The Goatherd

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price Martin already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, my sweet.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder. 

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”  

As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a window table with a settle while Martin ordered drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a bothy.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, staring intently at Jacintha, now.  Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Finding she was breathing too fast,  she collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged. 

“I believe so.”   Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

 “That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.”  Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look,  “Not that Squire knowed.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin gave the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin broke it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He didn’t wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of Draught.”

 “I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said. 

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!” 

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took ‘em over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they strip to the soil – leavin’ nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.”

Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied.  He pushed it across the table to Martin.  “Thank ‘ee kindly?”

“Another?”  Martin offered, not without reluctance.

“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”

“Yes, alright.”

While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them.  As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures.  Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful.  Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.

Martin’s return was a little quicker this time.  “ What happened to her?”  He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”

 “ Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his replenished beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

The silence was palpable.  It was Jacintha’s turn to break it;  “Sorry…did you say…?”

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’re going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered. 

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

“When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?” 

“No-one rightly knows.  Some said she was took to ‘Sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her.  Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.

“Didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of offendin’ Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

 “Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  He decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!” 

His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger,  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.” 

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.  

Abe watched his two drinking companions scuttle from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe agreed, as he ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’?   It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer?  Two-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Close it straight away!  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Of course,  you can rely on me.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: Capri23auto on Pixabay.

Continuum – Episode Thirty: Flight

Continuum – Episode Thirty:      Flight

In the previous episode:

Alanee has completed Hasuga’s task, bringing the stolen book, which has revealed itself to be called ‘The Bible’, to place in his hands.   When she does so, the integrity of The City is destroyed and the Continuum moves in.  Hasuga is taken, images, places, people are stirred up and scattered like leaves.

Alanee strives desperately to find her way back through the ruptured dimensions to Sala, her friend, but Mother, Hasuga’s previous carer attacks her and in the fight Alanee is badly wounded…

Now read on.

Exhausted amidst the chaos of the collapsing City, Alanee is alone.  Hasuga has gone, taken by the demon that her predecessor, the old Seer, gave a name.  Celeris is gone in just the same way, stripped from her mind by Hasuga’s destruction and unable to fulfil a promise both had made.

‘I will never leave you’

So if it is help she seeks, it will not come.   If it is strength she needs, that, too is gone.  But Hasuga gave her his legacy and his faith that she can fulfil whatever purpose this monster, The Continuum, has.

“I have made you powerful haven’t I.”

Power that lies in the great vault of knowledge he has etched into her brain, which must offer the solution that will lead her back to Sala:  if she can only find it. Her head aches, her eyes hurt, yet she can still think.  She can still see.  Her injured limbs cry out their protest.  She was in the Palace Yard – is she now?

She should feel something outside herself – the stones of the pavement, the heat of the sun on her face, perhaps – but no.  Despite the great structures that fold into ruins all about her, no toppling statue seeks to crush her, no mighty boulder of construction does so much as scrape her flesh as it passes by.  Where is the dust?  The bookseller side by side with Ellar – she sees falling people and their fragmented homes, businesses, lives; people who are all familiar to her.  She sees them because she knows them.  If that is true then why does she not see Sala?

She focuses entirely upon Cassix’s chambers, that one location.  It is still intact!  The old stones, marked mysteriously by Cassix, are a spell she must break.  Cassix’s enchantment; his final defence!  She centres upon Sala in her mind, straining every brain-cell,  and instantly she is on the flags of the chamber with Sala standing over her, pale and scared.  “Alanee!  Oh, Habbach, Alanee?”

“My magic…stronger than Cassix…”

“Oh, ba.  What in the seven hells have you done?”

The old stone room is steady at the moment, although Alanee knows that will change.  In her joy at reuniting with Sala, she lets her thoughts shift away for an instant, and the floor begins to move away with them.  The noise, that insane roar, is close behind her.

 “We have to leave here, now, ba.”  She clambers to unwilling feet:  she must discover some means of escape, “We have to – to stay here is to die.”  It is all she can do to raise her voice above the demon’s clamour.

Sala steadies her arm.  The chambers are collapsing around them.  The great ball Alanee moved with such ease vanishes, the mirrors are melting into candle-wax cascades.  Only that metal disc remains, and it spins now beneath several searching lazer light needles.  In vain she tries to pin her thoughts to the elevator that leads down to the gardens, knowing even if they find their way to it, it will not work.

Frantic because she can feel her concentration fading, Alanee stares about her, seeking answers.  In all the turbulence, the heaving floor, the melting walls, that ancient wooden cabin remains as impenetrable as ever.  There is a door, she has seen it, but where is it now? 

“Look for a panel, or a handle – something!” She gathers her resources once more.

There is no response.

“Come on!”

She focuses again, makes a fresh demand of the wood, but no – the opening she saw in the mirrors, the place where the old one sat will not appear.

Cursing, Alanee musters one last mighty effort; all the suffering of her life, all her belief poured into a single vision of an open door, a way outside.  But still there is nothing; no movement, no sign that the door she has seen just once was ever there.  Once more the heavy cloud of defeat wraps about her; once more she drops to her knees, this time in certainty.  Her strength is gone, no answers have been found, she has lost.

Sala curls herself about Alanee’s hunched body, kisses her goodnight as she would a child, preparing them both for death.  Alanee can do no more than take her dear friend’s hand, to press it weakly in her own, to feel her flesh, the ring with the emerald stone she has always worn…

The stone!  The stones!

“What stones, darling?”  Sala asks. 

“The stones!  Find the leather chair!”

Sala’s reply is soothing and kind:  “The chair’s gone, Alanee-ba – everything’s gone!”

But hope, however unjustifiable, is returning.  “No.  No it hasn’t!  It’s still there, I know it is.  Fix your thoughts upon it:  fix all your thoughts on two stones – one on each arm of the chair.”

Sala shakes her head:  Alanee, don’t make me leave you, ba…”

“No.  You can do this.  You must do this.  Remember the chair, how it looked!  Use that memory!  Go to the stones.”

“For you.”  Sala sighs, dredging up a last strength of her own.  She will do as Alanee asks.

“Concentrate!   It was right there, remember?  It stood there!”

Unbelieving, the Mansuvene woman stares hard into a space that has no levels, references or form of any kind.  Her world, her whole world and every memory in it is whirling before her.

Alanee’s voice is suddenly powerful:  “The stones.  Bring them to me!”

Out of nowhere the old chair appears: standing solidly in the eye of the hurricane, and the stones, one upon each arm, waiting for her.  Wordlessly, Sala rises to her feet, strikes out; a few terrifying steps. 

Bring them!  The command is not spoken, for the dervish yell of the Continuum drowns all sounds but those inside her head.  Determined now, Sala turns to find Alanee on her feet, buoyed up by strength beyond her own.  She lifts the stones, passing them into Alanee’s extended hands.  An instant flash of raw power nearly throws her over, its blue plume of light bathing her friend in garish relief as she slams the stones against that obdurate wooden wall.  They explode – shatter into a thousand pieces that fly off, glittering, into infinity. Overawed, Sala is witness as, apparently from no visible place, a door springs open.

He is there.  Karkus sits within, just as Alanee saw in her mirrors, at the self-same desk.  With a grey-as-time smile across his thin dry lips he raises a hand, gesturing towards the interior of the cabin, and with Sala supporting her arm Alanee staggers inside.  Behind them, the door to The City closes and they find themselves standing together in the gardens, facing the path that leads down to the Balna river.

Sala is stupefied.  Her Mansuvenian superstition speaks to her of witchcraft, insists that this cannot be real: her body may have accomplished a descent of several hundred feet in less than a couple of steps, but her mind will not accept it.  “What deception is this?”

“It was a doorway, ba, a portal.  Cassix knew what would come and he provided himself with a means of escape.  He brought it from another place, an ancient place.  Or maybe it was here first.”

“The old man…”

“His job is done.  He can rest now.  Come, we must hurry”

Muttering prayers for their protection, Sala supports Alanee, shutting her ears to the devastating shout of destruction which rises once more behind them as they struggle down the pathway to the banks of the River Balna.  It is a painful journey and only when they have reached the river will Sala look back.  What she sees is beyond comprehension:  her city has gone.

There are no cries:  there are no escapees but themselves.  There is only the wall towering into the sky like a white fog – and now it seems to be gathering heat, moving so quickly it leaves no room for question, no margin for doubt.  Nothing will be left.

Unspeaking, the pair pause in homage to those they have known; Ellar, Trebec, Rabba, Delfio, the Domo – so many others.  Alanee urges Sala on:  “We must keep moving.  It will not rest there.  It will spread.”

She sees the emptiness in her friend’s face:  “Come on, ba.  There will be an answer somewhere, you’ll see!”

Alanee makes to move again, sending pain shooting through her leg and hip:  her head is beginning to spin, making each new step an unsteady agony.  By crippled stages, she and Sala make their way along the path beside the great river, but her blood loss is taking its toll.  By the time they reach the bridge, Alanee knows she can go no further.  “I’m finished.  You’ll have to leave me here.  I’m sorry, Ba.  I’m so sorry.”

Sala says:  “What about that?”

Clarity is fading.  Alanee mutters stupidly:  “What?”

Ignoring her cries of pain, Sala hoists her friend bodily to the rail, pointing down at the river.  “That!”

Moored by its painter, an old wooden skiff Alanee once saw braving the jostling ice-floes of the spring thaw, is still there.

Alanee’s impressions of what follows are patchy and confused.  Sala almost carrying her across that wide bridge, each move striking shudders through her quaking bones: half-stepping, half falling into the rocking boat, lying in the prow while Sala arranges some green-stuff from the bank behind her head and all the while the closing thunder of the Continuum:  these before darkness comes in merciful release; after that, only night.

Sala does not fear impending danger, nor does she particularly want to run from it:  For someone whose whole life is invested in The City the prospect of life without it seems more formidable than the quick death the Continuum offers; if she feels a compulsion to go on, it is only for Alanee.  Alanee is her lover after all, and now her only friend.  Nevertheless she has to prompt herself to loosen the mooring and commit them both to the mercies of the Balna.  The skiff lurches free of the mud, the river snatches, the river takes:  stern first, then wheeling around so swiftly Sala clings to the gunwales for her life as she is launched into the turbulent narrows downstream of the bridge.

For some hours the little craft faithfully follows the current, throughout which time the heat is intense; the water hot, almost boiling, the wall of the Continuum never far behind.  There are paddles, but these are rarely needed.  The skiff seems to know its way, and bustles about the weeds and tangles of the bank without ever becoming snagged or grounded.  Sala blocks her ears to the noise and her mind to the heat – busies herself by tying Alanee’s tourniquet more severely, using a hem of her own robe as bandaging for the wounds to both leg and arm.  Alanee drifts in and out of consciousness, though even when her eyes are open she barely recognises where she is.  Sala can see her friend is ailing, watches life seep from her in slow, unremitting drops. 

There comes a time – a bend in the river perhaps – when the furious pursuit of the Continuum fades, the steam from the water rises less freely; almost as though the monster has given up their chase and, its mission complete, drifted back into the sky.

Day drifts into night, thunder into silence.

In the darkness, a new distant rumbling from a fresh adversary: white water.  At first Sala believes the Continuum has returned; as the sound grows with each passing minute.  The boat gains speed, rocks perilously.  Then she is amidst cold spray and black rocks, unable to see and unable to steer if she could.  Is there a waterfall?  Cowering over Alanee’s inert form as the helter-skelter descends, Sala can only trust the boat to find its way, which it does.

It is midnight before they reach calmer waters.  The boat has taken on water she has no means to remove.  She knows Alanee’s body is lying in it and that cannot be good, but nameless terrors haunt her, the night-cries of beasts, strange rustling noises, the plunge and ripple of alligators sap her courage.  Sne will not go ashore in darkness.  

By fits and starts she learns to use the paddles.  Colder, wetter and hungrier than she can ever remember, Sala greets the dawn.  As soon as she has confidence enough she finds a place to land.

Child of The City that she is, Sala can remember nothing less certain than pavement beneath her feet.  She is not so naïve she does not know the boat must be hauled up, away from the current, its keel firmly grounded, yet when she clambers gingerly over the side mud lurking in the shallows clings about her legs to make her fall.  She rises to her feet with a city woman’s pettish anger, laments the ruin of her clothes, weeps for her hair, her nails.

Although the boat seems secure, she is nervous of leaving Alanee helpless inside it, fearful lest it should release itself to the river, leaving her stranded ashore.  It is heavy with water, yet she struggles and sweats and screams with it until she has the painter within length of a stunted bush where she may tie it off.  In the prow, at least Alanee now lies upon drier wood, though her clothing is sodden and her flesh cold.  The leg wound is weeping again, refusing to heal.

After this exertion Sala takes stock of her surroundings.  She settles on a ridge higher up the slope, close enough to run back to the water should that untrustworthy vessel take its leave.  Now she is ashore the deep cover of the forest seems closer than it did, and if the night creatures that serenaded her are asleep, they are still very active in her mind.  It is nevertheless an ideal place for her purpose.  A sward of green meadow-grass leads into the forest like a wide path.  Taking a deep breath, she follows it towards the woodland margins, starting like a hind at each unexplained noise, but hungry enough to overcome her fears.

The woods are full of berries, absolutely none of which she recognises.  Enticed by swarthy verdant scents and venturing ever deeper into forest, Sala picks experimentally, tasting as she goes, until she has found a small quantity of some she does not think too sour.  These she collects in the front of her robe, nearly dropping them when she is confronted by a squirrel-like creature the size of a cat clinging to a branch not three feet away.  Her squeal of alarm sends the animal flying for concealment in the upper branches, and serves to remind her that this may not be a friendly place.  With dignified haste she brings her gleanings back to the boat where she tries to induce Alanee to eat; but her friend is barely awake.  At length she gives up: the water in the boat must be bailed out and she has no vessel with which to achieve this.  Once again her robe suffices.  Thanking Habbach for a warm midday sun she takes it off, using it as part scoop, part mop for two long, laborious hours until the stern is emptied.  Then she dries it as best she may upon a rock until, with threat of the Continuum still in her mind, she casts off once more.  Her robe is still damp.  Thirty minutes later she throws up the contents of her stomach into the river.

So it is for the hours of this day, then another.  All the while the boat moves between steep, wooded banks with no sign of any people, anywhere.  On the third day the tree cover thins. Among marshy shallows and low, stony beaches Sala finds a place where she can haul ashore, gathering her courage for a longer expedition.  Throughout the night Alanee has been delirious, mouthing unintelligible sounds, shaking with fever:  this morning her condition is desperate, scarcely breathing, flesh clammy and cold.  Sala is certain if she does not get help today, her friend will be beyond recovery.  She decides she must climb the hills that skirt the valley, in the hope that from a vantage point she might see some sign of civilisation.  As soon as it is light she makes her friend as comfortable as possible and sets off.

Her shoes are not meant for such rigours.  Hunger has weakened her and the climb is arduous for limbs that, however fine, have never made any serious ascent.  Behind her and far below, in the green trough carved by a million years of flowing water, the little boat with its precious burden waits.  The sun beats from a cloudless sky and far away to the west she can see a rainbow low over the horizon where the white water runs.

  That is behind them now – what lies ahead? 

At noon Sala stands upon a high summit, her vision so clouded by tears she can scarcely see.  In every direction the prospect is featureless; an infinite desert of grey ash.  Only the lofty needle of Kess-Ta-Fe stands resolute, a distant marker to the ruined north.  The river valley, it seems, has escaped.  Otherwise, the Continuum has taken everything.  The world she knew has vanished.

That afternoon when she returns to the boat she tells Alanee all she has seen, while Alanee, of course, hears nothing.  Alanee has neither moved nor shown any sign of consciousness since before the dawn.

On day four Sala wakes late.  Although the boat drifts lazily she is too weak to leave it.  Constant vomiting has dogged her attempts to eat; the warmth she shares with her friend against the night-time chill has penetrated her own defences.  She checks Alanee and finds her stiff and cold.

Sala weeps bitter tears for her friend.  She watches over her, warding off those imagined demons that visit the Mansuvene dead.  When the morning is far advanced and there is nothing left to do or say, she gets to her feet.  Carefully stripping her robe from about her she waits until the boat reaches a part of the river where the water is deepest.  There, with a last smile back at her life she slips over the side.  In all her City years, Sala has never learnt to swim.

…don’t miss the final episode of this story…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Matthew Wewering from Pixabay

Delving in the Once Upon a Time

The other day I was searching for a short story, one I blogged in 2016.  Now when I’m writing a story I use a working title.  I dream up a more inspired title for the piece when I upload it, then file the original under its working title.  And forget about it.  I’m not proud of that.  I’m very badly organized.  I probably need help.

Anyway, the long and the short of it was I’d forgotten this story’s blog title, and I had to blow the dust off a lot of first pages before I found it.  There are so many items in this blog it is beginning to rival the British Library, which suggests a Spring Clean is necessary.

My attempt to become more organized:

I’ve removed all but the most recent short stories from the archive.  There will be more, of course, but just for now I’ll content myself with re-blogging one of the venerable ancients from time to time.  Meanwhile, if I have seriously deprived you of a short story ‘fix’ you can find most of my past efforts here in ‘Black Crow Speaks’ as a paperback or e-book on Kindle.  Simply click on the link on the right.

Here’s a first helping from that feast of older tales.  It’s called:

Melissa

This week, I am a man with a sore eye.

Not that I lack other defining characteristics; it’s just when you have conjunctivitis, you don’t think about them.  You just think about your sore eye.

So when Jorges tells me he’s hooked me up on a date, I don’t have many positive things to contribute.  In fact, only one negative thing.  “No.”

“Oh, come on Jules!   Three months without it, man!  What’s the matter with you?”

I should explain my relationship with Jorges is not exactly deep – we aren’t lifelong friends, or anything.  ‘Car share’ about covers the extent of our friendship, and even that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t discovered him kicking his broken-down vehicle one evening in the works car park. 

“Do you need a lift?”  I asked.  I was feeling charitable.

It all started there.

“Three months isn’t that long.”  I protest.  “Anyway, have you seen the state of my eye?  I look like the Phantom of the Opera.  No-one’s going to fancy me like this.”

“No, mate!   Mel isn’t like that.  She can see deeper than a few red veins.  Anyway, you two are made for each other!”

These are the consequences of offering a lift to a stranger.  You get into conversations, you confess things about your history; you let a little bit of the inside of you out; all because you can’t just sit in a traffic queue in silence for half an hour.  Sharing has to take place.

Time to stop sharing.  “No.”  I say.

You have to be resolute at times like these.  You have to draw a line in the…whatever it is.  

Otherwise…

Otherwise you end up like me on Friday night, facing this totally dazzling, effervescent female across a table in Hogan’s Bar with a stupefied smile on your face because she is absolutely, totally a knockout.

“Jorges told me you broke up with your wife?”  Her words flow like liquid gold into the cast – ingots for my memory to cherish.  “That’s so sad!   Were you very much in love with her?”

She’s not afraid of the personal approach.  I make my red eye look as pensive as possible.  “I suppose I was – perhaps I still am, in a manner of speaking.”  I say, preferring dishonesty to ingratiation.  ‘I hate the bitch’.  That wouldn’t do at all.   “But I have to move on.”

She nods – she has this way of playing with her hair – her ash-blonde star-burst of hair that knows no rules but its own.  “Three months is a long time.”   She touches my hand with her fingertips.

What is this obsession with three months?

We have a nice evening, I won’t deny that – and I am given to understatement.  When it’s time to go home I am reluctant to leave it there, and I say so; and she smiles and kisses me chastely:   “Never on a first date?” 

So I have to wait until the second date.  A whole twenty-four hours relying upon just my imagination. 

On reflexion, I should have paid more attention to the bag.  A woman going out to dinner on a Saturday night doesn’t carry a bag of those ample proportions unless she has a sense of commitment – unless she is confident she will be spending a while away from home.  By breakfast time on Sunday morning that bag has already produced a nightdress we didn’t bother with, a change of clothing, a toothbrush and several necessary cosmetics.   After breakfast, when I suggest a walk in the park, it reveals one more surprise.   A support collar which Mel straps around her neck.

“I’m being watched.”  She tells me.  She doesn’t elaborate.

We’re sitting on a bench at the top of the hill near the old bandstand which was fenced off after last April when the Salvation Army Band fell through the floor, gazing out across the town, our eyes dewy with new love. 

“You’re lucky you’ve got the house.”  She says.  “Your wife running off like that.”

Apparently I have let slip more detail than I thought whilst car sharing with Jorges.

“He’s got a small mansion, the new bloke.”  I say.  “She won’t want for anything.”  

“So you haven’t lost too much?”

“No kids.  So, no, I don’t think so.  We’re still working things out.”

By this time I’m getting a bit bored with listening to the birds and I’m feeling passionate.  But it’s a bit awkward trying to snog a woman in a head restraint:  there’s this sort of under-or-over thing going on and there’s no rotation, if you see what I mean.  In the end I give up.

“Let’s walk back.”  I say.

“Yes, let’s.”

Hand in hand, we stroll back through the park.   “So the house is all yours?”  She says.

“Unencumbered.”  Actually, there I am gilding a mite; there is a small mortgage, but it’s only two hundred K and I manage that without trouble as long as get plenty of overtime.

 “Still,, it’s insured?”  She says, and I think:  ‘What a curious question’. “And that terrible old car – that’s yours, too?”

“It is.  And what’s wrong with it?”  I bridle – a few nasty little greenfly crawl across the rose-tints.  I’m proud of my old banger.

“Jorges said it isn’t exactly comfortable.  I’m afraid I agree with him darling.  It is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?”

Darling!  She called me ‘darling’.  You can be sure a woman’s really into you when she uses a word like  that, especially when you have one red eye.  The ground gets all spongy beneath my feet and before I know it I’m walking on the soft stuff.

“Well, maybe.”  I admit.

“Not maybe; definitely.”  She affirms.  “Anyway, I ought to get back.  I’m due round my mother’s at two.  Drive me home?”

“Of course, If you don’t mind riding in my rubbish car.”  I say, giving her a peek at my bruised ego.

“Brilliant!”

So Melissa’s in my car, and her bag is on the back seat, and I’m wondering why she’s pulled the sun visor down, apparently to study herself in the vanity mirror on the back, because she’s still wearing the neck support and it doesn’t do anything for those porcelain good looks.  I don’t comment.

“Let’s drive around a bit!”

“I thought you had to get back?”

“I do, but it’s not urgent.  Mum, you know, she won’t mind if I’m a bit late?  It’s such a nice day.”

We have the window open, listening to the traffic as we drive through the city.   She smiles, touching my hand, playing with my fingers on the gear lever.  I feel renewed, as if I’ve shed a dozen years by just sitting beside her, and I’m a boy again with all the commitments and the malice of my spoiled past wiped away.   I’m proud to be in the company of this flaxen-haired beauty with her large, deep blue eyes and, yes, her big surgical collar about her neck.

We’re stopping at traffic lights.  A gleaming Aston Martin has been following us for a few blocks now, and it would normally spark feelings of envy but not today.  Today I have found love.

Melissa’s hand is on mine.  My hand is on the gear lever.  Suddenly, and with surprising strength, Melissa has shifted us into reverse.  Her foot kicks my leg firmly off the clutch.  In my surprise I press down on the accelerator with the other foot.  We shoot backwards.   Metal meets superior steel with a gut-wrenching crunch.  Melissa screams.   Melissa does not, will not stop screaming, which, with the window open, certainly impresses passersby.

An elegantly dressed head and shoulders appear at my window.  “What on earth were you doing?”  The outraged driver of the Aston Martin demands.  Melissa gives me no chance to respond.

“What were we doing?  What were WE DOING?   You drove into us, you BASTARD!  Oh, god, my neck.  I’ve already bloody nearly broken it, now it’s worse.”  She’s in tears now, serious tears.  They’re making her collar all wet.  “My career, I’m going to miss another shoot.  Oh, Christ, what am I going to do? It’s all over.  ALL  OVER!”

At this last plaintive protest I believe I may hear a subdued ripple of applause.  We’re drawing quite a crowd. 

Now I would like to make a contribution at this point, but I am given no chance.  Beauty is in distress and I have already become invisible.  While her sports car driving Sir Galahad is rushing around the car to be at her side, Melissa makes time between screams to glare at me.   “Hold your neck and look injured.  This one’s got to be worth ten grand!”

I could elaborate further, but I think you get the picture.  It appears that when she picked out the Aston Martin in her vanity mirror, Melissa chose astutely, because her screams, interspersed with the information that she was a top model who would lose thousands because of her injuries, and her repeated demands first for an ambulance, then the police, galvanised our new acquaintance (I won’t call him a friend) into becoming very attentive indeed.  So attentive that he insisted upon driving her to his preferred private clinic himself in his still-driveable car.  I could only look on helplessly as Melissa left my life, draped in the arms of her new white knight, who seemed oddly reluctant to show his face.  Then I ‘phoned the AA.

On Monday, Jorge turned up to drive me to work, which was fortunate, considering I now had no transport.

“I heard.”  He told me.

“Funny, I thought you would.”  I told him.  “You’ve seen Melissa then.  Poor girl must be in a mess.”

“Melissa?  Nah.  Fit as a fiddle, mate.  Don’t worry.  It’ll all work out – sports car man’s looking after her, and you too, if we’ve got it right.  You’ll get a better car out of it, at least.  I’m guessing you’ll be getting a call, so keep stum for a bit.  If you have to claim on your insurance, be sure to mention the neck injury.  That’s worth a few thou.”

“But her modelling work…”

Jorge gave me an old fashioned look.  “Modelling work?  Melissa?  She pulled that one, did she?  No, she’s no model; though I get her the odd bit of glamour work on the side.”

“You ‘get her’ – what do you mean?”

“Didn’t I say?  I’m her agent, mate.  She’s a very clever girl, is Melissa.  Has a natural gift.  ‘Don’t worry, Jorgs’, she says to me.  See, that move she pulled on Sunday, that could so easily have gone wrong, couldn’t it?  But she has this knack of picking out the ones with something to hide.  We may never find out what it was, but Aston Martin guy had some reason to keep things quiet, and she knew it.  She could see it in his eyes, just by looking at him through a mirror.  Now, is that talent, or what?”

We are driving into the works car park.  Jorge says:  “Melissa was telling me about your house.  She reckons you’re struggling with the old mortgage a bit, doesn’t she?  Thought so, she’s usually right.  She’s booked until next month, but she reckons you might like to invite her to a fireworks party?  I know a place you can get some good Chinese rockets and stuff.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.