The Unquiet Gravy

These days, unlike much of North America, Hallowe’en is not widely celebrated on Hopeless. This is fairly understandable; there seems little point in masquerading as some shabby version of a supernatural creature when living on an island where encounters with ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires and a host of nameless horrors are fairly commonplace. This, however, has not always been the case.

Hallowe’en, as a trick-and-treating, dressing-up and scaring the neighbours affair, kicked-off as a commercial  success in America in the 1930s. Although Hopeless was then no less of a haven for the weird and not particularly wonderful, the novelty value of the occasion was not wasted upon its inhabitants when the trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs brought news of the festival to the island. (Joseph was now living on Hopeless, having very recently married Betty Butterow, the barmaid of the Squid and Teapot).  It must be said that much of the enthusiasm generated for the occasion had a great deal to do with the prospect of a feast, for Joseph had loaded his canoe to the gunnels with candies, fruit, pumpkins, corn, vegetables and one very skinny game bird.

If the various communities of world have one thing in common, it is the desire to form a committee whenever the opportunity arises. There seems to be a universal belief that anything of the slightest importance which needs to be organised requires a group of people with vastly differing opinions to put it together. The Hopeless Hallowe’en committee was no exception. Arguments regarding the the distribution of the food, the venue or venues involved, even the exact specifications regarding the carving of the Jack O’Lanterns abounded for days. Hallowe’en was in danger of slipping by unnoticed while the committee debated the way in which it should be celebrated. At last Joseph, who was a patient man and had kept an inscrutable silence so far, banged the table with his moccasin and threatened to scupper his canoe, complete with cargo, if no decision could be made by supper time. This seemed to concentrate minds wonderfully and it was unanimously decided that all preparations for the celebrations should be put in the capable hands of the staff of the Squid and Teapot. It was a huge task and Joseph pretended not to notice the withering glance that Betty threw at him. Since marrying, the couple had set up home in a small cabin in Creepy Hollow. Joseph had the distinct impression that he might well be banished to the spare room for a night or two.

Both Betty and the Lypiatt family, who owned the inn, thought that the children of the orphanage might be recruited to carve the Jack O’Lanterns. Given the number of people to cater for, they reached the conclusion that the most economical use of the meat and vegetables would be to make a huge stew. The most mediocre of cooks will tell you –  and I speak with some authority here – that not only is a stew one of the simplest dishes to prepare but also, when allowed to cook slowly enough to enable the various flavours and textures to combine, can rival the nectar of the gods on a cold October evening. All that was required to create this culinary delight was a container large enough to hold all of the ingredients.

It was Gwilym Davies who came to the rescue. His family had settled on the island over a century before and Gwilym and his descendants on Hopeless were the remains of the Davies diaspora that had left North Wales all those years ago.

Gwilym’s great grandparents, Gruffyd and Bronwen had sailed from Liverpool with few possessions but the one thing they refused to leave behind was the huge copper cauldron that had been in the family for longer than anyone could remember.  As far as Gwilym was aware,  the cauldron had not been used during his lifetime and it seemed an ideal vessel for the job in hand.

One of The Squid’s outbuildings was selected to house the cauldron. So large was the container that it was deemed necessary to keep a fire burning steadily beneath it for at least twenty four hours in order for the flavours to properly mingle. In view of this, a couple of islanders were roped-in to tend to it. These took the shape of Daniel Rooksmoor, one of the boys from the orphanage and old Amos Gannicox. In his younger days Amos had been the ship’s carpenter on the ill-fated ‘The City of Portland’. After the ship capsized Amos had found himself stranded on Hopeless. Now, some fifty years later, on this most auspicious of occasions, he was awarded the task of stirring the stew. Meanwhile, Daniel, a burly fourteen-year-old, volunteered to feed the fire.

 

All seemed to be going well until it came to adding the meat. When the game-bird was plucked it looked too thin and bony to provide any sort of meaningful nourishment. It was a disappointment but by this time it was too late to do anything other than gut the carcass and throw it into the pot as it was, head, legs and all. At least a day of slow cooking would gently ease whatever flesh it once possessed from the bones.

By nightfall, on the last day of October, the air around The Squid and Teapot was rich with the aroma of stew. Folk started to drift towards the inn, bringing bowls and cutlery. It was rare for anyone on the island to give  their jealously guarded spoons an airing, for fear of theft by the Spoonwalkers, but tonight there was a devil-may-care attitude and caution was thrown to the wind. Lanterns, music, laughter and a certain amount of alcohol, all added to the atmosphere of the evening.

Daniel had gone to the woodshed for more fuel and Amos was alone with the cauldron when it suddenly bubbled with a strange glooping noise. The old man dug the wooden paddle, that served as a stirring-spoon, into the mixture and pushed it around. It was hard work – the paddle moved sluggishly, as if through treacle. The stew glooped again just as Daniel walked through the doorway, his arms loaded with logs.

“I don’t know what’s going on with this,” said Amos. “Give me a hand with the paddle, please lad.”

Daniel grasped the paddle and helped move it around. Maybe it was the firelight or something to do with the bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ he’d craftily consumed while supposedly looking for wood but the stew seemed to have taken on a strange hue. There was a certain luminous green quality lingering in its depths.

“Gloop”

This time the bubbles were fiercer and sent a fine spray of stew into the air, three generous drops of it landing on Daniel’s hand. The pair jumped back with some alarm, yelling in consternation and letting the paddle drop into the cauldron. Daniel licked the burning drops off his hand.

By now a crowd, hearing the commotion, had gathered outside the doorway just in time to see Amos fall over and Daniel reel back against the wall, holding his head.

The bubbling noises from the cauldron were louder and more frequent by now. A green steam arose from the surface of the stew and hung ominously in the air above it.

“Get back” screamed Daniel, grabbing Amos by the collar of his jacket and dragging him out of the building, the crowd falling back to let them pass.

The cauldron began to groan as if possessed by some demon and its sides appeared to pulsate in the dancing firelight.

The crowd drew back, everyone well aware that something unpleasant was about to happen. This was, after all, Hopeless on Hallowe’en. Of course something unpleasant was about to happen.

Then it did.

The cauldron groaned once more, a heart-rending, guttural cry that became a drawn-out moan, then a roar. With a blinding flash the cauldron exploded into a thousand copper shards, embedding themselves into the walls and ceiling of the outbuilding. Many of the spectators standing close by were temporarily blinded by the sudden burst of light. Very few saw the creature that arose from the ruins of the stew which, by now, was seeping into the earthen floor. Even by Hopeless standards it was odd. There was something reminiscent of a bird of prey about it, but huge and with glowing eyes, as big as turnips. Its wings might have been leather but looked like massive cabbage leaves and its talons were uncannily like parsnips. With a beak and wattles that glowed, as if made of copper, it rose into the air

with a deafening squawk, then flapped, slow and silent as a heron, into the night sky,  towards the mysterious Gydynap hills.

Daniel Rooksmoor stood alone over the unmoving form of Amos Gannicox. The three livid red scars on his hand marked where the drops had landed and he had changed, for all to see. His skin was deathly pale and he looked older, far older, than his years. There was a light in his eyes that spoke of madness; the madness of prophets and poets. The madness which has little time for the mediocrity of daily life.

Wordlessly he walked away from the throng, into the darkness, following the flight of the Cauldron Bird. He was oblivious to danger and careless of any creature that might be abroad on this most haunted of nights. Those who saw him leave fell to silence. No one moved to stop him.

 

Despite the facts that Gwilym Davies was stoic about the loss of his cauldron, Amos had made a full recovery and there appeared to have been no fatalities, Joseph was wracked with guilt. He was convinced that the responsibility for everything that befell that night was all his own. He felt especially bad about Daniel Rooksmoor and resolved to find the boy and bring him back. Joseph  knew this was something that he had to do alone. There was no changing his mind and so, with a heavy-heart, Betty Butterow watched the love of her life leave their cabin to head deep inland, where loomed the mysterious and forbidding Gydynap hills…

 

To be continued…

art by Tom Brown

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