Enda’s Island: a short story in three parts (part II)

November 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Continued from Enda’s Island: a short story in three parts (part I)

It didn’t take long for Enda to persuade his mother to return with him to barabhas. Although young in years, he was wise enough to know that stories of engraved whale teeth and a swallowed man would be unlikely to impress her, so he kept quiet about those things and alarmed her with the threat of the rising tide taking the whale carcass away. When he broke the news, she was bent over a microscope absorbed in the identification of nordic snail specimens; but on hearing his words she was instantly galvanised into action and, with the simple exclamation I see, grabbed a huge flensing tool that they had found on the island’s abandoned whaling station and marched out into the wind.

After a bumpy Landrover ride over the machair, they stood together on the beach. She really couldn’t believe her ears, but chose not to say anything about the weak sound that emanated from within the sperm whale’s belly. Instead: why didn’t you tell me about these carvings? she said.

She worked fast, cutting back and forth through the taut, black, drum-like skin and into the soft, purplish-pink, rancid blubber. She slowed as she got closer to where she pictured the creature’s stomach would lie. If there really was somebody in there (and not just a dying transistor radio as she believed – and hoped) she had to work carefully. The flensing knife was fearfully sharp. Then, all of a sudden … with an obscene, flatulent plop … the figure of a man was disgorged onto the beach along with a massive quantity of squid. The digestive juices had, horribly, already begun their work on his exposed skin; which was becoming translucent, white and had a disgusting spongy texture, like a really bad case of athlete’s foot. He didn’t smell too good either. His eyes were wide open and staring. He was breathing in short sharp gasps, mumbling words in a language that they couldn’t understand and, cradled in his emaciated arms, he clutched a dark, dank canvas package bound around with leather straps.

My … god … they both uttered, in unison. Enda’s mother immediately phoned the coastguard. Help me with him, Enda, she said.

Although far too light for a man of his age, the body was nonetheless slimy and very awkward to hold. They had a hard time getting him to the waiting car which was parked a few hundred metres up the beach. As they were hoisting him (wrapped in an old tartan dog-blanket) into the back seat, the canvas package fell out of his arms. The man made a weak gesture as if to reach for it, but he was far too slow. Enda picked it up and, shoving it into a tatty blue carrier bag, threw it into the passenger seat.

It wasn’t far to the mainland and the sea was calm, so the coast guard arrived in under an hour. Enda’s mother drove the man to the ancient stone jetty where three men in lifejackets picked him up in the brightly coloured RIB. The eyes of the adults met (and fell) when they saw the state of the disgorged man. One of them, perhaps the skipper, gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. No one said a word.

Back at the house Enda’s mother looked unusually shaken … mmm … that was pretty disturbing, she said, with barely disguised stoicism. What do you want for tea?

After they had eaten (one of their usual meals from the limited range of supplies that they had on the island) they sat and listened to the radio: Book at Bedtime. It was a modern reworking of the journeys of St Brendan; it described a journey by coracle to a number of fantastic islands: to the Isle of Fleas, the Isle of Mice and the Isle of Perpetual Day. Enda’s ears really pricked up at the part of the story where St Brendan and his two companions landed on what appeared to be an island … but which was, in fact, the back of a sleeping whale …

However, it was not until the storyteller evoked a prayer made by Catholic seafarers: Shall I leave the prints of my knees on a sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land? that Enda remembered the contents of the plastic bag that was sitting on the passenger seat of the car. He went out into the wild, starless, Hebridean night to collect it.

It had dried a little, after sitting in the heat of the car for several hours, but was still very damp. It reeked a little of squid. Although the buckles had slightly corroded, the straps came apart very easily. Within the canvas were more wrappings, of a finer linen, and, bound within this still damp sheet were a number of leather casebound journals which, on opening, revealed themselves to be sketchbooks, filled to the brim with strange and marvelous drawings.

This story continues in Enda’s Island (part III).

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