Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Ring the Changes

I thought I'd share a short story tonight. I wrote this in an attempt at historical fiction. Hope you like it!

The Sea Witch 

The sea was like an angry wolf today. From first light it began to rally all its strength, and as the sun made its inevitable voyage across the vast grey heavens it built up into a raging force that played with us like a child playing with a toy boat in a bathtub. It rolled us back and forth, back and forth in a bid to throw us off the deck and pull us into its murky depths. I prayed for my life today and the lives of my men. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a God fearing man and as such will welcome the day when the Lord takes me home again. But today there was evil in the air. As if some sorcery was afoot and that was what so unnerved me.
            I have been at sea since I was a boy of twelve. And even before that, my day dreams were full of sea voyaging and adventures on the briny deep.  The sea has consumed me every day since then and spits me out into my cabin every night, where I lay rocking like a babe in the arms of my mother, until light breaks through the grimy glass in a sword-like shaft upon the wooden floor. I sound morose, do I not? Well, let me reassure you - I am.
            I sit at table, and make my entry in the log. It is the 3rd of April in the year of our Lord AD 1860:
We are being buffeted with each fresh gust of outraged storm. I feel even more that magic is controlling this and some witch somewhere is driving us to ruin.

There is a knock at the door and the boy comes in with my port and tobacco, a luxury I cannot deny myself, even here in the middle of the Atlantic. He reassures me that the cargo is safe and sound in the hold, but that there has been another outbreak of the flux and they have had to throw another few overboard.
            ‘Not to worry,’ I say as I light my first pipe of the evening, ‘we will just figure the loss in, and increase the amount we ask when ashore.’
I feel in need of company tonight, so I tell him to stay. He seats himself across the table from me, and watches me intently as I puff the flame down lower into the pipe’s bowl. His eyes pierce my skin and seem to see right to the fear that is lodged in my chest. I offer him a smoke and he takes his pipe from his pocket. Its plain design is that of a fisherman’s. He stuffs it full of baccy with expert ease using the same hand with which he clasps the bowl and then rocks on the back two legs of the chair gracefully as he draws the scented smoke deep into his body. There is momentary hush within the cabin while the wind takes a breath and then another wild gust rattles the room. I shiver and the candle in the lantern flickers in sympathy.
            ‘Something is amiss this night. I feel it but I cannot explain it.’ The words leave my lips before I have time to stop myself. The last thing I need is a worried crew. There is enough talk of retribution and superstition with this voyage.
            ‘You may be right Cap’n.’ His eyes are watching me intently again but for some reason I don’t feel uncomfortable. In actual fact I almost feel that for one brief moment I am looking at my brother, an equal. It passes and I pour myself a glass of port. He eyes it greedily and I relish my power by not offering him one.
            ‘We shall reach the New World in two nights if this storm has not thrown us too far off course.’
            ‘Aye Cap’n, that would be my reckoning too.’ He draws on his pipe again, taking the last of smoke and savouring it.


I am a woman alone. I can feel the agony of lost generations as I embrace the sea. Here, I stand at the edge of my world. And I thank God that my tears can join with the sea spray, that my little one cannot see me weep. The waves siphon up the shingle and spit out their salty debris. The anger that it exhibits never ceases to take my breath away. My babe clings to my neck with all the love that she holds in her small body. Sometimes I feel that love like a wolf protecting and strengthening me, but not tonight. Tonight her love seems fragile and she whimpers in my arms begging: ‘go home, go home’. She feels it too.
            The villagers call me a witch. They have done so since I was a girl. My scrawny body meant that I could hide in small places and my fearful nature meant that I did. Widow March would take over the green space on a Monday and wring out washing with Mrs Timmins: singing as they worked. The droplets of soapy water landing like moonstones onto the grass as they hung the sheets high. I was drawn to them. I would hide in the shrubbery, my knees pulled tight to my chest, my breath caught in a terror of discovery. They hated me, called me ‘witch child’ even then. My ma said they were scared of me because I wouldn’t speak, when later I had come home after a beating. She held me to her and we became one person, one woman, one being: her muscular arms enfolding me, her blistered hands stroking my hair, and her beautiful voice soothing away the fear like the lime wash on the cottage walls. It has been three years since she passed away.
I pull back Rose’s hood and she gazes at me with that same trusting look and my mother’s large, brown eyes. And I tell her in my head that all will be well, that the morning will come and the dawn will steal our fears and fling them to the four winds. She hears me - I know this because she smiles. We lumber back up the beach. By the time we reach the cottage Rose is asleep. I unlatch the door and place her carefully on the bed, pulling up the covers to surround her chin and keep the cold from her soft body. The fire in the range has burned low so I toss on another log and watch it roar in appreciation. I will not sleep tonight so I sink into the wooden chair and make loose my mind.

It was solstice eve in the depths of winter when he first unlatched my door. I had been sat at the window. The snow had lain untouched like an expectant bride. The moonlight had conjured each frozen puddle into a glassy window and the world outside lay breathless. The sudden cold chill turned me towards him as he shut the door. I was not surprised. I had been waiting.
‘I’ve been watching you,’ he said, his tongue protruding from between his lips. I said nothing of course. My silence seemed to intrigue him. ‘We have very little time.’
So I stood before his gaze as he undressed me with his eyes.
‘You are beautiful,’ he murmured, ‘so pale.’
He cupped my chin with one hand, and with the other unlaced my bodice. As he pulled my corset open his breath caught. I heard him gasp. He was strong as he pushed me onto the bed. His hands grasped my goose-fleshed arms in the deepening cold. And I lay beneath him as he loved me. I remember the dying fire-light flickering on the cottage walls. It was five moons later when my belly swelled that I fully realised what he had done to me.

‘Is there a pretty lass waiting for you back ‘ome?’ His eyes meet mine as he lays his head on my chest. This is a boundary that he has never dared to cross before.
He knows from my manner that the matter is closed so he probes no more but his question does raise questions for me. Do I? I can go when I wish and do as I wish so she is mine but I am not hers. That would be absurd.
‘Sleep,’ I say.
Tonight the motion of the ship which usually lulls me is pulling me further from slumber. I need to be alone, so I order him back to his hammock. His eyes flicker like a Davy lamp in poisoned air but he says nothing. I watch as he pulls on his breeches, encasing his gleaming body in the maculate cotton.
‘Pipe before I go?’ He knows my weakness.
‘No, not tonight.’
It is final and he concedes. When he shuts the oak behind him I feel relief rush through me like rivers after rain.
It feels, it feels, oh how can I describe it? I suppose it feels like my skin is alive. Like there is a force flowing through me and sparking out of my fingers. Like I make it happen... Like I have a power...Like I am powerful.
            The babe sleeps. I watch her from my chair: her every breath lingering smoke-like on the air around her body. She breathes with such rhythm, such trust in life that I want to weep. But tonight I must be strong, tonight I must remain solid. It is easy when I wrap myself in mist to float away.
            The pot holds the herbal mix that I gathered last full moon. I dip my hands in. My chapped dry fingers sting and smart. Pulling off my garments I wash my body, carefully covering every inch of my skin. I am now ready.
It has begun. She stands before me. I can see her in the gloom. She is a phosphorescent phantom.
            ‘Why have you come?’ I ask even though I expect no answer. I pull myself up from my bunk. I sit with my hands gripping the smooth sanded wood at the edges. And I am not too scared to admit that I am afraid.
            She smiles and I can hear her thoughts. The tone of her ‘voice’ is soft and it makes me think of warm blankets.
‘I have come to warn you...help you.’
This seems so unlikely that I laugh. At first gently and then the absurdity takes me over and I find that a full belly laugh is spewing from me. She looks at me with pity in her face.
‘You are a dying man, Captain James McIntyre. I am glad you can embrace death with so much mirth. May the Lord judge your soul a little more seriously.’ Her warm blanket ‘voice’ is now cold and scratchy.
I recover myself. ‘I thought you said you were here to help me.’
‘And so I am. From yourself.’ I answer him.
He stares at me. There is fear but something else seems to be irking him. It matters not.
 ‘How many souls do you have on board?’ I can see my concern is lost on him.
‘Yes.  How many captured men, women and children do you have aboard?’
He grimaces but answers. ‘We had 562 at the outset. And I think maybe we have had to dispatch around 50.’ He gets to his feet, staggers to the table and thrusts a handful of papers into the air. ‘They’re legal. I have the papers from their chiefs. They were not captured. I paid good money for them.’
‘Paid for them?’ I feel my spirit shimmer with rage. ‘Have you been down in the hold to see...?’
He interrupts me and looking away, he reaches for the port. ‘No, that is not my job.’
‘For all that is holy, James! They are chained so close they cannot move... the stench... the noise of the children crying for their mothers. How can this not affect you? ’
He looks at me and at once I see it all. The whole tawdry tale spread across his features: the stink of greed oozing from him.
‘I have to go.’
He looks panicked. ‘You said that you would help me.’
‘It seems I was mistaken.’
‘I don’t understand. I...’
‘A warning will have to suffice. They are coming for you, James.’ I close my eyes. I am ready to go home. ‘It is over.’
‘But you do not understand...I did it for you, for us...It would have meant freedom for us. I could have married you.’
I open my eyes and look straight into his empty soul. And I know the truth.
The dawn breaks the back of the storm and I stand on the starboard side watching the US Navy forging their way towards us. In the distance, the early morning sun is making white the sails, as they pull my fate closer towards me.
‘Looks like it’s finished, Cap’n.’ The boy stands stoically, his hands clasping the rail.
‘Yes it does, does it not?’
He watches the horizon, eyes like slits; his youthful skin already scrubbed raw with salt; his hope, still alive at odds with my dead resignation.
‘So am I mouse, or lion?’
‘Sorry Cap’n?’
‘Do I sink or swim?’
Confusion clouds his gaze.
‘Live or die?’
‘Only you’d know the answer to that Cap’n.’
He is right.
The dawn light trickles in: reaching out its arms to comfort us as we sit by the dying fire. I sing silently to Rose as she wakes from her deep slumber, a song my mother used to sing to me:
From ev’ry dark nook they press forward to meet me;
I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome,
And others are there, looking downward to greet me
The ash grove, the ash grove, again is my home.

 Rose has been away during the night too, but she returns unburdened.  The last remnants of her dream like gossamer thread dispersing into the ether.




Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What I am - not what I do.

Just a wee one today, the first line popped into my head as I chopped up potatoes for dinner. Yoohooing through the letterbox - impossible to ignore.


I'm speaking from that place - you know
the one. That attic, out of sight,
at the end of the darkest staircase. I tiptoe in -
lay down my brain,
cover it in blankets to
keep it warm.

It's full of books I
haven't read and words I've
whispered but never said. Thoughts I
discarded in the wastepaper bin because
they hurt too much.

Now sat at the pockmarked desk, pen in hand, I
scribble in between the lines. Avoid the gaps which
are fuller than the stops.

I'm prepared for the screaming from
the mad woman
inside - but still she takes me by surprise. It seems
Grace Pool is away today.

Biro blemishes my fingertips, as I skirt around
the issue. Distraction; itchy nose; a tissue.