by Mark Ward
Behind the Laughing Gate in the city of Ware stood the Lock Keep, forehead creased with worry. The sun was late rising, or so it seemed. The brides and their maids were strung out along the cobbled street at his back. The hangmen would come later. At a signal from the Lock Keep the women were to march forth and take their places on one of the forty hills that dotted the pock-marked plain separating the city of Ware from its detested twin, Un.
The restless ranks of medals on the breast pocket of the Lock Keep's tunic chattered like recruits over his heart that fidgeted in his chest like it did not fit. The dresses of the brides and the maids whispered like the sea.
He bent to the key hole as the sun cleared the mountains and its light struck him in the eye like a spear. He cried out and staggered against the gong. It dropped, struck sparks from the cobbles with a sonorous clang and set off, eager, down the road. Blind in one eye, weeping from both, the Lock Keep followed. The gates were flung back, the sun invaded the city, and the procession walked out into the morning.
The world turned beneath the sunlight letting it shoulder through shutters and between curtains to stir the citizenry. As the globe rolled, the light rushed on over meadows, crops and woods. Cows raised their heads to watch and birds fled chattering before it. Then it met the ocean and skated west across the heaving waves, scattering fish as it peered, myopic, into the sea's benthic realms.
Across the Twisted Sea rode the light, pitiless and swift. It made landfall again and bestowed shadows on those gathered on the beach. Some shrieked and made for the gritty streets of the ironbound port. Others shifted in their sleep, flung an arm across their eyes, and sought the gentle arms of slumber again. One man, just beyond the reach of the waves, held aloft a hand to shield his pale eyes. He looked across the waves, wondering what made them so restless, so keen to fling themselves on this shore when it had only broken and disappointed him.
"Hi there! You, sir! The Navigator."
He turned. A gent advanced, dressed for the hunt.
"You are mistaken, sir. I am no navigator, no mariner. The sea is a stranger to me."
The gent approached, waggling a cane. "Ah, but not for long, hmm? It calls to you. Does it not? The soul of a sailor is trapped within you I'd wager. No?"
"No," he said. "I am, was, a farmer. Driven from my stead by the spider plague. I have only stopped here because..." he gestured at the clumps of people gathered on the beach, "...I have run out of land on which to stretch my legs."
"Sea legs," said the gent. He smiled and laughed. "Oh, Providence, I think I spy the hem of your garment."
"I don't understand."
"I am planning a voyage," said the gent. He took the farmer's arm like he was a niece at a ball. They strolled down the strand. "Such a voyage, it will be the making of us all. I have need of a navigator. Do you see? You wish to continue your journey and I have need of one who can show us the way. Perfect. Providence."
"But I know nothing of guiding a ship. I have no knowledge of astral charts, wind or waves. I do not see..."
"Good," said the well-dressed gent. He held the farmer at arm's length and looked him up and down. "Then you are not burdened with the dogma of that craft."
A bubbling shriek rose from within a nearby crowd all clad in black robes. A blade flashed and the scream cut off as it reached a crescendo. The crowd cheered.
The gent drew closer. "Come," he said, keen to leave. Some of the crowd cast covetous glances at the folk dotting the strand. "Walk with me. This voyage will be most singular. Better that you come with no preconceptions. All the better to guide us into the waters fit for our purpose."
"And this voyage, what is its aim?"
The gent held up a finger, stowed his cane in his armpit, then fished in his trouser pocket with his free hand. "See?"
"A lump of coal on a string."
"Ah," said the gent, dipping it like a teabag in a mug. "Coal now, but on the voyage we will lower said coal into the depths of the ocean. To the abyssal realms where the pressure is so immense these humble lumps of coal will be transformed into diamonds, jewels, the size of which has never been seen. We will be rich!" He planted the cane in the sand and pirouetted around it.
"Will that work?"
"Can you think of a reason why it will not?"
"Well, no, but I am no man of science."
"Pah, meddlers, jealous the lot of them. That's all. Better still that you can find no reasons. Hope too, is precious. To be coveted. You seem perfect for the task. Are you with us? Can I rely on you?"
The Navigator was ready to decline but then, deep within, something caught and pulled. "What day is this?" he asked.
"The 8th. Why?"
"Bride season, then."
"For those across the water, aye. What of it?" The gent made a dismissive gesture. "Are you with us?" He held out his hand. "Tisim," he said. "I am Tisim."
"Navigator it is then." he said. "I'm your man."
They shook. Tisim's hand was soft as silk.
Every hill on the plain between the twin cities of Un and Ware was a barrow. A burial place for each bride left at the altar. Their days ended on the gibbet.
The low hills were considered lucky, because so many found love upon them. Others pushed higher, were unluckier, and had seen more tears shed in mourning than joy. But no bride wanted the ticket for the High Hill. It stood tall as a pyramid and only one bride who waited upon its height, and that the first, found a lover. The rest lay below in endless quiet, waiting still, feeding the brambles and bushes flanking the path that wound to its top with the meagre food of grief.
The bride waited, sat in the door of the tall tent erected by the maid, watching, looking beyond the city, across fields and meadows, to where, just, the glittering sea trembled on the horizon like a tear upon an eyelid. The night came, the eye closed, but the tear remained.
The Navigator looked down from the bedroom window. Night had fallen. Light cast by red lanterns outside the brothels on the narrow street gave a hellish tint to passing citizens. The gutters ran red with rust washed from the ironclad buildings by the rain.
Two streets away masts and funnels rose high over the rooftops. They bobbed as... he didn't know why. Perhaps the tide was ebbing? Perhaps. He sighed.
Behind, in the corner of the room, something huge shifted. The floorboards creaked like a tea clipper in a rising gale.
"What troubles you, my child?" A woman's voice. High, but wheezy with it.
He turned from the red-rimmed panes that framed the scene of the smoky port and crossed the room unbuttoning his shirt. He dropped it on a chair which already held his trews, jacket, ‘kerchief and socks. His boots stood at attention beneath.
He stood at the edge of the vast woman's pen, wringing his hands.
"I am committed to a voyage that has little chance of success, commissioned by a fool who wishes to visit stretches of the ocean shunned by every careful mariner, stretches of ocean where the Winnow hunt, with a crew taken from the gaols because no other can be found. This ship of fools relies on me for its course. To get it to such hazardous places. I who had never even _seen_ the sea until yesterday. That is what troubles me."
"And yet what?"
The great head turned towards him. The eyes took an age to blink as the mother-for-hire looked over the pink hill of her shoulder into his pale eyes.
"And yet you are here. You have found your way to comfort, to what you need, on the night before you begin this perilous journey. I, my kind, are not easy to find nor cheap to spend time with." She nodded toward the little shelf by the door on which lay two thick coins, one canted against the other. "There is nothing wrong with your sense of direction. Well...,"
"Nothing that trusting yourself a little more would not cure."
"Perhaps." He squatted and slid beneath the sheet of skin linking the great mother's arm to her ankle. In the dim light beneath it he scaled the hillock of her stomach and chest and took in great breaths of earthy sweat thick with the taint of a sow in farrow. He burrowed upward clenching the fat flesh for handholds to emerge between her arms. Clothed in mother's musk he laid his head on her elbow, curled up like an infant, and wept.
"Quiet, my child, quiet," she said and sang him a lullaby of syllables as the hoom-hooom, hoom-hooom of her great heart pulled him toward sleep.
All the brides watched the man ride up on a stallion, not a gelding, each one wondering if she would be the lucky Miss. The white horse picked its way between the hills, stepping like it wore heels, its progress painful for the brides to watch. Following, the musicians, idiots and notaries capered after their own fashion.
For one giddy moment the bride on the High Hill thought the man, tall in the saddle with a cockade nodding with each step, had come for her.
No. He turned away. The idiots lifted their tail coats and slapped their bare arses at her half-raised hand. He stopped the horse by Sloe Hill, a bump in the grass, dismounted, jogged up the rise and knelt before the weeping girl in white. Her happy sobs rose up and reached the bride and the maid. The bride stumbled away into the tent. Left alone, the maid cursed, hoping the groom proved a petty tyrant. And impotent too.
"A stage five," said the doctor, peering down at the Navigator swathed in sweat-stained sheets on the bunk. "Not often we see one of those." The doctor and loblolly boy shared a gleeful giggle.
Limp as a dish rag after a week of sea-sickness the Navigator saw nothing comic in his fate. He coughed, forced the surging bile back down his gullet by force of will, gripped the brass basin he held a little tighter, and choked out: "No?"
"No," said the doctor. "Quite rare. Stage six is worse, of course, that's when the incessant retching causes the organs to collapse. You'll drown in your own blood." He smiled again, then added. "And die, of course."
Not for the first time the Navigator wondered if death might be preferable to feeling so foul, so sick.
They left the Navigator alone in the cabin crammed between the officers' quarters and the gunroom where meals were served. Not that he had eaten for days.
The sickness had struck on the second morning when a squall blew up. Nothing to startle the crew, though it left the Navigator prostrate with fear. In the middle of it, his heart thudding in his throat as the ship scaled the side of a vast wave, scudding ahead of the driving wind, he coughed and spewed forth a shining carpet of watery vomit. A crashing wave cleaned the deck, seeming to dare him to do it again. So, he did. The cycle would have been repeated had a deck hand not helped him to his cot. There he vomited up everything the retching found within. The storm blew out in a few hours but he continued spewing as the last puddles of chyme in his belly were plumbed for their thin bounty.
The thumping engines made the sickness worse. Now and again his pulse matched the throb of the pistons and he had a moment of ease. Then the bump of his heart would skip ahead or fall behind, his sense of disorientation would deepen and he would curl up, curse and vomit. Again and again.
Throughout the sickness he had seen only shards of his face reflected in the battered brass of the basin. A wild eye. Bone pressing white in his cheek as his jaw stretched wide. His glabrous brow. Saliva oozing through a scribble of beard. Dry lips, scabbed and torn by the endless vomiting. He did not recognise the pieces and wondered if his old land-loving self was being scoured out in preparation for something else. What, or who, that might be he had no idea.
"Oh! By the lights..."
He grunted, gripped the bowl, and opened wide as another shudder wrung him out. The spasm over, he fell back and peered in the bowl. Spit. Nothing more. This time.
He slept. Then startled himself awake hours later to realise he felt better. Or at least, no worse. He smiled but it guttered into nothing as he lacked the energy to sustain it.
The next day found him on deck, sitting on a barrel, pockets bulging with ship's biscuit as he commenced chewing his way back to health.
He had been little help as the ship set out, sufficing only to agree to everything the master of the ship ventured. His prostrating sickness and absence from the decisions about course and trim of the sails made him an utter supernumerary. To pass the time he watched the busy sea.
The Navigator imagined it a desert in all but a few places but all kinds of creatures attended the ship. Fleets of dolphins, schools of tunny fish, gargantuan whales, pods of grampus and herds of sea cows. Birds of every shape and size. Flying fish. Decapods. Great mats of jellyfish. Sharks and seals. An endless variety. Once halfway to the horizon a vast undulating eel or an arm of some immense creature thrashed, rose high then slipped beneath the waves. The great fluke on its end beckoned. When it was gone he found himself cowering behind the main mast and subject to the crew's grinning scorn.
The sense of terror that great limb engendered turned his attention inboard. The vessel had started life as a sailing ship but its wooden frame was now ironclad to bolster it against the action of the screws. Through watch and watch he sat and stared. Many of the gaol pale sullen crew still bore fetter marks. Few days finished without a flogging or a crewman wearing a spike like a bridle for answering back. The deck beneath the grating where offenders were flogged grew as pale as a butcher's block from being scrubbed so often.
A perceptible pause greeted every order. Bronze John and Yellow Jack, red-headed sailors who were not kin but as close as twins, were the ring-leaders. Often a crewman looked to one of the two and got a nod when ordered to attend to their duty.
The Navigator's growing interest in food revealed a ship struggling to feed the crew. Only water was abundant. To fill out their diet of salted meat, pottage and beer, nets and fishing lines trailed from the davits set amidships to pay out the cable to lower the coal.
The raised nets brought up fish as well as combs, mirrors, clips fashioned from coral and pins made from fish bones and urchin spines.
Seeing the Navigator toy with a coral comb a seaman lurched forward. He had the wide shoulders, long arms and ape-like gait of an upper-yard man but blinked in a rapid repeating sequence. Evidence of drug addiction the master had told the Navigator with a knowing glance.
"We'm getting close."
"Close? Close to what?"
"The terr'try of the Winnow. Mer folk enjoy their protection, see? All this frippery" -- he gestured at the clips, combs and mirrors -- "is their'n. An' the Winnow ain't going to like it. Ain't going to like us being 'ere. You mark my words. Just think on it, sir, the Winnow were so full o' hate for man that they grew themselves gills and took themsel' away to where no man could go, where they could be at peace. And yet, here we be, dangling great chunks o' coal in their parlour. It can't end well."
"Hmm? No, perhaps... I..." The pungent odour of grilled sardines set his mouth awash. The Navigator followed the scent to the galley. The addict blinked and twitched in his wake.
The hangmen had arrived. The more successful ones arrived in carts. Some drawn by nags, some sway-backed mares and others donkeys. Then came those with an ass or ox to lug their gear and finally those with hand barrows or just a bag of tools clanking on their shoulder.
The bride and the maid peered down the Hill.
"Middling fast, I'd say"
"Really?" said the bride.
"Mmm. He has tools a plenty but is older. See! He's taken off his cap to scratch his head. A big bald spot. Old. Maybe slow."
"Or perhaps he is bald because he has spent so long wearing his hood," said the bride, stepping back from the brink. "It could be his success that has put paid to a fine head of hair." She left the maid to her scrutiny and returned to the tent.
The Navigator awoke, stomach growling like a mad dog. He fished over the side of the cot but found only crumbs rattling in the basin. He sat, stood, then staggered against the roll of the ship as he pulled on his peacoat. The cook always left out biscuit and sweet cake in the galley to assuage the pangs.
Strolling through the gunroom he smiled as he timed his steps to meet the rising deck as the craft gyrated on the swell. Out of the door he turned right, reversed and descended a ladder to the great space beneath decks where the crew slept.
Most, all, the crew were crowded down here -- even those that should have been on watch. That explained the ship's skittishness. Flames writhed within lanterns lending life to the shadows stroking walls and ceiling. Sweat and a novel fishy scent thickened the air. The constrained space forced the sailors into a stoop-shouldered stance that made them the living image of man's savage past. The Navigator slipped through the crowd, ignored by all. Their attention was pitched ahead. Bronze John and Yellow Jack bent over a mess table set against the forward bulwark. They stepped back. A mer-girl was bound to the table with bowlines. A rare one with the head of a fish but the legs and sex of a woman. She struggled on the pine table, her great fins slapped wood greasy with shed scales.
The Navigator roared: "Stop! Stop this now! Are you savages? Lost to all decency and restraint? Free that poor creature, lest you bring the wrath of the Winnow down upon us."
He pushed between the two sailors, drew the coral comb in his pocket free to slash the rope that bound the mer-girl. She slipped free, mouth gaping and blinked her saucer-bowl eyes at him. He turned, placed a hand on her solid thigh and shoved her toward the stairs leading upward.
He edged back, comb warding off attackers, feeling the bony edge of her fins bump his back as she struggled up the steps. The crew advanced as one, the lantern light making them resemble a fabulous beast all head, arms and glittering jack knives.
Their restraint broke when the Navigator had reached halfway. They flooded after him, fought, swore and struggled to climb the stairs in a body. The Navigator fled, bundling the slippery mer-girl ahead toward the rail. She soared over it as the ship hit a trough in the waves and, for a moment, they plunged together, eye to eye. Then the ship rose and she was gone.
He turned to face the murderous crew. They regarded him for a moment. Then, the red-headed twins stepped forward.
Bronze John pulled a coin from his pocket and flipped it.
"Heads or tails?"
"Heads" said Jack.
"Heads it is."
"Good. Then I claim the privilege o' killing this fucker. I got something special in mind," he said, eyeing the davits.
Through the gloom of night the maid and the bride watched a torch-lit procession wend its way back to the Laughing Gate. The last torch passed in to the city, the gate shut and the noise rolled over the plain like thunder.
"Who was it?"
"Little Jenny Marr," said the maid. "Naught but a waif, really."
"But so quick. Just a day or so. I have as long as it takes the hangman to make the gibbet. How did he do it so fast? How?"
The maid uncurled the bride's fingers from where they gripped her shoulder.
"I don't know."
They parted, each to her own cot, and spent a restless night that left them wincing in the grey dawn light. Soon after, the steady tock, tock of an adze shaping wood rang out as the hangman at the base of the High Hill continued fashioning a gibbet fit for the bride.
Falling! No. Ah! Swaying. The sky spun, twisted and scudded past above the Navigator. He clamped his eyes shut feeling the sweat pooling between his bound hands and cold iron bands cutting into his back. Where?
He opened his eyes and saw sails, yards and the bright blue sky. Somehow he was pinioned. The crew had stuck him in the hooped basket that would be lowered to the depths with the coal within.
On deck Yellow Jack raised a crowbar to lift the pawl holding back the great spool of cable.
"Splendid, just splendid!"
Tisim stood at the head of the steps linking quarter deck to the waist of the ship. Applauding, Tisim descended to the main deck, paisley dressing gown flapping about his ankles. The crewmen near the port davit parted to let him approach the rail.
"Splendid, I admire your application," he said, leaning on the rail and regarding the suspended Navigator.
Behind Tisim the crew found other things to do.
"Indeed, your application to this cause is without equal. Taking it upon yourself to test the cage and winding mechanism like this. Splendid. Really, it is."
The Navigator coughed. "Well, it was the crew really, I,..."
"And how is it? All working? All, ah, shipshape?" He turned to share the joke with the crew. The few remaining men shuffled their feet and smiled.
"Yes," said the Navigator. "I think so."
"Just marvellous." Tisim turned away then and, with hands clasped at his back, strolled toward the bow.
The remaining crewmen looked at his departing back, looked at each other then away and then drew the davit arm inboard. Within moments the Navigator was turned out on to the deck, the ropes around his wrists cut and then left as the crew went about the day's work. Rubbing his wrists and stretching his back the Navigator giggled, stood then fled to Tisim's side.
The hangman had all the pieces he needed. The trees were down, the trunks trimmed and plank lines marked. He spat on his palms, nodded to his boy, and they began. The great blade seesawed back and forth cutting straight and true through the first trunk. These for the platform. Two good strong trees would suffice for the upright and cross to form the gibbet. It went well. Not quickly, but well.
The timoneer took two days to find a whale hole deep enough for the coal. Two long, frustrating days. The Navigator stayed close to Tisim even though the little man never left the deck. He ate standing up and stayed in his dressing gown and pajamas which became stiff with salt.
While plumbing the depths the timoneer had many false starts and, even though they were far out at sea, often the rope secured to the lead coiled on the waves like he had hit bottom. Many times he lost the lead. When the rope came back up it looked snipped through. As if with a blade. The crew swapped knowing glances as the sheared cord passed from hand to hand. The muttered word "Winnow" became as common as the cries of the gulls following the vessel.
Tisim left the deck when the timoneer pronounced himself happy with their position. As the crew checked the davits and wrestled the barrels of coal and spools of cable from the hold, Tisim retired to rest, wash and change.
At last they were ready. Tisim had the privilege of releasing the basket of coal. Handed the crowbar, he flipped back the pawl locking the spool.
The ship heaved on the swell and, for a moment, the basket hung between air and water. Then the ship swooped down and the basket plunged bubbling into the depths. The great spool jumped and racketed in its brackets as the cable paid out and the coal fell deeper. For three bells it fell, two spools being added as it descended. The cable spun out slower and slower as the basket found its level. They watched as the pawl clicked round. Slower and slower. And then. Stopped.
So started the tedious work of hauling it back to surface. Hour after hour they toiled. All of them.. Idlers, master, bosun, owner and crew took their turn at the capstan. Progress seemed impossible, endless, the rope crawling back on to the spool, each inch won with sweat, moil and toil. As the men walked round and round they held up their heads and sea water squeezed from the cable passing through the pulley at the end of the davit fell upon them and refreshed them in their labour. No one sang. The steady clump of feet on the deck was the only accompaniment.
So it went on. One spool filled and the rope passed on to the second. More work. Endless walking - the cable's progress hypnotic. Each worker watched as he walked, seeing the cable wind round and round the trunk of the spool. Filling it but at no great pace. Each circuit of the capstan seemed to cheat them of progress. Then it was done. The third spool, the last, was cast on and the walking went on faster now the end was so close. The sea fell calm as if it too waited to see what would happen. Whether they would be rich or richly mocked. As the sailors walked round the capstan they craned their necks to see how the cable was coming, how close lay the grubby line marking a fully wound spool.
The end came in the early morning when dawn was a promise to the east -- a lightness in the sky that caught the edge of the eye but could not be seen when sought.
The Navigator and Tisim stood silent. Tisim picked at his bandaged hands. A turn at the capstan had ruined them. The Navigator held a gaff ready to drag the basket aboard.
"Steady now," called the master. He stood by the davit holding the pawl back ready to let it drop and hold the cable in place.
"There! There! I see it!"
"Where?" said the Navigator, peering into the waves.
"There!" Tisim grabbed his sleeve and pointed.
Just beyond where the cable cut the water something shone, glittering in the deep. Now lost, now distinct. The shifting waves made it difficult to pick out.
The master lowered the pawl. Each click counted the cable back.
Slow and steady came the basket, surging out of the deep as the ship plunged, then falling back as the ship rose. Did it glitter or was it just dawn dancing on the spray?
Then it was close, up, skipping across the wave tops, thumping against the side and the Navigator reached with the gaff. He hooked it on the second try managing to force the hook between the basket's iron hoops.
Tisim hauled at the Navigator who hauled on the gaff lifting the basket. Then they held it and saw the glitter within. The Navigator unhooked a crowbar from his belt and set it against the lid. It resisted his exertion until they set the basket on deck and both pushed on it. The lid bent, creaked and came away with a rush. The Navigator sprawled then scrambled to return to where Tisim stood holding the flat sheet of shell he had plucked from the basket.
"Behind you," said Tisim, reading the scrawl written on the shell.
The Navigator glanced down. A slick, red tide butted against his feet.
Across a deck carpeted with gore stood five, six, eight Winnow. Great, green scaled creatures. Strong. Wicked. Wide gills on their chests flapped like the mouths of the dying. Bloody blades grasped in their leathery hands. The butchered crew lay at their feet.
Tisim dropped the sheet of shell and it tumbled into the sea. Now reflecting the rising sun, now not. Plunging deeper until the light could no longer find it.
The maid awoke. The bride stood over her cot.
"What is it?" She sat up. The gibbet had not been completed. Just the platform was done. The trapdoor gaped like a throat.
"Something terrible has happened," said the bride, pointing far beyond the city.
The maid looked but great banks of fog blurred the lands beyond the walls hiding the great events taking place within.
He was alone. On a ship and could not swim.
He stood on the quarter deck by the wheel that he had fixed in position with a bristly rope. The ship pointed at the setting sun.
What now? Was he done? He crossed to the taffrail. The shattered wake of the ship lay like a road to the east. He wondered if this journey had brought him to the end of himself, beyond which he did not have the resources to go. Perhaps here he discovered his limitations and got the chance to treasure that insight as the waves closed over him. Then again, perhaps fate had just tired of his pluck.
The winnow had done for Tisim by flinging a harpoon that struck high in the chest and tipped him over the rail. A bloody streak down the tumblehome marked his passing.
Two Winnow grabbed the Navigator as he tried to see if Tisim were, by some miracle, still alive. Another advanced swinging a great whale-bone blade. He collapsed in their grip, ready for the blow. A high piping came from the sea. The mer-girl. A conversation ensued between the mer-girl and the Winnow. The one with the great blade babbled like a kettle at the mer-girl who slapped the waves with her fins in her vehemence.
Then they left him. Alone. On a ship and could not swim.
Alone with the dead. He went below to escape them. The movement of the ship set them sliding around the deck. To escape the noise of heads knocking on the deck and lifeless limbs slapping the timber the Navigator penetrated deeper into the vessel. He found the engine room. Coal to one side and boilers to the other. He raised his curled and worn hands. Years of toil in the fields meant that, even at rest, they were poised to work.
He grabbed a shovel, his hands gripping where use had smoothed the wood. He heaped great loads of coal into the fireboxes below the boilers. Then he laughed, long and loud, as he worked into the night, tears cutting bright lines through the black dust masking his face.
He shovelled. When he had to rest he sat on a barrel, stood the shovel upright and rested arms and head upon its handle. When the clatter of the falling shovel awoke him, he began again. Feeding the ship. Breaking off now and then to trim the course. The dead had gone, ripped away by a storm that had also stolen the sails. At night he steered by instinct. Tying the wheel when the thrum of the water under the keel matched the keening in his heart. By the light he was weary. But he made progress. One shovelful at a time.
More than half were dead or gone. A flurry of weddings and executions had thinned the numbers. Unluckiest, so far, was Biddy Adieu on Langhorn Hill. The hangman was fitting the rope to the scaffold as the beau arrived at the foot of the tor. He tangled in the stirrup and danced around for precious minutes as the maid helped Biddy step up. Finally free, the groom rushed up the path and flung himself on Biddy as she twisted in the wind. Hugging her and hoping but finding only reproach in her misting eyes.
The bride watched, wondering if this marked a turn in fortune. If Biddy was alone in being abandoned by luck or if a similar fate awaited her. If she too would see her hope of happiness with dying eyes, to have what might have been flash before her as she dropped and danced over the yawning trap.
Land was near. He knew it. Even though nothing of the mariner's trade had penetrated his landlubber's hide. The way the sea heaved, the smell on the air, the sea birds, all told him that land was close. The mainland. The bride. The end. But the coal was all gone. The fog hid everything. He bounced a fist on the rail, let the shovel fall on the deck and as it rattled and turned as the ship wallowed he stripped down to shirt and trews. The deck plunged and the clothes slid away. At a gap in the rail torn by a storm he waited for the ship to plunge, Below the waves were dim and greedy around the hull. The ship tilted. The discarded clothes and shovel crept up. The blade of the shovel caught his ankle, he called out, slipped and fell. He had time to wonder what limbs would break if he fell on to a beach.
Then he plunged into salt water, an ecstasy of thrashing in the choking tide, then the liquid took hold and bore him down. Coal dust lay like a shed skin on the water. With infinite care the waves plucked it apart.
The bride tossed on her cot, throwing off the covers. The maid picked them up, again, and tucked them round the restless woman. She was in some kind of fugue state, eyes open but not seeing the tent, hill or hangman at work. She was hot, but not feverish, like she was working hard. Sweating through her thin nightdress. Stinking like a navvy in the dawn. The fog beyond the city had cleared but the morning haze meant no detail could be discerned.
"Are you dead?"
The Navigator felt a bare foot worm its way under a shoulder. A horny nail caught his nipple as he was flipped. Sand scattered on his face and he sat up spitting grit.
"Where am I?"
"Hmm, not dead then. Pity. Good money in a corpse. You're 20 mile shy of the great city of Ware. Thereabouts..., why are you laughing?"
The Navigator fell back, arms spread wide, making an angel in the sand. The waves nudged his feet, withdrew, then rushed back to remind him.
"No reason. Not yet anyway." The Navigator said. "Is that your horse and cart?" he asked the old man sitting on his haunches close by.
"How much to buy it?"
"What are you going to pay me with?"
"Maybe. If not me, then a woman."
"One of the brides?"
"Indeed, if I get there on time. If not, you've got your corpse. Maybe two."
"Come on then. Help me up."
Not long now. The hangman and his boy were testing the drop. The bride watched through a rip in the tent. The hangman pushed back his cap and scratched his brown brow. He re-settled it then bent, grunted, and re-appeared concealed behind a wooden square. The trapdoor. The hangman passed from sight. Soon after came the sound of a plane smoothing wood.
The maid burst into the tent. For a moment she could not see the bride and cried out, wondering if she was too late. There! Hunched on a stool by the door.
"Here," she said. "He's here."
"Who? Who? For all love."
The maid grabbed the bride and stool and set them before the mirror. The bride caught on and hurried too. Smiling, primping and simpering as they repaired her looks.
She stumbled from the tent, dazzled. The maid stood at her side, thrust a bouquet into her hands and then pushed her forward as the Navigator crested the hill, looked over and smiled.
She doffed her eyes, demure as a bride should be.
He crossed to the hangman, who was running a thumb down the side of the trapdoor.
"I have need of her," said the Navigator.
"Aye, to marry. She is lucky."
"No," said the Navigator. "Not to wed. A sacrifice to scour away the ill luck that has plagued me."
"You would claim her as such?"
The hangman walked back to gibbet. While he set the trapdoor in place, the Navigator looked at the bride and feasted on the hope dying in her eyes. He advanced and held out his hand.
"Come, my dear, you have a duty to perform for me."
She cast off his hand and walked to the gibbet. Head held high.
"So," said the old man. "Just the one, then?"
© 2010 Mark Ward
Bio: Mark Ward is a resident of Surrey, England. His stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Everyday Fiction, Futurismic, RevolutionSF, and Aoife's Kiss. This is Mr. Ward's third appearance in Aphelion; most recently, his story No More Heroes appeared in the December 2009 edition.
E-mail: Mark Ward
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