The Archipelago: a short story in three parts | Part I: The Eastern Island

May 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Archipelago: a short story in three parts

Part I: The Eastern Island

Brother Luke gazed out of the tiny window of his beehive shaped cell. He could detect no draft from the gaps in the dry-stone structure. He could see the ocean and it was calm; calm enough to reflect a perfect image of the sun as it sank towards the horizon. Putting down his pen, he settled his head into the palm of his left hand. Today is the day for my journey, he thought.

The coracle was ready in the little natural harbour on the eastern side of the island. In anticipation he had packed it with supplies for two days: some bread, a little cheese and butter from the monastery’s tiny dairy; water, wine and honey, and a flagon of mead. He had also packed letters and gifts for the monks that inhabited the neighbouring islands and a fishing line with hooks. He anticipated that this would be sufficient for the journey. Travelling at night would mean that he could navigate by the stars.

The sun had disappeared into a thin set of pink and grey cloud-banks when Brother Luke waded out to the little leather boat. He raised the hem of his thick woolen habit as he did so, and held his sandals in his hands. The water was cold and the rounded boulders slippery beneath his feet. His heart beat loudly in his chest; although the distance was not great, he was under no illusions as to the perils that might await him on his voyage. He was only a boy when he had first set foot on the western island and the intervening years had filled his mind with many troubling tales; of monks lost at sea and dreadful sounds born across the ocean on storm-driven winds … and the margins of the illustrated psalters that he read on a daily basis were filled with the most terrifying figments … chimerical images of the inhabitants of the abyssal waters that surrounded the archipelago and of monstrous beasts rumoured to exist in the vast unexplored reaches of the western oceans.

Still, he took courage, settled onto the coracle bench and began to row. His aim at first was to circumnavigate the eastern lee of the island, raise the coracle’s sail and take advantage of the prevailing south-westerly winds to carry him in the intended direction.

He pulled on the oars. As the island slowly withdrew into the gathering darkness he felt a tremor of genuine terror. The sun had set and the ocean was now black; a great silence was hanging heavily, like the boughs of a lightless forest across the water. He stopped for an anxious moment, but could hear nothing save the dripping of water from the oars. He looked down at the reflections of the stars; so deep, the water here, that they had never been sounded … utterly unfathomable in fact. He took some comfort in the sublime profundity of the situation and looked up into the brilliant firmament above. By his calculation the island that he had departed from was still not so far away. He could still row back …

Then, a delicate breeze from the south west; his chance to raise the sail.

He lit his tallow lantern and went about the business of rigging the canvas. It caught the quickly freshening breeze and he felt the boat begin to spin. With his hand on the tiller he felt more in control of the situation and his qualms began to ease. Taking a fix from the North Star he could see that the wind was taking him due east. He needed to begin his calculations of distance …

The night was long and chill, a salty dampness pervaded the air. Towards dawn the labour of navigating became too much and, after lashing the tiller, he drew his robe tightly about his shoulders, lay down in the cramped belly of the coracle and closed his eyes. He drifted off to sleep, rocked by the gentle motion of a slight swell, but his dreams were uneasy; dreams of raiders, men bearing terrible weapons, bloody, vivid, violent dreams … then, suddenly, he was awoken by terrible screams.  A light, ragged mist had descended but he could still discern the dim black bulk of the island ahead; long shallow wedges of black rock topped by tousled manes of vivid green vegetation receding into the grey gloom, speckled by scores of white and black seabirds: gannets, gulls, fulmars, puffins, razorbills, cormorants, guillemots.

He had arrived at his destination much sooner than expected. The screams that had disturbed his rest were, of course, those of the birds, which now plumeted like a black and white rain into the steel grey waters. He stowed the sail and pulled once more on the oars, heading for the rough hewn steps that he could dimly discern; marked at the foot of the cliff by a brightly painted red cross. He secured the coracle, then made his way up the black cliff. Eventually, and somewhat out of breath, he reached the monastery and was greeted by the welcoming sight of smoke emerging from the roofs of the cells. He could smell cooking and wondered if the monks might be preparing breakfast. He called out, but no answer. He called again. He lifted the curtain door of the first cell … said a few words of greeting and then went in, his eyes slowly adjusting to the musky gloom..

The cell, which was of a similar drystone construction to his own on the western island, but made from a much thinner slatey material, was deserted. A desk, identical to his own, was placed, against the tiny window that, like his own window, faced east. It had more or less the same view, except that this island was more angular in its shape, the sea a little choppier than when he had left. On the desk he could see a freshly cut pen and a few delicate brushes, one whose tapered bristles were still wet with bright paint. An egg yolk, freshly broken to bind the paint, was as yellow and glossy as if it had just been emptied from the shell. Exotic yet familiar pigments were arranged neatly on the desk, including a small block of ultramarine rock and a lump of madder root. There was a terracotta bowl containing black ink made from powdered bone charcoal. A page of text was laid in the centre of the desk; it was clear that work was still in progress on one of the tiny marginal illustrations .

Brother Luke then systematically entered each cell; in each he found evidence of recent activity but no men, no monks.

Finally, when he had examined the interior of the last of the tiny beehive structures, he walked out into the gathering wind and the cries of the seabirds. From this vantage point he could see the allotments, the livestock, the whole green wedge of the eastern island sliding down into the sea. He called out, for one last time, more loudly and with greater urgency. No reply. It was apparent that the island was deserted.

To be continued …

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