never came back.

Trinity House took away the glass reflector, and the red and white stripes – which could be seen for miles around – peeled off the walls like old wallpaper. The barnacles fell off the rocks that used to stick out of the sea like stalagmites at low spring tide. Ivy crawled up its sides as a warning. And no one cared, until Dorcas turned up.

She turned the rusty key in the lock and peered through the doorway. A mouse skittered along the skirting board, and a well-worn pair of rigger’s boots lay unwanted on the bare, concrete floor; the history of their owner written on the stained and misshapen leather.

Dorcas believed in the power of symbolism, and as she walked round and round the kitchen, it suddenly came to her why she had to live in a lighthouse. No dark corners where painful memories jump out and crawl inside my head, she thought. No sharp edges to graze my skin and make it bleed. I’ll be safe here, she smiled. Because it’s round. This is where I’m meant to be.

She climbed the circular staircase to the empty lantern room, sat on the window ledge, and waited. Waited for the sun to fill her bones with warmth, waited for the thoughts to stop buzzing around in her head like a swarm of angry bees.

It had been Zac’s doing. He played jazz trumpet for a living, and liked to improvise. He did that with his life as well. And hers. ‘You know I’m an honest man by nature,’ he used to say. ‘But I have to be spontaneous. I’m not really changing my mind at all. You wouldn’t like me if I was predictable.’

‘How do you know?’ said Dorcas, trying not to let her mouth turn down at the edges. ‘I never know where I am with you.’

‘But you know I’ll never leave you,’ he said. But the more she believed his version of how life was, the more bewildered she became; and her brain turned from a neat little road map into a wild, tangled maze she was always getting lost in. All Dorcas had wanted was a simple life that looked like a long straight road with a beginning, a middle, and a happy ending – or at least one with no serious car crashes. The fewer choices she had, the better she liked it.

But Zac had gone – just like the small voice in her head had said he would – taking his backpack, his saxophone, and a head full of broken promises. So maybe he’ll come back, she mused – but she knew he wouldn’t. Like the cuckoo he was, he had found a new bed to nest in.

Dorcas put the boots in the cupboard under the sink, and repainted the inside of the lighthouse. I’ll hide the dirt and scratches of its past, she said to herself. Just like me, it can have a fresh start.

The next day she went to see a counsellor to sort out her head.  ‘I got it wrong,’ she said firmly, as she lay on the couch staring at a painting of a sailing ship floundering in a storm. ‘I thought I wanted to live life in a long, straight line, but I don’t. I want to live it in a circular kind of way. I found a lighthouse to live in, and I need your help with the rest of it.’ The counsellor stared until Dorcas squirmed noisily on the leather couch. ‘Well, perhaps with the odd straight line thrown in for variety,’ she added.

‘I’m not sure that would work,’ the counsellor replied. ‘It might mean you’ll never get anywhere.’

‘But I’ll always know where I am. Don’t you see?’

The woman nodded and began to write on a notepad. ‘Tell me about your life.’

‘I’d sooner not,’ said Dorcas. ‘I just want to look straight ahead.’

‘That’s fine,’ she replied, scribbling furiously. ‘But how can we understand ourselves if we don’t look into the past?’

Dorcas climbed off the couch and put on her coat. ‘Thank you very much, but I think I’ll be better off getting a dog.’

Tied to the cage at the rescue centre was a typewritten sign:

This young man has a happy temperament

and boundless enthusiasm for life.

He is looking for a good home where there are no other dogs.

Dorcas got down on her hands and knees and put her fingers through the cage. ‘Are you the one?’ she whispered. The Jack Russell with a stump for a tail sniffed at her, then ran round and round the cage barking wildly. ‘I think you better stop that,’ she said gently. He dug his front paws into the ground, swayed a bit, then toppled over. She interpreted this behaviour as a sign they were meant for one another, adding to it the rationale that he’d be able to continue his orbital habit in the lighthouse without bumping into things. She called him Bouncer because he was, but knew the name didn’t quite fit.

The kennel maid told her it wasn’t a good idea to let him sleep on her bed, so Dorcas went looking for a beanbag. The pet shop only had round ones, and this too, she decided, was yet another sign.

Later that day she sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and explained to him how life was going to be. She crawled about on all fours, sniffing out anything that might poison him – a plastic bottle of toilet cleaner, strangle him – an old coil of rope, or kill him instantly – anything with a plug on. He sat on his tail and watched with his ears pricked. ‘I’m just pretending to be you,’ she said, adding firmly that it would strengthen his moral fibre if he slept in the kitchen by himself, then they could reunite in the morning, rested and ravenous for breakfast.

But he hadn’t read the rules. That night he howled like a banshee at the kitchen door, and just before first light, she gave in. She saw the bags under his eyes, looked in the mirror and saw her own purple half moons hanging limply as a bloodhound’s. Bouncer moved upstairs after that.

The second night Dorcas was restless. Tossing and turning, she rolled off the bed onto the beanbag. It broke her fall – but she landed on the dog. After the yelping had stopped, she decided to make amends by giving him an early breakfast. As she spooned their food out of the saucepan, the tinned meatballs and peas slid off the plates and rolled across the floor. Dorcas went outside to the tool shed and saw what she hadn’t noticed before – the lighthouse was leaning. She fished out her saw, and laying the spirit level across the mattress, hacked away at the legs of her bed, measuring with the ruler as she went. She stopped when all that was left were four untidy stumps. Then she started on the kitchen table, whittling away at the legs until a lone pea stayed put on the tabletop. ‘From now on,’ she told Bouncer, ‘and just to be on the safe side, I shall eat straight out of the tin, or only eat stuff like mashed potatoes that sticks to the plate.’

Dorcas needed a job, so she answered the ad in the fish and chip shop. Each day she followed the curve of the bay to the old promenade, and every evening after she’d worked her shift, she dangled her legs over the old harbour wall and ate cod and chips straight from the newspaper. Saving half for the dog, she followed her tracks carefully back to the lighthouse, climbed the curling stairs to the lantern room, and watched the sun go down with Bouncer on her lap.

But Dorcas kept forgetting Zac wasn’t in her bed. She would wake and reach out for his warmth – but his side was always empty and cold. I’m rewinding, she thought. And I don’t like it. ‘The problem is this,’ she said to Bouncer. ‘I have to change my thinking from was to is, from then to now. Simple.’ Bouncer wagged his tail. She lifted him onto the bed. ‘There,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll share.’

‘Cod, peas and chips please,’ said the man with the grizzly beard and hair the colour of chestnuts. He was wearing scuffed riggers’ boots and a belt with a skull and crossbones on the buckle.

‘That’s your next door neighbour,’ said the chip shop man. ‘Old Salty. And the one with the hat’s Kipper.’

‘Pardon me?’ she asked.

‘Old Salty. Lives on the boat stuck in the mud down by where the sea used to be. The one with stilts that looks like an insect with long legs. Kipper’s the one with the sun hat about to lift his leg on my doorpost. Don’t pat the little sod, he bites.’

‘What’s his boat called?’ she asked, shovelling chips into a greaseproof bag.

‘Samson and Delilah. Got stuck when the tide went out. Still there because it never came back. Expect you’ve heard the story.’

Soon something was happening in Dorcas’ head. She was getting bored taking the same route to work; so some days she took a deep breath and walked directly to the fish and chip shop, or followed the winding path through the marshes. She untied her long hair for the first time since Zac had gone, and listened for the buzzing in her head. All she could hear was the breeze twisting the curls around her ears.

‘Usual please,’ said Old Salty.

‘Are you the man who lives on the boat that looks like an insect?’ she asked.

‘Who wants to know?’

‘I’m Dorcas and I live in the lighthouse that’s leaning over. How come your dog keeps his hat on?’

‘He knows what’s good for him.’

‘How’s that?’

‘He knows he’ll get sunburn if he doesn’t.’

‘Must be a smart dog, then.’

Kipper sat dribbling by the door.

‘Hungry is what he is.’

‘Why does your boat have stilts on?’

‘You ask a lot of questions. Never complain and never explain.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Groucho Marx. My dinner’s getting cold,’ he said, hauling Kipper onto the pavement.

She bought a sketchbook and sticks of charcoal, and on her day off wandered about looking for things to draw. Shells, dried up seaweed, bits of wood – anything that didn’t require her to be exact. She gave each shell a different kind of roundness. As she sat drawing a pile of razor shells tangled with seaweed, Bouncer let rip his special bark like a pistol shot that signaled there was another dog around, but all she could see was a man pulling a small coracle through the mud. It was the man in the boat.

‘Hello,’ she said. Old Salty grunted. ‘It’s Dorcas from the fish and chip shop.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, with the faintest of smiles. Kipper leapt out of the coracle showing his teeth, and headed straight for Bouncer. ‘Down!’ he shouted, and Kipper sank to the ground wagging his tail. Dorcas pointed to the boat sitting high and dry in the marsh.

‘Have you had it long?’

‘Might have.’

‘Do you live on it?’

‘Her,’ said Old Salty. ‘All boats are women. Everybody knows that.’

‘The chip shop man said it, sorry, she was called Samson and Delilah. Why have you painted out the Delilah bit?’

‘She doesn’t live there anymore. Gone.’

‘Ah,’ said Dorcas. ‘Are you Samson then?’

            ‘You ask a lot of questions.’

            ‘Sorry. Don’t mean to be nosey.’

            ‘Since you’re asking, she used to call me Samson.’

            ‘I see,’ said Dorcas.

‘Don’t expect you do,’ he replied. ‘She reminds me of you.’

To be continued tomorrow…

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