Sailing The Eighth Sea – Kelvin M Knight

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with S.

Ship? How did you guess. But what kind of ship?

You will never guess because this is a transcendental telescope, one my Nanna gave me.

The things I see with this telescope blow my mind. And yet I can’t stop looking. Even when this telescope feels as though it’s stuck in my mind. Everyone thinks I’m just sitting here, on my capstan, watching the world go round, when really I’m lost on the other side.

Over there, mermaids are angels, with eyes of pearls and wings like fish fins and harps made of oysters sprinkled with rainbows. Over there, wooden ships fly through the sea, their sails flapping like giant gulls’ wings. People fly too. And not just sailors. Ordinary folk. They also walk upside down and inside out. Couples dancing is best. Those ropes dangling from their wrists and ankles remind me of coral reefs. Anchors are dotted about, in the sky and underground. And sailors run between them without moving. Some of the things they do are so comical.

I daren’t laugh though otherwise the harbourmaster will get uppity and demand, ‘What’s so funny!’ When I don’t tell him he’ll snatch my telescope, look through it, see nothing, and confiscate it. Then I’ll no longer be able to see my Nanna, waving at me, smiling at me, talking to me. I have seen this. My telescope has foreseen this.

That’s the trouble with the spirit world. They know what’s going to happen, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Spying the harbourmaster heading my way, I curse. If I ignore him, he’ll go away. Whistling a simple sea shanty, I look towards that lighthouse. A living beacon of purples and golds crumbling into the greyest sandstone.

‘What do you think you’re doing, shipmate?’

My telescope is in the harbourmaster’s paws. My telescope is at his black eye. My telescope is bending over his wooden knee. Smirking, he throws the snapped halves at me then staggers away.

No sympathy, please. Sympathy sinks ships. Say that twenty times when you’ve had too many rums.

I could do with a rum right now to drown my sorrow, make my telescope appear whole again. I’ll have to wait until dusk, though, when Nanna visits. She’ll see me right with another telescope. Hopefully one with a harpoon attached to it this time.

 

KELVIN M KNIGHT’s first flash fiction anthology FAITH in a FLASH is out now on iBooks and Kindle. He also blogs regularly here.

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Image by Kelvin M Knight 

In The Shadow of the Sound Tower – Paul Thompson 

The sound tower is silent, abandoned in the dunes, windswept and dated. Conditions are calm, nullifying its function. On still days like these, the tower finds itself a relic.

We find a spot in its shadow, down by the shoreline, surrounded by remnants of the ocean. Starfish cover the beach in dead constellations. The carcass of a rabbit, washed up and barren, bobs its head in the tide.

With the beach to ourselves, we waste no time in preparing our picnic. Far down the coast, crowds gather on a cliff top, the sky clear and perfect for the occasion. We eat salad and cold meats as we wait, our skin shrivelling in the presence of the sea. At midday it begins, muffled cheers in the distance, as red and blue trails paint shapes above the ocean.

An air display team, flying in unison, pixels on the horizon.

The sound of their engines reaches us, indicating it is time to begin. We fetch a tarpaulin and our shovels from the car. Our task is discreet, hidden by the distraction of the air show, the whole town focused on the planes. We work under the watch of the tower, now a silhouette against a smudge of colour, rainbows of smoke in the sky.

As we half-watch, one of the planes falls away from the others, a speck that disappears into the ocean. From our distance the scene is abstract, belonging to another world.

A breeze rearranges the sand. Slight but noticeable, enough to pause our efforts. Spots of rain follow as the sky darkens. All signs of the storm that has come out of nowhere, to the surprise of the pilots. More spots of rain, or possible drops of ocean from the impact, carried to us in the breeze.

The wind grows cold round our legs, salty and unforgiving. It flips the rabbit carcass over, blowing it into the shallows before breaking it in half.

This change in weather reaches the tower. Air flows through its apertures, its design now apparent. A familiar hum returns to the beach, a background noise. Sounds from down the coast feed into its song – crowd noise, an impact on water, the voice of the pilots. Indistinguishable, hidden within the tone, reaching us on delay

The storm escalates as our belongings shift and scatter, bouncing across the sand. The tarpaulin flaps open, fluttering like a ghost of the ocean. Starfish roll by, taken by the gale that is now reaching a peak. We make snap decisions between us, grabbing what we can before the wind decides for us.

The tower groans, the weather teasing new sounds from its vocabulary. An oily scent fills the air, a reminder of the pilots. We head back to our car, accompanied by their echoes, amplified by the sound tower that churns on the horizon.

 

PAUL THOMPSON lives and works in Sheffield. His stories have appeared in Spelk Fiction, Ellipsis Zine and The Cabinet of Heed. Find out more at @hombre_hompson

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Image via Pixabay 

The Hydrogen Fairy- Julianne Corrigan

I am a tiny particle.

I am moving in small circles but remain invisible within the vast universe. I am random and free, existing only as a concept.

Just a thought.

In the burning core of the solar explosion that you will know as a distant star I am biding my time. I am not waiting, because waiting is an idea that doesn’t exist in a universe where time itself is illusory. How can I linger in timeless space?

The length of my existence is measured in the massive explosions surrounding me. I cannot count. There are no numbers. But there will be and they will transform everything. They will become important and intricate, and the universe will appear too small. But I will become large and significant, surpassing all that came before, anticipating all which lies ahead. I will become the blueprint.

I will become you.

There are many explosions in the core of my star and I am only a tiny particle.

I am moving closer to my metamorphosis. Very soon I will be two. When the last explosion of my life as being one finishes, I will fuse and multiply and nuclear energy will enable me to begin my journey. I will not be the hydrogen atom of my birth but will become the first stage of my growth. I am slowly becoming the complex compound you need.

It is the journey of my destiny and of your tentative life.

My voyage precedes the demise of my star, which has been burning for so much longer than you will ever know. As it transforms into a supernova and I move further away from my birthplace, I sense where I am travelling and embrace the cajoling and subtle pull.

The collapsing star is continually spurning my siblings. They are moving quickly in their attempt to catch me up on the long journey. It is a voyage lit constantly by other distant stars. My siblings are trying desperately to find me, to attach to me so as we can multiply together. They understand the importance of this journey and this knowledge encourages them to become part of me.

So we can become you.

I am passing much smaller and younger suns and at a time in the distant future, when they themselves are spent, they will produce more of us.

Barren planets come and go but these desolate places do not beckon me.

They are not my final destiny.

Cosmic debris is littering my path. But I need to focus on my journey and arrive safely at my ultimate destination.

Massive comets, which have their own tale to tell, smash into me, their energy so strong that I multiply again and again. I am becoming more powerful, more complex. My growth is exponential and my size is slowing me down. Some of my siblings are catching me up. They are hurtling through time and space in a supreme attempt to be with me. Silently jostling, they collide with me and once connected they are assimilated, becoming part of me.

As I will become part of you.

I move through so many solar systems. Each one seeming larger than the one I have just passed through. More and more organised they appear. Each one hinting at the promise of what will be. Hinting at the promise of what should be.

Of what will be you.

Now I am changing again. My siblings are now so a part of me that we are real matter. Our name alters. It changes again and again. I am becoming impenetrable. Still not as important as my parent – the star – but my destiny is drawn. And as surely as your sun will burn for a long but finite time, my destiny is as clear as the final fate of your sun. Perhaps clearer.

Because soon I am you.

I am now more than the hydrogen atom of my birth. I am expanding, filling space, creating a tiny part of gravity. As one I am nothing. But there are many more like me. Our births and multiplication are constant.

We need to be prolific. Occasionally instead of expansion the universe implodes, taking many of my siblings with it. There is no time or space inside the two dimensional hole. Does it exist? It might do to my siblings trapped inside, although as I travel to my final goal, I think it does not.

How can it?

When it isn’t part of you.

By knowing my size and complexity I recognise I’m nearing the end of my journey. I am now becoming the organic, stable matter I need to be.

The solar system I am now entering appears disparate from the others. More organised. With ripples of divergent energy it feels different. It is an energy which inspires me.

To become you.

I am beginning to perceive an irresistible pull and although subtle, it has been with me from the beginning. I am passing planets unlike anything I have seen before. They are directing me towards my destination: enormous pointers in the massive space all around me. And I can do nothing to halt my progress, my fate.

And your destiny.

Everything is becoming smaller. This solar system is more compact, and yet more complex. The evenly spaced planets and debris are depleting. I am serene. I am arriving at my real home.

I am beginning to feel who you are, to know what you will be, and what I will become. An excitement overwhelms me at the idea, of becoming you.

You, who will be more important than your sun and will know more than anything I have encountered on my journey.

It will be many millions of years before you become your destiny, but I am patient knowing we will achieve the goal of my dying star.

My arduous journey is not in vain because you nearly exist. The older solar systems already comprehend what you will finally become. They have glimpsed at your destiny. They know there is nothing that will compare to you.

You will be unique.

I am now reacting with oxygen and water vapour. I am growing up.

Gravity is pulling me ever more strongly towards the blue planet. A planet that is different from all the others. I want to get there. I want to be part of it. This planet will become my home.

Your home.

I am now moving faster than ever before. I see the spectacular blue planet in its glory. Beautiful and serene. Calm and peaceful. The white clouds hovering above its surface, cajole me. They are willing me not to make a mistake. Their hope is for me to be successful, to penetrate the fragile atmosphere and find my new home.

To find you.

I am plunging through the ambience of the beckoning planet. Now I am what I need to be, complex enough to begin your life. I am entering on the bright side; your sun is shining strongly and emphatically. It is shining down so hard that the blue oceans are twinkling white as they swirl and dance in the invisible wind. Water which will be my new home and the start of you.

It is a sight more beautiful than anything I have seen travelling through thousands of solar systems. The view an image of loveliness and unparalleled in the infinite space encircling its precious parameters.

It is ours.

I am moving at great speed through the atmosphere, light and welcoming, warm and enticing. I begin to slow down and float gently and as I break my way through the fragile shell of the blue planet, incommensurate with its size and beauty, I am at peace.

I am sinking into a great ocean and it is here where I find my penultimate resting place.

Because soon, in thousands of generations of life, I will become a part of the puzzle that is you. I will become the part of you that thinks and reasons. Loves and hates. Laughs and cries. I will be a fragment of all your emotions.

And when you grow old and die I will continue on, forever and endlessly.

Because I am the fairy inside all of you.

I am looking backwards towards my star, a silvery dot shimmering in the sky. It is now long dead. It died giving birth to me. It died giving birth to you. And although I look and marvel at its persistence, it is the persistence of you and your planet which is truly marvellous.

I will never leave you.

I am your fairy.

 

JULIANNE CORRIGAN writes historical, suspense and speculative fiction. She was shortlisted in the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2016. In 2019 she made the final in the Write Stuff competition at The London Book Fair. Her contemporary suspense novel, Falling Suns by JA Corrigan, was published by Accent Press in 2016. https://twitter.com/julieannwriter

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Image via Pixabay 

Staples – Leslie Doyle 

Mary said she wasn’t getting any more mammograms, on account of the radiation. Trish looked up from her Moscow Mule, swirling the copper cup carelessly.

“I know, right?” Trish looked around the restaurant, one of those dockside ones where people pulled up on their boats and customers sat at wooden cable spool tables. Plastic crabs and lobsters in fluorescent colors on the walls. Wait staff in vaguely nautical outfits, the girls in apparently required tiny white shorts they kept tugging down, the guys in knee-length cargo shorts.

“Last time I flew—to Florida when Frank’s dad was sick? —I refused to go in the X-ray machine and I had to get searched.”

“I don’t like to fly anymore” Mary answered. “They’ll kick you off as soon as look at you, after pawing through your bags and touching your lady things.”

Trish nodded. “Well, I won’t fly again, that’s for sure. On the way home, they bumped me after I had an assigned seat. Then just before boarding, they called my name and announced they’d found me another seat.”

“Well, that was cool.” Mary stuck another tortilla chip into the crab dip. The bright yellow chip and pale pink dip echoed the colors of her off-the-shoulder blouse. She hiked one sleeve up, hiding the sunburn line. “I mean, that they made up for it like that.”

Trish shook her head. “No way I was getting on that plane. It was a sign. I started yelling I wouldn’t get on it and I thought Frank was going to have a fit, telling me TSA would arrest me if I didn’t shut up. The lady next to me said well then she wasn’t getting on it either, and I told her not to worry, it wouldn’t crash if I wasn’t on it.”

Mary listened and nodded. She and Trish were best friends now, since they’d met at Maid in the Shade, working all summer to clean rental houses between tenants and change sheets at the local motels. She knew Trish and Frank were recently separated and wondered if it had anything to do with this incident.

“So we drove a rental home. But anyway. You know that you can get an MRI mammogram now, right? No radiation.” She caught the server’s eye and held up her cup.

Mary shook her head. “Nope, no MRIs for me. Not since my lung collapsed last year and they had to stick it to my chest wall with staples.”

“Wait, what? That’s crazy!”

“Yeah. But here’s the thing. I can’t ever have an MRI now. The magnets would pull out the staples. Rip them right out of my lungs. They’d slice my heart to bits.”

The drinks came, and they each took a sip. They had an afternoon off, before the next round of tourists. There were a million beds to change and toilets to scrub tomorrow, but for this afternoon they had nothing to do but sit in the sun on a dock.

Trish looked out over the boats, pondering what was luck and what was fate. And the menace of Mary’s staples. She’d never heard of such a thing before, but at the same time, she knew exactly what Mary meant.

 

LESLIE DOYLE lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, The Forge, Electric Literature, Fiction Southeast, Signal Mountain Review, Rougarou, and elsewhere.

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In The Dark Garden – Lorraine Wilson 

You walk down through your dark garden to the bench at the far end, and you sit there, pulling your knees up and folding your arms around them. Your feet are wet from the grass, from the rain earlier and tomorrow’s dew. There is the very faintest of breezes, but it is enough that where your hair lifts from your neck, the skin cools. You don’t mind at all, the chill in your extremities and the way your shadow lurks at your feet, they hardly register as you tip your head back and fill your eyes with the night. Mountains rise around you, a steeped blackness that swallows monstrous shapes out of an indigo sky where the stars are unfettered tonight by either cloud or moon, and their presence feels so close, so tangible that you almost convince yourself you can hear their voices, murmurs from the abyss, or from the past.

It is a comfort, that thought – that the stars dusting your eyelids are so far in the past that you were not born when these photons were. You wonder if the light is altered somehow, by touching you. If it is tainted.

An owl calls in the trees, half of a song, and you and she both wait in silence for her mate to respond. He doesn’t. She calls again, from further away and he answers her. The forest murmurs on, teetering on sentience under the cover of darkness and you can feel the lure of it, the utter pitch of the shadows beneath its branches that stretch from the slopes above almost to your garden. It would be easy to do. Step down off the bench and take two paces through foxgloves and early borage to the fence. Climb over into the sheep field just as you do during the day, cross ten metres of hagged and frayed grass and then step into the forest.

Maybe that complete, inkwell blackness would offer you a better oblivion than the starlight. Maybe. But it would also offer splinters, twisted ankles, a compassless disorientation.

There is a temptation in that, too. You pretend there isn’t, or that you don’t feel it. But there is, and you do.

A tiny spark of pain lights upon your temple and your response is reflexive, brushing away at the unseen insect with the edge of your hand. It brings your mind back into your body, reluctantly, sadly, back to the cold creeping around your ankles and the tangle of hair against your cheek. Back to the ache in the pit of your abdomen, the pull of gravity and endings within the cradle of your pelvis.

You take a breath, rest your forehead against your knees and close your eyes. You do not cry. Not now, although you did earlier when the pain began. You did when you stood in the shower and watched your red blood spell out the breaking of your heart.

The thing is, you think, you do not know how to say goodbye to someone you never got to meet. You do not know how to let go of someone whose cells still circulate in your veins, whose bones and heart you were building from your own.

The thing is, you think, this is not the first time and you still have not learned how to bear it.

Above you, the beech trees tap out leaf-and-twig signals, and you can smell their new growth. It is a part of the night’s scent, the beeches, sheep and wet grass, pine and the tang of peat, solitude. The world turns, and sitting so still, you almost believe you can feel it. The world turns, the present becomes the past; becomes memory, scar, secret.

You realise that you are now entirely cold. Perhaps that was what you were waiting for, to be fully numb. Rising to your feet, you press one hand over your cramping muscles, your empty womb and you take a last look at the forest with its outheld promise of shadows.

Then you turn around, to the house where a light is still on in your bedroom. Where your child, the one who made it, the one you are so lucky to have, is sleeping and will soon wake. Where your husband is sleeping and will not wake, but will bring you tea in the morning, and will love you.

The grass leaves remnants of itself on your feet, and over your shoulder a gibbous moon lifts one corner of itself above the moors. The night is kind to you, and you are grateful for it. As you open the door and step into your home, it is almost enough.

 

 

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I Still Remember The Number Plate Of The Peugeot 308 – Lydia Unsworth 

I passed the autumn and early winter noticing the flies but, whether from stubbornness, pride, contempt, or lethargy, refusing to do a thing about it. Sometimes I look at the edges of squalor and think, is this squalor? Not yet.

Unable to remember the sound of my own voice, I recall VHS tapes that might have proved it. For when I might need to prove it. Taped over; haunting cupboards everywhere.

The buzzing reminds me I am still responsible.

After these sweltering days, we are all grateful for a little wind, a little rain. The slightly open door keeps hitting the frame. I joke-clenched my fist in the baby daycare place, for which I am not sure of the English name, only because I didn’t have a sophisticated enough repertoire for what I was trying to say. Then I followed the lines of all the adult eyes to see if they were seeing what I was seeing; i.e. the fist in the baby daycare place.

I close the windows because the children playing football outside are not mine and the sound of the ball bouncing off modern surfaces is slamming into the bulges of my barely contained rage. I would like to speak in a clear, calm timbre. Wrap a towel around the exterior walls of my returning body. Walk like I grew up with newspapers. Exhibit the confidence of a six-digit number. Mediate.

I would like to take drastic action. Gather my hair into a ponytail and just chop. I think I did that once. When I was drunk. When my hair was short and my ponytail shorter. And in the morning I hardly remembered and nobody else noticed at all.

 

LYDIA UNSWORTH is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres(Knives Fork & Spoons, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Erbacce, 2018), for which she won the 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize. Her work can be found in Ambit, Pank, Litro, KillAuthor, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, and Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics, among others. Based in Manchester/Amsterdam. Twitter@lydiowanie

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Remembrance – Mark Left

She sees him first. A figure through the steamy window, waiting to cross at the lights, looking diminished by the modern-day traffic, and still unaware of her gaze. He is adrift in the noise of the street, fresh from the Remembrance service and too smart for round here in his blazer and medals, his polished patent leather shoes.

Shorter than she remembers but he walks well. There’s a spring in his step, just like the Bernie of old. She recalls watching him marching in parade at the airfield. So many lovely young men but he always drew her eye. So many of them died. She remembers them all and feels a surge of regret despite the fifty-seven years in between.

She is excited to see him again. At seventy-eight, she wonders if she should feel like this. It feels odd and a little inappropriate in public. As if anybody’s watching, she tells herself. She finds herself considering if she looks attractive, if it really matters now. Then he’s through the door, and they greet each other and embrace. His voice is shaky – perhaps with nerves – but the same tone, steeped in the years but still familiar. His face, his blue eyes, the way he lightly holds her at arm’s length and smiles at her. She remembers the New Year dance and the kiss of the younger man.

“Oh, Bernie. How lovely to see you again.” She cannot stop smiling. Inside, her heart fuels the fires of expectation and she turns the corner into a widening memory lane. She could talk for hours, and she will.

*      *      *

He sees her first. He’s hesitating behind the pillar box over the road, watching her sitting in the misty window opposite, concentrating hard to see her well through the patchy clouds in his eyes. He searches his memories, leafing through the synapses that store faces and places, finding broken links and voids where there was once history. The angle of her nose, her jaw, it seems wrong. He cannot be sure.

He stands confused in the rush of passers-by, the air booming with the noise of traffic. He adjusts his hearing aid and smooths his blazer, checks the medals are hanging straight, but at last admits to himself that this is not the Mary he thought it was. He has surnames muddled, her married name on the website, too much time passed. She is not his Mary, not Mary from 1944.

Yet their correspondence says she knows him. Who then? He has no recollection. Nothing.

It does not occur to him to not turn up. Despite the years, there is such a thing as duty and he moves to the lights and crosses when the traffic stops. Now he thinks she has seen him and he walks as straight as he can without his stick, and he tries to inject a youthful swagger. He’s not sure why it really matters now. But his bad hip hurts like hell and he’s glad to reach the café door. He goes inside and she rises and he embraces her as if she means something, murmuring her name, holding her at arm’s length again to look at her while his smile hides the truth.

No, this isn’t who he hoped it was. His heart rings hollow with the disappointment and a desire to distance himself settles in. Still, he’s here now. One coffee and half an hour won’t hurt.

 

MARK LEFT writes stories and sometimes poetry. He has been published in @EllipsisZine and was highly commended for his entry in the BIFFY50 Microfiction Contest Autumn 2018. He lives with his family on a hill in the middle of England and can be found on Twitter: @ottobottle

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Image via Pixabay 

Oneirology 101 – Essie Dee

The evening breeze has a dampness about it, and I pull my coat closer. Turning onto the darkness of Woodbridge Road, a shortcut of sorts, I save about thirty minutes. Good on cold evenings such as this, when I am already running late.

Halfway up the road I see college lights in the distance – across a field at the end of the lane. While traversing a side street a white car pulls into the intersection and pops the trunk. Before I can comprehend what is happening the trunk slams shut, closing out the world.

*      *      *

I really need to start leaving for class earlier, or stop taking evening courses. I enter the gloom of Woodbridge Road and unease flows over me. Shifting my bag to the opposite shoulder I look around – they really should put in lights around here.

Approaching a side street I see a white car idling, hear its trunk pop. Everything in me says ‘run!’ Turning, I fly down the street, am outpaced and grabbed by the bag, which I shrug off. Grabbed again I fight back, flail, try to scream, and am hit. Hard. I crumple to the ground in a heap. The wheels of a car make a slow approach; I feel myself being lifted and thrown. Shrugging into the back corners of the trunk, I fear what awaits me.

*      *      *

I’m startled by the numbers on my watch- seven o’clock already. I’d best get moving if I hope to make it to class in time. Throwing on my coat, I grab my bag and head into the damp dark of autumn night. As I approach Woodbridge Road a dire sense of fear and dread takes over. Stopping, I look down the unlighted street – a quick path for years now, why this sudden feeling? A white car turns up the road heading into the darkness. A moments hesitation before I take the long way, walking in crowds that push along to the next intersection.

*      *      *

Exhausted, bad dreams aplenty this week. I grab a coffee before taking my shortcut to class.

 

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The Arrival of the Finnman – Michael Bloor

In October, I shall have been Governor of this island for forty years. I came here as a young man, to command the garrison and dispense justice in the assizes. I arrived full of hopes and vaunting ambition, trusting to my connections in the distant Imperial Court to secure me rapid promotion to more lucrative and influential positions. My hopes were vain, my ambitions lost and my connections as enduring as morning dew. Nevertheless, I have learned contentment in this little bounded land. True, the winter days are short and the winter nights are long and bitter: for weeks together, the gales can blow loud enough to deafen, and strong enough to deposit small fish on the cliff-tops. But the peasants, farmer-fishermen for the most part, are determined, even heroic – very different from the servile drudges one encounters in the capital and the countryside round about it. I have come to respect and emulate the islanders’ quiet virtues. To watch them fishing is an education – two boats working in careful concert. And then to watch the sharing out of the catch, with one fifth part reserved for widows and the sick. Yet now it seems all my hard-won lessons on peasant virtues may be cast over.

It was a stormy day of early March when the ‘Finnman’ was captured. I remember because when my sergeant brought me the confused news, I was staring absorbed from my chamber window at the waves breaking wildly on the rocks at the harbour entrance. The wind was catching up the spume from the waves and the low sun was creating hundreds of small, truncated rainbows as it shone through the spume.

Tales of the mysterious Finnmen are common currency among the islanders, but I have paid them no more heed than stories of dwarfs living in the mounds along the shore, or of the ‘selkies’ that are said to inhabit the western skerries. The Finnmen travel in skin canoes at great speed; they are fierce, cruel and emit screeching cries; they are said to drive away the herring shoals.

The Sergeant said that a group of fishermen from the west end of the island had found the Finnman collapsed among the dunes: first of all, they had spotted the skin canoe, beached on the shore, and they had then followed his tracks into the dunes. I told the Sergeant bring the Finnman at once to the chamber, along with his captors.

A couple of minutes later, the corporal of the guard (a hulk of a man), dragged in a bundle of skins that proved to be the insensible Finnman. He was accompanied by the sergeant and four fishermen. I knelt to make an examination. The Finnman was breathing rapidly and shallowly; he smelt strongly of stale urine and rancid fat. I felt in his mouth and found the tongue swollen and distended:

‘The Finnman needs water – Corporal, fetch me a pitcher of water. After that, go to the cellarman for a bottle of brandy.’ I turned to the fishermen: ‘How did he come by these cuts and bruises?’

‘Excellency, he was unconscious when we found him, but we thought it best to bind him. He then came to and he started to struggle, so Gruta hit him. But Gruta only hit him once. By the time we arrived here at the fort, a crowd was following us. As we waited for admittance, some of the crowd started to throw stones. And a woman ran forward and hit him with a stick.’

The sergeant confirmed that this was the case and that the woman in question was Sella, the widow of Odd. The corporal then returned with the pitcher of water. I wet the Finnman’s lips but he did not revive. The corporal had already departed again for the brandy, so I sent the Sergeant to bring Oolla, the midwife, as the hospitaller is an ignorant drunk whom I would not trust to treat hiccups. I sent the fishermen to recover the skin canoe, and the Finnman’s weapon, a short dart, that one of the fishermen (an intelligent lad) had said lay beside the canoe.

Left alone with the Finnman, I observed him carefully. Of normal stature, with a yellow-ish skin (redder about the face) and dark, lustrous, coarse hair. A flattish face, the nose being small. The eyes were brown and curiously obliquely set. The teeth were much worn. From his musculature, I would have judged him younger than myself; from his wrinkled skin, I would have judged him older.

In recent years, I have devoted some of my leisure hours to an illustrated description of the many monuments that the Ancient Ones have left on the island. I have fancied my account might ensure that some posthumous celebrity might attach to my name, and that the island itself – this isolated and obscure outpost of Empire – might also gain a degree of fame. Now, I was seeing things differently: surely the mysterious arrival of the Finnman would make the island famous throughout the Empire? The four fishermen’s names would be as famous as the past Emperors who had first sent out ships to explore these remote waters.

The corporal returned with the brandy, which I ordered him to administer, but it was not a success. The Finnman choked, vomited and lapsed back into unconsciousness. He still had not spoken a word in my presence. I was later to learn that, when struggling with his rescuers, the Finnman had only made a few hoarse noises.

When the midwife entered the chamber she at first recoiled from the sprawled Finnman and would have fled if the sergeant had not restrained her. But her kind instincts soon got the better of her. She suggested that the Finnman would take some time to recover and that it would be best if he were carried to her hut outside the fort gates. There she would wash and bind his wounds and, once he was conscious, keep him on a diet of gruel and herbs of her own choosing. I agreed, gave her a purse, and bade the sergeant and corporal carry him away on a hurdle, adding only that the hurdle should be left in the hut and that the Finnman be bound to it, to prevent ignorant flight. I was remiss in omitting to require the posting of a guard outside the hut.

The early evening I remember as being one of pleasant excitement as, by candlelight, I began an examination and description of the canoe and of the weapon that the fishermen had brought in, just before dark. The canoe, wondrously light, was secured from swamping by skins and draw-strings designed to fit around the seated Finnman, like a leather shoe around a foot. The body of the canoe was constructed of greased skins, stretched over a taunt frame made partly of wood and partly of bone. The wood appeared to be that of a kind of pine tree, but not one I recognised. The canoe was evidently propelled by a single oar, shaped into paddles at both ends. The weapon was more ingenious still: the short dart, tipped with sharpened bone, was made more effective by a separate wooden throwing arm. I was of the opinion that the dart-plus-arm would have been just as murderous as a full-length javelin, but much more readily handled in the confines of the canoe.

I had just finished a sketch of how I presumed the throwing arm would operate, when the sergeant once more rushed to my chamber – this time with news of a riot outside the fort. I was stunned: it was more than twenty years since there had been any civil disturbances on the island. The sergeant had already called out the guard. I issued pikes and armed both the sergeant and the corporal with an arquebus. We then all immediately ran out of the fort towards the shore, where the crowd had gathered. Two barrels of pitch had been set alight. It was plain to see that the figure stretched on top of the barrels was the Finnman, still attached to his hurdle. He looked more an effigy than a man.

The crowd quickly dispersed. The midwife, who had taken a blow to the head, claimed not to have recognised the young men who burst into her hut and seized the Finnman. Sella, the woman who had previously hit the Finnman with a stick, turned out to be a simpleton. The corporal of the guard, a native islander, told me that the islanders believed that Finnman had to be killed, lest he spirit away the herring shoals. He could not say, or would not say, who had instigated the riot. At the assize, I called the fishermen who had found the Finnman to give evidence, but they had returned to their homes at the western shore on the evening of the burning and knew nothing of the riot. Surprisingly, the young fisherman who had mentioned to me the Finnman’s weapon gave evidence that he had indeed heard the story that Finnmen could charm the herring away from the island, but for himself, he believed that herring shoals shifted for many reasons – that they were not at the beck and call of the Finnmen.

These peasants whom I had come to respect, living in such successful harmony with each other, clearly had no respect for an outsider. The greater the bond between islanders, the less the fellow-feeling for the stranger, the intruder. There is no wisdom to be found here, no matter how beautiful the sunsets.

I have arranged for the Finnman’s burial and I shall dispatch the canoe and its accoutrements to the Imperial Chancery, the lawful recipient of all shipwreck spoils. And then I shall ask to be relieved of my post on account of an infirmity, an incurable island melancholia.

 

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction. Recent publications include The Cabinet of Heed, Ink Sweat & Tears, Litro Online, The Copperfield Review, Scribble, Dodging the Rain, Everyday Fiction, Firewords, The Drabble, Idle Ink and Spelk.

 

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Image via Pickryl

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