Regular readers may recall that on Christmas eve in 1886, the very year that I tell of, ‘The Annie C. Maguire’, a three-masted barque, capsized off the coast of Maine. Happily her captain and crew were saved by the keeper of the Portland lighthouse. Unbeknown, however, to the ship’s captain, Mr O’Neill, there was a stowaway on board. This was Manchachicoj, a hideous Argentinian demon from the Salamanca Caves, who had been hiding in one of the many barrels of salt-beef stowed in the hold. The reason for the barque coming to grief as it did was entirely due to Manchachicoj industriously banging a hole in the ship’s side in order to answer the beguiling call of a siren (whom, uniquely in the history of sirens, he successfully managed to seduce). This and the subsequent damage caused when the floundering craft hit a reef, allowed some of the barrels to float free. These were accompanied by several firkins of the finest Argentinian wine, carefully procured by Captain O’Neill while ‘The Annie C Maguire’ sat anchored in Buenos Aires.
Imagine, if you will, the average Christmas on Hopeless, Maine. Tidings of comfort and joy are in short supply, as is everything else. The general lack of seasonal cheer ensures that any stockings optimistically hung up over the fireplace are certain to remain empty. There will be no great feast, no Bacchanalia. Most will find that it is a day like any other dismal day. For some islanders, however, during one Christmas long ago, all of this changed. Unsurprisingly for Hopeless, the change was not exactly for the better.
Amos Gannicox, a former ship’s carpenter, looked with satisfaction at the fine wooden cabin and workshop he had constructed from the pieces of wreckage and driftwood salvaged from around the island. He was now able to bid a grateful farewell to The Squid and Teapot, an establishment that had provided his lodgings for two years, ever since his arrival on Hopeless. In exchange, Amos had happily used his art as a master carpenter to greatly enhance the appearance of the inn.
From his earliest days on the island, Amos found that he was frequently visited by Elmer Bussage, a youngster who loved to watch him at work. Indeed, Elmer far preferred the company of the carpenter to that of his own mother and father. You will recall that the Bussage family, along with the Reverend Malachi Crackstone and Tobias Thrupp, were companions in the liferaft that had brought Amos to Hopeless.
There could be no doubt that the Bussages’ parenting skills were decidedly lacklustre, by any standards. While most newcomers to Hopeless generally made an effort to earn their keep, Jethro and Maybelle Bussage had other ideas. They preferred to beg, scavenge and steal to get by. They made just two exceptions to this lack of industry; the first was on the occasions when Maybelle, with the full approval of her husband, competed with Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for the dubious attentions of various discerning gentlemen. The second exception was Jethro’s indisputable and frequently used talent for distilling moonshine, which they both consumed with an untamed enthusiasm. All in all, they were not the best role models for a boy of ten years old.
Amos gazed out at the worsening weather with some trepidation. It looked as though Christmas would be blown in on an ice storm this year. Little Elmer was sitting happily in front of the wood-burning stove that Amos had ingeniously created from a disused water tank. There was no point in sending the boy home in this weather. The carpenter threw another piece of driftwood into the stove and turned up the gnii-oil lamp. There was little chance that Jethro and Maybelle would be worrying too much about their son anyway, he reflected. The lad was far safer with him.
The Bussages had not, indeed, given their son a second thought since he had left that morning. He always came back eventually. Besides, it was Christmas Eve and some interesting looking barrels – one very large and two much smaller – had washed up almost on their doorstep and demanded immediate attention. Who said there was no Santa Claus?
In view of the impending inclement weather it would have been sensible for Jethro and Maybelle to attend to some pressing and basic practicalities. These they neglected, instead making their priority the task of getting the barrels under cover before the oncoming storm carried them away again. This was easier said than done. The firkins, the five-gallon barrels, were heavy enough to carry but the tun was beyond carrying and had to be rolled. It was unwieldy to manoeuvre and wanted to go anywhere but to the place where it was supposed to be. Eventually, however, after much sweat and profanity, the job was done.
It was with no little excitement and exertion that Jethro prised the lid off the tun. Once opened, he viewed the contents with mixed feelings. He knew a bit about salt-beef and its preparation. There was no doubt that this was top quality, for there was no evidence of hide, bone or offal. As a boy he had often watched his uncle, who had been a butcher in a victualling yard. He recalled that the flesh was cut roughly into four-pound pieces and rubbed generously with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. This was followed by a lengthy process of further salting until, eventually, the meat was barrelled and floated in brine.
Jethro held his breath as he drew the first piece of beef from the tun. If the brine had leaked the meat would be rotten. He prodded the cut with his finger. It was firm to the touch. He breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time in over two years there was the real promise of a sumptuous Christmas dinner in store.
Maybelle, meanwhile, was exploring the firkins.
“Please let it be brandy.”
This was as close as Maybelle ever got to praying. Had she tried harder, who knows, the contents may have been miraculously transformed. In the event the wine in the firkin would have no truck with Christmas miracles and stubbornly refused to change.
The Bussages were only slightly disappointed.
“It’s all fine,” said Jethro reassuringly. “We can drink this one straight away and the other I’ll distill. We’ll have brandy yet – after all, brandy is no more than distilled red wine. Oh, what a Christmas this will be!”
The weather deteriorated as the day wore on. Before long a full blown ice-storm had developed. It raged for four long days, all over the Christmas period, before there was any sign of it abating. Even then the numbing cold and bitter winds were sufficient to quell any thoughts of moving far from warmth and shelter.
Amos had prepared well for the winter. Over the year he had stockpiled the meat from the dead whale that he had found beached. This he had dried and salted. Seaweed was fairly plentiful and nutritious and not unpalatable, once a taste for it was developed. Best of all was the huge tub of beef that had washed up that very day. This was a gift from the sea that he would be very happy to share with his neighbours once the storm had passed.
While Christmas on Hopeless was nothing like the ones of his earlier life, Amos was content enough. He had good friends, simple needs and a snug cabin. What more could a man ask? He looked fondly at Elmer, curled up in front of the stove, guarding the wooden boat that the carpenter had made for him. Amos was glad that he had resolved to have Elmer stay throughout the storm. He knew the Bussages well enough to have little doubt that Christmas with them would have been less than merry for the boy.
By New Year’s Eve the weather conditions had improved considerably and islanders could be seen to emerge from their homes in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of bears coming out of hibernation. At such times a degree of camaraderie prevails and neighbours, who rarely take the time to say ‘Good morning’ to each other, will rally round and often go to great lengths to ensure each other’s well-being.
It did not take long for someone to notice that the Bussages had not come out to join them. Their door was firmly closed and opaque sheets of ice veneered their windows, giving the appearance that the house had not been heated for days. Something was obviously wrong and although Jethro and Maybelle were never likely to win the title of ‘Hopeless Maine’s Good Neighbors of the Year’ there was a genuine concern for their well-being.
It was the young parson, Reverend Crackstone, who took the initiative and made the decision to force the door and Amos, who possessed the best toolkit on the island, was sent for. He left Elmer with a neighbour and made haste to the cottage.
The door had little inclination to open. The ice that had set around the frame proved to be as efficient in preventing ingress as the stoutest padlock. It took almost an hour of chipping and levering, seasoned with a few robust oaths, before the door would budge. Even as it broke free of the ice, something still prevented it from opening. Eventually, after much pushing, Crackstone and Amos managed to move the obstruction just enough to gain entry.
The sight that greeted their eyes was not a pretty one. It had been Jethro and Maybelle themselves obstructing the door and they were very dead. Swollen and blackened tongues lolled horribly from their gaping mouths . Blood on their fingers and scratches on the wood gave testament that they had desperately clawed at the door to get out but to no avail. The two firkins lay empty on the floor and much of the meat in the tun had been consumed.
“ Make sure the boy is kept away” yelled Crackstone to anyone who was within earshot.
“ He can’t see his parents like this.”
Both men agreed that there was no great mystery surrounding the Bussages’ deaths. Crackstone summed up the scene in no time.
“Greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice are the killers here, I’m afraid,” he observed. “The wages of sin is indeed death.” Then added, helpfully, for Amos’s benefit, “Romans 6:23.”
“It looks to me more like the result of too much salt beef and no water in the house” said Amos. “They tried to quench their thirst with red wine, which only made things worse.”
“Exactly!” snapped back Crackstone,”Had they had the wit to provide themselves with wholesome provender this would not have happened. Did they think to share? No! It is the Lord’s judgement upon them for the deadly sins of greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice, I tell you.”
Amos said nothing but gathered up his tools and returned to his own home, where Elmer was waiting for him.
The carpenter would dearly have loved to adopt Elmer but Reverend Crackstone and the trustees of the orphanage would have none of it. The boy needed to be with others of his own age, they said. Besides, he had promise. He was just the sort of lad they needed to one day play a vital role in the life of the island.
Amos was puzzled. He could not comprehend at all exactly what was meant by this but in the end was forced to accept their decision.
“I’ll visit you soon” he promised the tearful Elmer.
He tousled the boy’s hair and as he turned to leave, spotted a figure on a nearby hill, watching the proceedings. Amos noticed Crackstone make some gesture of greeting and the figure waved back; there was something odd about this, not least the figure’s shape. Then all became clear as it turned and stood in silhouette. It was a man – a Night Soil Man with a large bucket strapped to his back.
Nothing is wasted on Hopeless but the Bussages left little of value for their neighbours to use. No one seemed to have any use for Jethro’s still, or the now empty barrels, so, on a whim, Amos took them, though he had no idea how the still worked.
This is a Christmas tale and traditionally such tales have happy endings and promises of hope. The legacy of the Christmas of 1886 – The Thirst Noel as it was irreverently dubbed – took many years to be realised. Those who frequently peruse The Vendetta will be well aware of the emergence of the Gannicox Distillery. They will also know that this achievement will be somewhat overshadowed by the heroic but dreadful fate of Elmer Bussage, The Night Soil Man. Sadly, there can be little expectation of hope on an island called Hopeless. The very best we can ever look forward to is a bittersweet conclusion. Merry Christmas.
Art by Tom Brown
(References: People from the Sea; The Wendigo; The Distiller)