The Archipelago: a short story in three parts | Part III: The Western Island

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Archipelago: a short story in three parts

Part III: The Western Island

… continued from Part II

Brother Luke digested the contents of the warning from the Northern Island with a feeling of utter dismay. He then looked down into the coracle at the supplies that the lighthouse keeper had given him. There was plenty of food and water to help him make the journey home, but given the man’s morbid condition it all felt touched by death … he could muster little appetite for what lay bundled there. He then slumped forward onto the oars.

Eventually he turned the coracle round and headed back in a south-westerly direction towards the Western Island.

The sea had returned to a glassy stillness, and he was glad of the lack of wind, but it felt like a labour of Sisyphus to continue rowing. By now his hands were raw and blistered from contact with the oars. Time sank into the stillness of the empty disc on which he floated and the sun’s energy shrouded him in sickening layers of heat. He loosened the habit from around his shoulders and rowed half naked. Sweat dripped from his brow, his flesh cooked.

Then, quite close by, he saw a long black rock; the perfect place for him to rest from the exertions of rowing without the coracle drifting. The rock was slightly mottled, grey and black, marble smooth, slimy beneath his feet and strangely warm – a fact that brother Luke put down to its dark colour. Feeling a sudden chill, he slipped his arms back into the habit and sat down for a moment before gingerly exploring the outcrop. The rock was featureless apart from a strange protrusion that ran along its centre and a slight, shallow depression at one end …

Suddenly, Brother Luke felt a tremor pass through his feet and a great geyser of frothing brine erupted from the depression. The black rock began to rise from the water and he fell sideways into the ocean. Initially buoyed up by the air trapped within his habit, he soon began to feel dragged down by its weight. He had no choice but to tear the garment from his body. The cold wrenched breath from his tightening chest. As he struggled to the surface he saw what, in fact, the rock was; through a cloud of bubbles a tiny sentient eye set within a huge bulbous head, a small flipper held out at an angle to the rippled bulk of its body. A true leviathan of the deep; what was once known in a long dead European language as a cachalot …

Somehow he scrambled back into the coracle and lay shivering, wet and naked in the shallow belly of the boat. From his supine position, he could see the great tail of the beast rise; he cowered in its terrifying shadow, fearing that the gigantic flukes were about to smash down and shatter the flimsy coracle. He covered his head and closed his eyes.

Then the shadow disappeared. He felt the coracle rock and, feeling a potent rush of relief, awkwardly raised himself up. All that was left of the whale’s presence was a lens of still water amongst the turmoil, the surface limit of the column of water displaced by the leviathan’s descent.

Brother Luke began, again, to row.

The night was desperately cold and a low, oppressive cloud blanketed the moon and stars from view. He continued to toil onwards in a mindless state, wrapped in the coracle’s sail. Finally, the soft granular light of dawn spread through the darkness from the east, and the Western Island became dimly discernible as a small grey lump on the horizon. As it grew closer, he could detect its familiar fluted limestone buttresses emerging from the sea. Again he heard the sounds of seabirds. He rowed closer, made his way to the small bay on the eastern side of the island, and anchored the coracle with a heavy stone.

The island’s familiar emptiness greeted him as he walked up the hill. The day was windless, still, and a fragrant dampness rose up from the pasture beneath his bare feet. Exhausted from his journey, he felt glad to be home. Following the tiny path that he alone had made since his arrival many years ago, he took pleasure from the sun that was gradually warming his cold, weary, naked body. He skirted the beehive, and then cast a handful of feed from his store to the chickens. As he passed by the cow he gave her an affectionate stroke. He then returned to the store to grab a flagon of mead and made his way up to the solitary, beehive-shaped cell.

He looked out at the sunset that was beginning to paint the western sky in broad strokes of vividly melding reds, yellows and violets. Beams of crepuscular light radiated downwards from the warm grey clouds that shrouded the sun. He sat down on his humble straw cot. He took three mouthfuls of mead from the flagon, relishing the rich sweetness that burst in his mouth. The last man on earth then felt a desperate need for rest.

The Archipelago: a short story in three parts | Part II: The Lighthouse Keeper and the Northern Island

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Archipelago: a short story in three parts

Part II: The Lighthouse Keeper and the Northern Island

… continued from Part I

‘So, would you like to play chess?’ asked the lighthouse keeper.

It was clear to brother Luke that the man kneeling before him was dying. His complexion bore a waxy, yellowish pallor and a network of blackish-blue veins formed disturbing, delicate webs on his exposed skin. These veins spread across and beneath a complex design of blue-green swirling tattoos. The man’s ears hung in tatters, fringed by a regular series of precise incisions, all of equal length and spacing, that had been made into the flesh. The monk knelt opposite the lighthouse keeper on a thick, comfortable, richly woven carpet of wool. The carpet was decorated with the same motifs as those that covered the lighthouse keeper’s body. Out of the tower’s western porthole window he could see the darkness of the arriving storm. The sound of crashing waves and distant thunder reached his ears.

In between them was a low table on which was laid a chess set made of walrus tooth and whale ivory; intricately carved, time-worn pieces shaped in the form of bearded men bearing shields and ancient weapons.

‘The gods of the silk road were happy to share accommodation’, said the lighthouse keeper.

Brother Luke said nothing.

‘By which I mean that you are welcome to sleep on my floor while the storm passes through. I have plenty of food too… and not much appetite.’ The lighthouse keeper coughed, a hollow, rasping cough, and then stood up to spit out of the porthole.

He continued to stand there for a few moments, with his back to the monk then returned with a strained smile.

He then gestured to brother Luke to make the first move.

It had taken him the best part of a day to row from the Eastern Island. The freshening wind bore occasional squalls of rain and sent the surface of the ocean into shuddering spasms of light. The wind felt threatening and he soon became aware of a sombre accumulation of cloud that was building to the west. He stood up in the coracle and, shielding his eyes, scanned the horizon for signs of land. The lighthouse was plainly visible, a tiny grey splinter sticking up from the sea. Though clearly some distance away, it seemed the safest thing to head for and, according to Brother Luke’s rudimentary map, it was only a short diversion from his intended destination. Eventually, after much backbreaking toil, the lighthouse building rose above him from the rocky platform of the skerry; a cylinder of smooth white quartzite blocks that tapered delicately from base to top. The pillar was crowned with a rusting mass of iron. A tattered crown of thorns.

Brother Luke was aware from his map that beneath these blackening waters lay the remains of hundreds of ships. And, with a shudder, he thought of the bodies of the navigators that must be down there in those immense, chilling depths; far from any light, far from the comfort of their homes. The frantic wind drew his attention to the west. In the distance he could now see faint flashes of lightning illuminating the clouds. He pulled the coracle onto the rock platform and knocked loudly at the door. It soon opened and a strange figure stepped out to meet him. The man wore faded robes that must once have shone with bright colours, and a headdress of dusty plumage.

‘Welcome brother’, the man said, ‘I suggest that you bring your boat inside.’

This was the man that now played chess with brother Luke. They played a long, skilful game as the storm raged around the lighthouse, throwing vast waves up to the porthole windows of the room that they kneeled in, 50 feet or so above the rock of the skerry. Occasional gouts of water entered the glassless portholes but they never reached the centre of the circular chamber. Eventually the candles burned low and it was clear that the lighthouse keeper needed rest. Brother Luke took his arm and helped him to his cot before returning to the carpet where he now rested his head. It felt strangely comforting to hear the sea making its futile attempts at attrition of the lighthouse, which conveyed dull vibrations from the detonating surf.

When he rose the following morning the storm had abated. Looking together out into the grey light from the northern porthole window, they could see that the swell had subsided into a light chop. They could also dimly make out the Northern Island emerging from a light shroud of mist. Circling seagulls brayed like donkeys around the lighthouse…

Before saying farewell the lighthouse keeper cast five astragaloi or knucklebones onto the air. For a fleeting moment they were suspended in a perfect diamond against the walls of the lighthouse. Then they fell; when they had landed, he examined them carefully from above. ‘I am afraid that you have a very lonely journey ahead, my friend’, he said in a low, melancholy tone.

With these words in mind, brother Luke now rowed closer to the Northern Island. He could see that it was a near perfect dome of orange granite besmeared with chalky guano from the hordes of seabirds that mobbed in the sky. Then, as he drew closer still, he discerned a hundred or so gently drifting coracles. They were of a longer and narrower design than his own and clearly intended to carry a number of passengers. As he grew closer he could see that all of the leather-skinned vessels were empty. He drew alongside one and awkwardly stepped inside.

A note, scrawled in bone black ink lay at the bottom of the boat.

On it was written the following message: ‘Do not set foot on the island, there is plague’.

To be continued …

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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