January 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
Continued from Enda’s Island: a short story in three parts (part II)
What’s the weirdest dream you’ve ever had? I don’t know, Enda, replied his mother, something to do with knitting, perhaps? Yes, mum, how did you know? That’s exactly what I was thinking! I had a dream last night about a huge whale. It had been knitted out of something oily, like hair with tar on it, and it was hanging up in a massive building like a church or a cathedral – like a huge joint of meat in a butcher’s window. Mmm, I can’t top that … she replied. I was thinking more along the lines of an anxiety dream that I once had, about a big green jumper that I was knitting for your father … it kept coming undone. I think it might have had something to do with that darned data set that never seemed to come together … anyway, hurry up with your breakfast, Neil’s arriving soon.
Neil Hue was due to join them on the island later that morning. He was a writer with a particular interest in archaeological illustration and had agreed to examine the journals that Enda was taking care of while the ‘swallowed man’ recovered in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Enda’s mother had emailed Neil some photos that she had taken of pages from the journals; with characteristic efficiency, he had smoothly sorted out the difficult logistics of travel to the island from his base near Lausanne. They were due to meet him off the tiny boat that occasionally carried birdwatchers to their island from Barra which, for them, had the nearest conventional transport links to mainland Scotland.
Neil stepped awkwardly off the boat onto the decaying jetty. He was carrying an elegant suitcase and an expensive looking black leather folio. He was a slightly built man who wore delicate tortoiseshell spectacles beneath a glossy mane of well maintained hair. Always dapper, he bore a pallid complexion that belied his name. Enda liked Neil Hue – in spite of the fact that he was a man of few words. Enda took hold of the plush suitcase and loaded it into the Land Rover, taking care to avoid the worst of the dirt that encrusted every inch of the vehicle’s surface.
Well, let’s take a look, shall we …
On returning to the Black House, Neil had wasted little time before opening the first of the leather bound journals, wrinkling his nose in slight disdain at the faint fishy odour that wafted up to his nostrils. The first drawing that caught the writer’s attention was from a volume that carried the title Peruvian Sketchbook on its opening page. Surrounded by notes written in a spidery hand that could have come straight from one of Leonardo’s Codexes was a drawing of a dog with an egg-shaped head. Mmmm … very strange, he muttered. What do you think … he said, looking intently at Enda’s mother. You’re the osteoarchaeologist? Enda’s mother, who was, in fact, an expert in animal bones, looked back with an expression that combined thoughtfulness with amusement. Dunno, she said … might have stopped it from barking I suppose … It actually looks like some kind of binding ritual. Perhaps dogs were venerated in Peru? Like cats in Ancient Egypt.
This gets better, said Neil, Look at this one. They all crowded round the second of the journals, titled Polynesian Sketchbook. It’s a shark’s jaw encrusted with a full set of human teeth. Very Damien Hirst … He said this with a smile, his mildly continental accent betraying the many years that he had spent in Switzerland. What do you reckon? Well some of those islanders used to put cowrie shells in the eyes of skulls, she replied. Perhaps it’s some kind of offering to a shark god? It must have been a small reef shark by the size of it – same size jaw as that of a man. Also, quite a bit of work removing all of the shark teeth and reshaping the cartilage so perfectly like that … or it could have been a mermaid … she said, smiling at Enda.
The style of these drawings is inconsistent. I don’t think they were done by the same person. Look at this one – there’s no real shading and it seems to bear a Japanese influence. Neil surreptitiously shielded the erotic drawing from Enda’s view, so that only his mother could see it.
Neil then turned page after page revealing, by turns, a delicate engraving on the tooth of a hare, the bleached bones of a strange, exotic plant, the jawbone of a cave bear with an extra set of teeth, a skull with a third eye set into its domed forehead …
There’s a blue burial here, look, it’s a gorgeous colour even though it’s faded a bit. Isn’t there a yellow one that you are investigating at the moment? Enda’s mother peered down at the page, at the delicate sketch of human bones arranged in a foetal position. Yes, the one we’re looking at has got a lot of yellow ochre associated with it. If you include the Red Lady at Paviland that makes the three primary colours: blue, yellow and red! Although, of course, interjected Neil, the primaries are quite a modern concept – though I do believe that the Ancient Greeks had a concept of simple colours: white, black, red and something like green …
So, asked Enda’s mother, changing the subject, have we heard any news about our swallowed friend? Well, said Neil, he’s conscious and verbal, after a fashion. He’s raving constantly in some form of eastern Mediterranean or middle eastern dialect but no-one can understand what he’s trying to say. His name is John according to his passport and the theory is that he must have fallen off one of the ferries during the storm a few days ago. Unless, of course, he was pushed … you know the story of course … How he survived the experience physically is anyone’s guess, but what it’s done to his mind is hard to imagine – just picture it – being squeezed in there in the total darkness with that awful stink and only the half digested squid for company. That great heartbeat ringing in your ears … no wonder he’s waking up at night wild eyed with terror.
Enda’s mother nodded with unusual graveness. Well, lets hope he recovers … I expect it’s a pretty unusual situation for counselling, even if they could understand him.
Neil continued to silently peruse the pages, flicking past a unicorn’s burial, past scale drawings of massive representations of tattooed Egyptian gods, past the jawbone of a whale, similarly tattooed . He looked at his watch. It was getting late, the light was finally fading, midsummer nights were long at this high latitude. Well, it’s an early start for me if I’m going to catch the morning tide, he said.
Early the following morning, as they waved goodbye to Neil and the engine of the boat went from a harbour chug to the roar that accompanied its pressing through the north atlantic swell, Enda remembered the short story that he had heard on the radio a day or two before, the one about St Brendan’s voyage. Since then, he had lain awake in bed at night, imagining journeys to enchanted islands populated by fleas, mice and whispering winds – perhaps to distant lands of ice and fire. He knew also that his dreams might be different tonight, infected by poetic thoughts of long, deep nervous impulses passed along the spinal cord of a sperm whale, impulses carrying strange images of a peculiar intimacy shared between a swallowed man and a monster of the deep.
Lewis Longbarrow January 2011
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).
November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment
Enda had lived on the island for as long as he could remember. They lived simply enough, he and his mother, with a black dog called Anubis and a slim, elegant cat called Bastet. His mother always had lots of work to do, bagging and logging the bone specimens that she continuously dug out from the burial site. Which meant that he had plenty of time to himself. Time that he used to explore the lonely, windy shoreline, to listen to the mournful cries of the seabirds and the dry whispering of the bleached marram grass. Life was largely uneventful … until the day that he found the whale.
There had been two days of strong storms that had kept them all indoors, causing the loose window panes to rattle in their deep sunk frames and gusts from the chimney to blow peat smoke around the living room of the taigh dubh or black house that they called home. After two days’ confinement Enda needed to stretch his legs … and so it was that he found himself walking far the day that the storm cleared, to a beach on the South Western fringes of the island called Barabhas. Enda had not been to this beach before. Even for the island, it was a wild and desolate place.
He was alone, as usual – and he was used to that – but for some reason he didn’t quite feel alone. Which, to be honest, wasn’t a very comforting sensation. As he walked, occasionally glancing around to quell a mild nervousness, he noticed a series of strange depressions in the sand. They were very slight hollows, only discernible in the high contrast generated by the low winter sun. What are they, he thought? Arranged in a row of three pairs, they looked suspiciously like the marks made by the knees of people in prayer. He knelt down into them himself, his knees fitting easily inside; if they were what he thought they were, they were obviously made by much bigger people than himself.
Then, just as he was contemplating this conundrum, the wind changed direction and he could smell it – the whale – asserting its monstrous presence through a vast oily odour of decay. But he couldn’t yet see it. In order to make eye contact, he needed to walk around a long spur in the sand.
So, there it lay, like a huge Stornoway black pudding, a massive bag of blood; quite some distance away, its true size only revealing itself over the course of the deceptive distance that he had to cross to reach it. It was a gargantuan thing, robbed of its living grace by death, a once mighty sperm whale reduced to a flaccid bag of rubbery skin and rancid fluids: very dark stuff that oozed disturbingly into the white sand beneath. He walked round it. The odour got worse as he stood in its lee. The jaw was cast out a little to one side, as if it had been bent in some awful submarine conflict with one of its kind; but the teeth were the really eerie thing. Incredulously, he bent down to examine them more closely. Partially obscured by a massive, snarling fold of flesh, he could nonetheless see that his eyes were not deceiving him and that they really were inscribed with drawings of fabulous underwater beasts. He got closer to examine them; yes, into each yellowing ivory peg was etched a detailed graphic representation of a deep-sea monster. He could see serpents, an angler fish, a fearsome kraken, sharp-billed giant turtles, finned water dragons and a host of other weird and mysterious creatures for which he had no words.
Then, with a chill, he heard a small voice coming from within the creature’s rotting bowels; the unmistakeable groaning of a man.
This story continues in Enda’s Island (parts II & III).