Craig Hallam, longstanding Hopeless contributor, pallid goth-boi and steampunk gentleman, has written some Hopeless Maine poetry for us…
Here’s the intro
Upon arrival in Hopeless…
Beneath the trees of Hopeless
Craig Hallam, longstanding Hopeless contributor, pallid goth-boi and steampunk gentleman, has written some Hopeless Maine poetry for us…
Here’s the intro
Upon arrival in Hopeless…
Beneath the trees of Hopeless
As has been noted before in these tales, the good folk of Hopeless, Maine, are not renowned for their love of walking. This, in many ways, is understandable. The island is a veritable smorgasbord of hazards, natural, supernatural and downright unnatural. The business of staying alive is tricky enough, without wandering around and taking unnecessary risks and – some would maintain – unnecessary exercise. Philomena Bucket, however, was the exception to the rule. She loved to walk, especially in the early hours, with Drury, the skeletal hound, more often than not jogging happily along by her side. Despite appearances, Drury was not Philomena’s dog. He had been on the island for as long as anyone could remember and had but one objective in life (or death, depending on your point of view) and that was the pursuit of fun. At that moment, he considered Philomena to be the human most likely to provide the wherewithal to achieve this.
Our tale begins one grey, late summer morning. Summer mornings on Hopeless, it must be admitted, are very much like the mornings of any other season, except that it tends to get light earlier. So, it was almost 6a.m. when the sun finally managed to persuade the fog to let it through, the signal for Philomena to set off for her daily constitutional.
Philomena liked to vary the route she took for her walk. Some days she would wander up into the Gydynap Hills. On others, she might choose to stride out along the headland towards Chapel Rock, or maybe to the secluded part of the island which at that time was unnamed but known in later years as Scilly Point. Today, however, Philomena was feeling bold and decided to walk a particularly long strip of narrow beach, only accessible at low tide. This was hazardous for a number of reasons. Besides the slimy, many-eyed and tentacled rock dwellers, whom Philomena felt could be avoided with Drury’s help, was the danger posed by ocean itself. While, even at low tide, these waters could be capricious, more worrying still were its denizens. Chief among these was the mighty Kraken, with suckered arms long enough to reach across the waves and drag the unwary into a watery grave. (Some say that the Kraken is as old as the ocean itself. Personally, I cannot believe this, but it is certainly ancient and quite pitiless).
Call Philomena brave, or merely foolhardy, but oblivious to any danger, she resolutely set off along the beach with Drury scampering happily along beside her. Within minutes an obfuscating sea-fog began to roll in, even more relentless than usual, until nothing was discernible beyond more than a dozen feet. Most people might have given up at this point but Philomena was nothing if not stubborn. Even Drury was slightly hesitant to proceed but emboldened by his companion’s determination, soldiered on with a spring (and a rattle) in his step.
Philomena was not able to say how far or for how long she had been walking. Fog tends to do that to the senses. Time and space can become meaningless in that grey cocoon and it is not unusual for one to easily lapse into an almost trance-like state. This was exactly where Philomena’s mind was hovering when she was pulled back to reality. There was a muffled drum-beat coming from somewhere in front of her, further down the beach. She stopped, wondering who, or what, might be making such a noise at this hour of the day. Then, to her surprise, she found herself suddenly confronted by the figure of a child, a boy with a drum marching through the mists.
“Are you lost, young fella,” she asked as he drew closer.
The boy looked at her with large, soulful eyes but said nothing, not missing a beat as he passed her by. He could not have been any more than twelve years old, Philomena reckoned.
“He’s too young to be out alone on such a dangerous spot,” she said to herself, seemingly unaware of her own vulnerability.
“I can’t leave him.”
She turned to Drury.
“Come on Dru’, we’ve got to catch him up, before he gets into real trouble.”
She turned back, following the steady beat of the drum but her eyes were unable to penetrate the fog and see the drummer.
“Hey, slow down, we’ll walk with you,” she called but to no avail. All she could do was follow the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of the drum and hope the lad stayed safe.
The tide began to come in, forcing Philomena and Drury to scramble to safety. There was no sound of a drum anymore, just the crash of the waves on the rocks.
“I’d best go to the orphanage, the lad will be one of theirs, I guess.” She had aimed the comment at Drury; by now, however, the dog had lost all interest in the walk and was attempting to extricate a diminutive but somewhat irate gelatinous creature from a crevice in the wall.
The office was small and badly lit. Miss Calder chose to remain standing while Philomena told of her encounter with the drummer boy.
“No, he’s not resident in the orphanage,” Miss Calder said sadly. “Although, I wish he was.”
Philomena rubbed her eyes. The fog must have really upset them for the woman in front of her seemed to waver slightly as she spoke. Once or twice – and this must be a trick of the candlelight, Philomena thought – half of her face even appeared to be little more than a skull.
“I think you were in great danger, Philomena,” Miss Calder said gently. “The Drummer Boy is known to me; a ghost who came to save you. Three fishermen were taken this morning, from just up the beach where you were walking.”
Philomena raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Ghost? But it was broad daylight… well, except for the fog…”
Miss Calder smiled mischievously.
“Ghosts are all around, Philomena. They don’t need darkness. The very need to manifest is enough.”
Philomena shifted uncomfortably in her chair.
“Long ago,” said Miss Calder, “a convict ship left England, bound for Virginia. A terrible storm blew it hundreds of miles off-course and few survived. Those who did settled on Hopeless but not all who made landfall lived to tell the tale. The boy you saw was part of the detachment of marines guarding the convicts – the drummer boy who used his drum to call the marines to quarters, an important role. I don’t know how, exactly, he met his fate, but the story is that, when they landed on Hopeless, he beat his drum to warn the others of a terrible danger – a danger that he did not survive. He has been seen a few times, over the years and generally thought to save only the good and innocent, like himself. You have been fortunate, Philomena.”
Philomena reddened and lowered her eyes. After the briefest moment she looked up to reply but Miss Calder had vanished.
By Detective Deirdre Dalloway
What he got was not quite a dog. It was just a sort of dog. The sort-of-dog certainly acted like a dog, alternately running around in circles chasing its own sort-of-tail and wriggling around on its sort-of-back with its sort-of-paws flapping joyfully. But it was a sight that made Michael Dalloway smile and shudder at the same time. Because the dog was composed entirely of bones.
Suddenly aware of his presence, in spite of its lack of nose, eyes and ears, the sort-of-dog bounded up to him and within seconds Michael Dalloway’s fears were gone and he was sharing his trek with a bouncing, bounding companion. Along the top of the cliffs they went, and the dog set quite a pace. It was as though it had a purpose. Yes, it definitely seemed to have a purpose, and before long Michael Dalloway realised that in following the skeleton dog, he was getting further and further from the lighthouse. He was being guided by a dead animal away from the only sign of human life that he could discern.
And yet the dog was clearly not dead, in the conventional understanding of the word. It had no eyes, nose or ears but this did not hamper it. It had no tongue either, but if Michael Dalloway slowed down for a rest from the load he was carrying, it would seem to lick his hand to encourage him onwards. And when he had lightened his load by drinking tea and eating most of the biscuits, the sort-of-dog had sat and begged like any other dog to be fed. That the biscuits fell straight through onto the wet peat did not seem to bother it at all.
Yes, the dog was sort-of-alive, so Michael Dalloway decided to take a chance on it, and sure enough, just as the drenched, rain-blinded and exhausted traveller was wondering about regretting his decision, they cleared a small copse of dead trees and a dimly lit settlement came into view. Both of them now bounded through the spikey gorse towards it, the dog still leading the way through the darkness, now past simple, mainly unlit dwellings, to a rather more welcoming looking inn. Scratchy recorded music was audible through a broken window. The dog threw itself at the door to make its presence known and it was opened from inside by a man in an apron.
“Drury!”, he exclaimed, “There you are! Everyone, look! Drury’s back! We put your favourite tune on, old boy, to encourage you to come in from the rain”. The man stooped to tickle the dog’s skeletal jaw. “And you’ve brought someone with you. Do excuse my manners, Sir. I’m Rufus Lypiatt, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot, and this is my pub. We welcome all unhappy travellers. I take it that you are one of those? Do come on in. We were just about to play ‘Molly Malone’ on the gramophone again.”
Find out more about Detective Dalloway here – http://detectivedalloway.com/
By Mrs Beaten
Kit Cox, dandy and self-proclaimed ladies man got no more than he deserved, if you ask me. He has been flirting his way round the island for some time, making a nuisance of himself and lowering the tone with his immodest behaviour. While his shirts are indeed immaculate, his manners are sadly lacking and his wanton antics have clearly led to his undoing.
As far as Kit Cox knew, he went as he might have wanted to go – dying in the arms of a beautiful monster. For the rest of us, it was a somewhat different experience.
I do not blame the mermaid. They are not human creatures and cannot be held to the same standards. Anyone not ruled by the uncivilized lusts of the body can see them for what they are – hideous, hungry and persuasive. They are not to blame for what men do in response to them. Perhaps they are here to judge us, and bring down those who are too involved with their own base instincts. In this way, I feel some empathy with our water-dwelling neighbours. I would not object to being such a creature.
We had all gone down to the beach to watch the Mari Lwyd’s shout at the sea. It is a perplexing ritual, but a good opportunity to see, and be seen. Kit Cox had positioned himself so as to be seen, in a waistcoat of such bright colours as to be wholly indecent. Standing near to the sea – where all attention was then directed, he was rather close to the mermaids.
She surfaced, turning a terrifying visage towards the land. I thought that her long teeth sparkled. Seaweed tangled in her hair and fell down across her chest, failing to obscure the exposed bones of her desperately thin body. Anyone could see she was hungry. Kit turned towards her, his expression one of rapture. And thus began the most shocking litany of improper statements.
“I love you…. you are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen! What exquisite eyes you have! Will you not come closer? How have I lived so long without you in my life? What are your plans for the evening? Would you like to see my other waistcoats?” And so on, and so forth. Those of us who have experienced his courting behaviour before were all too familiar with these lines.
The mermaid opened her mouth wide so that we could all see her teeth. Several gentlemen rushed forward, while averting their eyes from the sea monster, to try and pull Kit away. To no avail. He walked towards the surf, crying out his ever more ridiculous expressions of love and longing. We watched, powerless to help him. Or too entertained to help him. Or in my case, too delighted by the poetic justice inherent in the scene, to help him. He splashed in the surf, protesting his love, while the mermaid wriggled and gyrated in the water, and licked her lips in evident anticipation.
He kissed her with shocking abandon, right there in front of everyone. It was as well, for the moral defence of the islanders, that the mermaid did not toy with him longer, and we were not seduced into watching anything worse. She plunged with him beneath the waves.
Some hours later, the remains of his waistcoat washed ashore, and we gave it a decent burial on the beach and made a little cairn next to the other little cairns for people who have not listened to warnings about mermaids.
This death was brought to you by the Hopeless Maine kickstarter, in which there are now stretch goals and extra rewards… https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/countrostov/tales-of-hopeless-maine
Ever since the episode with the phonograph – described, you may remember in the tale ‘Ghost in the Machine?’ – Gwydion Bagpath had begun to register the existence of Philomena Bucket. Previously, she had barely caught his attention. As the self-appointed elder of the Commoners, his lofty position had rendered him far too busy to notice her. There had been beachcombing and salvaging expeditions to oversee. In addition to this, he felt that it was his duty to ensure that the Nailsworthy family were attending properly to the venerable elder trees that the community relied upon. Then there was his role as both chairman of the Gydynap Preservation Society and the Common Committee (organisations which met for a liquid lunch, twice yearly in ‘The Crow’). On top of these onerous duties was the business of standing around and looking important; the gravitas that his position required would not cultivate itself. But I digress. Gwydion had noticed Philomena Bucket and realised that, despite her pale skin and white hair, she was an extremely attractive young woman – that is to say, young by Gwydion’s standard. He was at least twice her age, but he was a widower looking for a young wife to comfort him through his old age and Philomena seemed to be perfect for the task. Philomena would be honoured, he felt certain, to be invited to step out with him, with a view to courtship and eventually marriage.
Blissfully unaware of Gwydion’s long-term plans, Philomena was happy enough (if not exactly honoured) to join him occasionally for a brisk stroll along the headland. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, would amble along beside her, sniffing everything in his path and chasing shadows.
‘Damned infernal creature,’ thought Gwydion uncharitably, seeing Drury as being less of a dog and more of a passion-killer. Of course, he would never voice this opinion aloud, knowing how fond Philomena was of her strange companion.
In order to win Philomena’s approval, Gwydion would use these walks to inform her of his many qualities. He would speak, at some length, of his altruism, his bravery, his generosity – the man’s virtues knew no bounds, at least in his own mind. Philomena, of course, was no fool and soon realised that she was being played like a fish on a line. She did not dislike Gwydion but the feelings he invoked in her were far from romantic – and she could never love anyone who displayed such obvious coldness towards Drury. She resolved, therefore, to find reasons to avoid these strolls. She would do this gently, however, to avoid hurting Gwydion’s feelings. That was her intention, anyway but being, perhaps, too kind for her own good, she left things too late and found herself, one foggy afternoon, in the position of being subjected to a proposal of marriage.
They had been walking towards the town when Gwydion suddenly dropped down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage.
“I’m sorry Gwydion, but I can’t possibly marry you,” she stammered.
A pained look passed over the old man’s face and his voice shook.
“Your hand… give me your hand… “
“I told you no…”
“For heaven’s sake, give me your hand, you idiotic woman, and help me up. My back has gone and goodness knows what else. I’m stuck.”
Try as Philomena might, this was to no avail. Gwydion was well and truly locked into a kneeling position and no amount of heaving by Philomena could budge him.
“I’ll get Doc Willoughby,” she said. “He’ll know what to do.”
Doc Willoughby knew exactly what to do. He arranged for a couple of burly lads from the Common to come along and carry Gwydion, still stuck with one knee bent in the time-honoured proposal attitude, back home.
“Silly old fool,” the Doc muttered. “What was he doing down there, anyway?”
“He was proposing marriage,” replied Philomena, simply.
“Well I propose that he stops making himself look ridiculous and give up chasing young women. He must be seventy, if he’s a day.”
Sad to relate, Gwydion never recovered from this latest affliction. Even though he was eventually able to stand normally again, his joints were past their best and his life was never the same. To the relief of everyone concerned, he reluctantly gave up his committees and overseeing duties. The job of Elder of the Commoners was discontinued; most had long realised that elder did not necessarily mean wiser. It came as something of a shock when Gwydion realised that nothing had suffered for his absence and life on the Common progressed as it always had. Before many months had elapsed, he died, a broken man. Little by little the name of Gwydion Bagpath faded from people’s memories.
It was many, many years later that an American soldier named Dwight Eisenhower, (who, I am reliably informed, did quite well for himself in later life) revealed that he always carried in his pocket a copy of the following poem. It’s a pity that Gwydion had not read it…
The Indispensable Man
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,
Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no Indispensable man.
Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown
I have no idea how the phonograph survived the storm and subsequent shipwreck – but survive it did. This was, unfortunately, more than could be said for the captain and crew of the ‘Golden Cross’, the merchantman that had set out with the honourable intention of ferrying the new-fangled Edison-Bell machine across an inhospitable ocean to England, only to flounder early on in its journey. It would be not unreasonable to suppose that the fogbank that suddenly loomed in her wake was the downfall of the ‘Golden Cross’, concealing as it did – and still does – the treacherous rocks and unnamed terrors lurking in the waters surrounding the island of Hopeless, Maine.
The crate had looked promising, sitting foursquare on the beach. An address label revealed that the intended consignee was the recently founded Gramophone Company, of Maiden Lane, London, England. This gave no clue whatsoever regarding the contents of the crate to the Nailsworthy brothers, twin boys who had never heard of a gramophone, London or, indeed, England. Despite this, they carried it with great care and not a little difficulty back to the Common, wary not to disobey the large, red stencilled letters, which advised ‘This Way Up’ and ‘Do Not Drop – Fragile’.
Regular readers will know that The Common is home to a small community, originally descended from some of the earliest settlers on the island. These are called Commoners. They are recognised by all on Hopeless for their homely disposition, scavenging prowess and no small amount of inbreeding.
A crowd had gathered, anxious to see the wonder that had been revealed, once an inordinate quantity of packaging and padding had been removed from the crate. What could it be? A polished wooden box with a big brass horn and a handle that seemed to do nothing in particular. This was certainly a conundrum that confounded the brains of the brightest of the Commoners. Although it made no sense, the strange item was treated with a certain amount of awe and reverence; after all, they reasoned, anything that had required such delicacy to transport must be a treasure of some worth. In view of this, the phonograph was set up with great ceremony in the middle of their meeting hall.
It was a week or so later that Philomena Bucket chanced to call by. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, was scampering along beside her, rattling happily and attempting to mark his progress with phantom micturitions.
No sooner had she set foot upon the Common than the Nailsworthy brothers appeared and ran excitedly to her.
“Miss Philomena, come and see. Come and see what we’ve found.”
Before Philomena could protest the boys dragged her to the meeting hall and proudly pointed to the mysterious machine.
“Why, it’s a phonograph” she said. “I haven’t seen one of those for ages. I wonder if it still works?”
“D’you know what it does? Can you make it work? Can you… can you? ” asked Hubert and Osbert Nailsworthy excitedly. “Show us, miss Philomena – pleeease…”
“I think so,” Philomena smiled. “But I need to find some things first. I’ll come back this afternoon.”
It took no time for the word to get around that Philomena Bucket was going to make the machine do something quite wonderful, though no one knew quite what that would be. This did not prevent Gwydion Bagpath, the self-styled elder of the Commoners, speaking knowledgably on the subject, having gleaned whatever information he could from the Nailsworthy boys.
“It is as I guessed,” he said with an air of importance, “I recognised it immediately, of course. It’s called a um… called a…”
Gwydion racked his brain to recall what the boys had said it was.
“Ah yes, it’s called a pornograph I believe”.
Morning wore into afternoon and the excitement in the air was almost palpable as the Commoners waited impatiently for Philomena to return. She, in the meantime, had been ransacking the storeroom of the ‘Squid and Teapot’, looking through the spoils that had been salvaged from the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’, the ship that had brought her to the island several years earlier.
The ship’s skipper, Captain Longdown, had possessed a phonograph exactly like the one salvaged by the Commoners. While Longdown’s phonograph had not survived, some of its cylinders had. Without a phonograph, however, they were quite useless but, thanks to the ‘waste nothing’ philosophy of the island, they had been squirreled away just in case they might come in handy for something one day.
A reverential hush descended upon the meeting hall as Philomena, with Drury at her feet, wound the handle of the spring-gear that powered the machine. She fixed a cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and gently lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle, on to the cylinder’s surface. This began to turn and suddenly, from the depths of the horn, there arose the tinny but unmistakable warblings of a strangulated Irish tenor, who was professing his love for a girl with a wheelbarrow; a girl who apparently sold sea-food.
Philomena gazed wistfully at the Phonograph, her mind transported back to the land of her birth. Her reverie, however, was rudely interrupted by the screams of panic as her audience lapsed into mass-hysteria, believing themselves to have been subjected to all sorts of diabolical witchcraft. Unfazed, Philomena replaced the cylinder with one that played only music. It was Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, a tune beloved by every manufacturer of music-boxes, pretty much since the day that the old boy wrote it. Music-boxes were something that the Commoners could understand. They had seen them before. They knew how they worked. It was generally accepted, by one and all, that music-boxes were definitely not at all diabolical.
One by one the audience drifted back in and Philomena was eventually able to convince even the most sceptical that there was no imp or ghost singing, no demonic voice to ensnare them. Hopeless had its fair share of terrors, this was not one of them. Gingerly, Philomena wound the handle, put the ‘Molly Malone’ cylinder back on and sang along, her sweet soprano voice mingling with that of the tremulous tenor. Gwydion Bagpath tentatively joined in with the chorus, then, following his lead, another voice picked it up, then another and another until the meeting hall rang with the strains of
‘Alive, alive oh,
Alive, alive oh,
Crying cockles and mussels,
Alive, alive oh.’
By common request the handle was wound and ‘Molly Malone’ was played over and over, more times than anyone could count, until Philomena, quite frankly, felt that she would be happy if she never had to hear the song ever again. Drury, however, was more than content to sit in front of the phonograph’s horn, his head cocked to one side, enjoying every moment. Alive, alive, oh – it was a good thing to be.
A month had passed since Hank had wandered unwittingly into Hopeless. For some days previously he had been searching for the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, when his path led him to a fissure in the rocks, through which daylight and wispy fog issued improbably.
Hank was tall and wiry, two yards of whipcord draped in buckskin. He had had no problem in slipping through the narrow gap, though persuading his bulky backpack to follow had been more of a challenge. Eventually he had emerged, blinking and somewhat confused into the daylight.
You may recall, from the tale ‘Dutchman’s Gold’, how Hank had met Philomena Bucket, who managed, with some difficulty, to convince him that he was not in Hell but in Hopeless, Maine, some two thousand miles from Arizona. Though he accepted Philomena’s assurances, to Hank’s mind, Hell seemed a more likely explanation, not least because of the presence of the skeletal dog, Drury.
With his usual generosity, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ had given Hank board and lodgings in exchange for a few chores. While grateful, the prospector was keen to leave the island. He reasoned that if there was one path that could bridge two thousand miles in a hundred paces, there must be another and – dagnabbit! he was going to find it.
Hank said nothing of his plan to leave, either to the landlord or Philomena. As a token of thanks he left his pocket watch on the bar; it was a beautiful, antique half-hunter that he had won in a card game a few weeks before. For a man who had journeyed two thousand miles in twenty seconds, time and space had become irrelevant. The hands of the watch showed seven o’clock and somewhere, high above the ever-present fog of Hopeless, the sun was rising and attempting, with little success, to illuminate the island. Without looking back, Hank closed the door of the inn quietly behind him and set out for the Gydynap Hills, the place where his life on Hopeless had begun.
The path that wound into the heart of the hills was steeper than Hank remembered. A month of being relatively inactive had taken its toll on his stamina and despite the morning chill, he broke out into a sweat.
For hours he wandered the hills, desperately searching for something – anything – that would lead him away from Hopeless. Squatting on the damp ground, Hank gave himself time to get his breath back. The sun was low in the sky by now, ready to drop below the horizon, having given up all hope of penetrating the unforgiving blanket of fog. Stuffing his pipe with his last, precious, twist of tobacco, Hank scanned the area pensively, looking for some likely cave or feature in the landscape that would lead him away from this accursed island forever. There was nothing obvious, nothing that indicated ‘Arizona – this way’. With a heavy heart he was about to give up his quest when a barely discernible movement caught his eye. Dimly, in this half-light, he spotted a small figure tottering unsteadily into a cluster of rocks, no more than twenty feet away, its tendril-like arms and legs clutching more spoons than it could comfortably manage.
“It’s one of them weird things,” Hank said to himself. “Dam’ nasty little critters that walk along on cutlery.”
What was it that Philomena had called them? Spoonrunners? Something mad like that. As Hank recalled, one such creature had slipped into the doorway that had brought him here, just before it snapped shut. It could be worth following it.
By the time Hank had reached the tumble of rocks, the spoonwalker was long gone. A few yards ahead, however, a dropped spoon was lying on the rocky ground. Hank stopped to pick it up, noticing, as he did, the hole through which the creature had disappeared. Hank gasped. It seemed to be washed in a dim, green light which issued from somewhere deep inside the hill. This was hopeful! The gap unfortunately, was no more than ten or twelve inches high and of half that in width. Maybe that garish, unearthly glow was some sort of sign that there was a path that could get him back to the Superstition Mountains. Hank looked around for something to prise the rocks apart, but could find nothing remotely suitable to use as a lever. Cursing his luck, Hank sat down, leaned against the cliff wall and closed his eyes.
”Dagnabbit!” he said aloud, “What I wouldn’t give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”
“And what would you give?”
Hank jumped up in alarm, not expecting a response. A tall, pale, almost cadaverous, figure dressed in funereal black was leaning languidly against the rock face.
“Jumping Jehosophat you gave me a turn,” complained Hank, indignantly.
“I repeat… ” said the stranger, firmly, “what would you give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”
Hank eyed his new companion with some disquiet. From the outset he had been convinced that Hopeless was Hell; if that was the case, this fellow was probably after more than he was prepared to part with.
“Well, you ain’t having my soul, if that’s what you’re after…” he said, angrily.
The cadaverous stranger threw back his head and laughed. It was a hard, mirthless sound.
“Your soul… whatever do you think I would do with your soul? You might as well offer me your unkempt ginger beard or the ridiculous floppy hat that you’re wearing.”
Somewhat offended, Hank grew defensive. He was fond of his hat.
“Well, s’obvious I ain’t got nothing you want, so you might as well go before you get me all riled up and I do something we both regret.”
The stranger smiled. It was not a particularly pleasant smile but in that poor light Hank did not notice.
“How about…” said the stranger, in measured tones, “how about we come to some arrangement when you get to where you’re going?”
Hank was becoming suspicious that there was more to this stranger than he was telling. He had heard tales of what happened to folks in Hopeless after the sun went down.
“And you ain’t a-going to hurt me?”
“My dear fellow, why on earth would I wish you harm? No… no, I give you my word as a gentleman, I will cause you no pain whatsoever. This is purely a business transaction.”
Hank shrugged. If this character was being less than honest with him there was little he could do to avoid it.
“Alrighty,” he said, throwing caution to the wind, “get me to the Dutchman’s gold mine and you can have half of what I’ve got.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed the stranger, giving the cliff face the gentlest of pushes, “then we’ll go straightaway. Follow me.”
With a faint scraping noise the rocks parted and the two stepped into the lurid green light of the cavern.
Hank had expected the road back to the Superstition Mountains to be rough and narrow. He was quite incorrect on both points. He found himself on a broad thoroughfare that meandered gently down through the belly of the hills. He was feeling better already. That green light – wherever it came from – seemed less sinister now and his travelling companion appeared to be decidedly light-hearted, despite his gaunt appearance. The only niggle that bothered him was the fact that it was taking a darned sight longer to get there than it had to come. A darned sight longer!
“Are we nearly there?” he asked, unwittingly repeating the mantra chanted by every child, ever since the earliest human migrations began.
“Indeed we are,” said the cadaverous stranger. “But first we must stop and eat. I have some particularly delicious cake that I’m sure you will enjoy.”
Hank took the cake gratefully. The stranger was right. It was delicious.
“Ain’t you eating too?” he asked suspiciously.
“No, I have a meal waiting for me at home. It would be a pity to spoil it.”
Hank finished the cake and they walked on for another mile or so. Suddenly the stranger stopped and pointed ahead.
“Look, look – there it is. The Dutchman’s gold mine.”
Hank stared into the cavernous space before him.
“Where? I can’t see nothing.”
“Oh you will.. you will. Here it is – yours to work for all time.”
The words flowed into Hank’s consciousness like a river of honey. He shook his head and sure enough, there was the mine, just as he had imagined. Thick veins of gold ran like ribbons through the rock and the ground was littered with nuggets of every size and shape.
“The Dutchman’s gold!” exclaimed Hank dreamily.
“Ah, yes, the Dutchman’s gold.” said the stranger, soothingly. “Look there are tools on the floor, picks and buckets – everything you need.”
“Everything I need,” echoed Hank in a flat voice, totally lacking in emotion. He bent down and reached for a pick that was not there.
Deep beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine, in a cavern wrapped in utter darkness, a figure goes through the motions of excavating gold from a mine that only he can see. Day and night he works, stopping only to drink brackish water and eat the thin shards of the mercifully nameless meat that is left for him. He has been told that it is beer and the best beef that Arizona can offer. He is content. His buckskin clothes are little more than tatters and shreds and his once red beard is now long and grey. Sometimes he sleeps and that is when they come to feed. The stranger told him no lies. There is no pain, no discomfort. Just a numbness as he unwittingly gives half of what he has. He is gradually fading and soon he will be no more than a wraith; only then will the illusion fade and the torment begin.
Killigrew O’Stoat loved mornings like this. As mornings go, this particular one was not exceptional, pervaded, as always, by copious amounts of chilly fog. The quality that Killigrew appreciated was daylight. It was midsummer and although very little occurred to mark the changing of the seasons on Hopeless, the summer months gave him the gift of being able to finish his work while basking in the semi-opaque dawn of another Hopeless day.
For three years Killigrew had been the island’s first – and self-appointed – Night Soil man. Being reclusive in the extreme, the anti-social stench, coupled with the nocturnal nature of the work, gave him the solitude he so craved. With his night’s labours finished, it was pleasant to rest for an hour on the rocky headland, listen to the waves breaking upon the rocks far below and allow his mind to wander wherever it wanted. On the morning of our tale, however, his reverie was interrupted by a sound he had not heard for some years; the barking of a dog. Although the founding families had brought a few pets and domesticated animals with them to Hopeless, these had not fared well, mostly falling prey to the many hazards – natural, supernatural and decidedly unnatural – that were (and indeed, are) the scourge of the island. The mere sound of a dog barking, therefore, released in Killigrew a wave of nostalgia. If there was a dog on the island he had every intention of getting to it before it met an unpleasant fate.
The little that was left of the life-raft had been reduced to matchwood, having been dragged over the rocks by two long, sinuous and suckered arms. Those arms were now wrapped tightly around the middle of the raft’s former occupant, a grizzled man in nautical gear, who thrashed around like a fish on a hook, fighting desperately to avoid being dragged into the creature’s lair. The source of the barking – a scruffy looking dog of indeterminate breed – dashed frantically around in impotent rage. Killigrew raced along the headland and down to the beach, leaping over rocks and boulders, careless of his own safety. To the Night Soil Man’s horror he could only watch helplessly as the terrified seaman was pulled, kicking and screaming, into a dark cleft in the rocks.
Yet another tendril-like arm slithered out and tightened itself around the frantic dog, who snarled and bit angrily.
Killigrew knew that there would be no reprieve for anything dragged into that lair. He had never seen any more than those serpentine, grasping arms but knew from experience that the nightmare that wielded them was a vicious killer. He had witnessed this before.
Gasping for breath, Killigrew threw himself heroically into the entrance of the cave, thankful that the gaping maw devouring the gory remains of its victim were somewhere deep in the lightless recesses behind him. Immediately, as if by some unheard command, the dog was unceremoniously dropped on to the ground and the writhing arms seemed to shrivel as they receded past him, back into the cave. Killigrew smiled to himself. His overpowering stench had, at least, served to save one life today.
The great curse of the Night Soil Man’s existence is also its blessing. The work is foul and the incumbent, though respected, is a pariah, avoided by all. The silver-lining to this malodorous cloud is that he is also shunned by every living creature ( not to mention the undead and the not-at-all-sure-whether-they’re-alive-or-no) on the island. There are, of course, exceptions but these, like the monstrous Wendigo and Pamola, the bird-demon of the Maine Indians, are as ancient as the land itself and don’t really count. Dogs, however, are the undisputedly non-mythological exceptions that simply adore awful smells. Every dog owner knows that their beloved pet loves nothing better than to inhale or roll in the vilest of things – and this is how the dog on the beach became Killigrew’s only friend and faithful companion.
It would be less than helpful if I continue referring to the dog on the beach as simply ‘the dog on the beach’; in future I will call him by the, frankly unimaginative, name that Killigrew gave him: Dog.
In fairness to Killigrew, he remembered that the hairy, bouncy creature with a leg at each corner and an exceptionally long tongue standing before him was generally referred to, in the English-speaking world, as ‘dog’. The constraints of his amnesia, however, prevented him from recalling that these animals would usually have a unique name bestowed upon them, such as Bonzo, Lassie, or possibly Spot, a useful attribute when summoning them for walks, etc. Fortunately confusion was avoided, as on Hopeless such niceties are not necessary; in the absence of any other canine competition, ‘Dog’ was name enough.
For ten short but happy years Killigrew and Dog were inseparable. If anyone spotted the Night Soil man – usually no more than a silhouette on the skyline – rest assured, Dog was at his heels, or chasing ahead in pursuit of a spoonwalker, or other quarry (which he always failed to catch). Occasionally Dog would wander off on his own, sniffing and snuffling around the island while Killigrew slept but always returning in the evening, announcing his presence by scratching at the Night Soil Man’s door. Those were the best years of their lives. Then one dreadful day, in late spring, Dog went for a lone walk and did not come back.
Killigrew was frantic with worry. He waited for hours, neglecting his work, hoping for the familiar scratching at the door that would tell him that all was well but it never came. At midnight, in desperation, he decided to go and look for his beloved friend. He scoured the island with a flaming torch in his hand, calling Dog’s name, his voice breaking with anguish. It was dawn when he found him, curled up in one of his favourite hideaways, in the shadow of Chapel Rock. At first Killigrew thought – hoped – that his friend was just sleeping, but the awful truth soon dawned. Weeping hot tears, Killigrew scooped Dog’s lifeless form into his arms and grief-stricken, carried him back to his cottage.
The Night Soil man could not bear to think of Dog lying in the bare earth, where his body could be exhumed by any scavenger who happened to pass. To give him to the sea would be as bad, or even worse. He needed to keep Dog as safe in death as he had in life – but what could he do? And then he remembered the sinkhole at the end of his garden. He had not looked into it for years. Though it would break his heart to do, it seemed the best place to let his only friend spend eternity.
With some difficulty Killigrew dislodged the capstone that had served to seal the sinkhole. He peered down into the depths, then fell back in astonishment. He dimly remembered having seen a vague iridescence, deep in the bowels of the island. What Killigrew was witnessing now was no faint glow but a green inferno, raging untold fathoms beneath him.
With a heavy heart, Killigrew picked Dog up for the last time, buried his tear-stained face into his friend’s neck and sobbed a heartfelt “Goodbye, old friend.”
With as much tenderness as he could muster, he lowered Dog’s body into the mouth of the sinkhole, then let it go, watching in anguish as Dog fell, for what felt like an age, into the abyss, down to the cold green flames, far, far, below.
Like a man in a trance, Killigrew knelt by the side of the hole for an hour or more, his gaze transfixed upon the final resting place of his only friend.
Replacing the capstone, Killigrew scratched upon its face a large letter ‘D’ by way of a simple memorial.
It was with reluctance that Killigrew strapped on his night soil bucket that evening. He went to work feeling more alone than he had ever felt in his life.
Spring turned to summer, summer slipped into fall and the days became shorter. Killigrew had taken to spending hours just sitting by the capstone, where he recounted to Dog his adventures and the gossip of the island. Then, under the cover of darkness, he would go to work, returning home, hours later, exhausted.
Killigrew had no idea how long he had slept. It was dark outside but night fell early at this time of year. The Night Soil Man lay on his bed, hardly daring to breathe. Something had disturbed him, something familiar. There it was again… a scratching at the door. It couldn’t be… could it? Killigrew dashed outside, half-expecting to see Dog, tail wagging and ready for a night’s adventures. But Dog was not there. Of course he wasn’t! Then Killigrew stopped in his tracks. The capstone had been moved and was standing on end, the scratched letter D clearly visible in the moonlight. He raced over to the sinkhole and peered in. There was some faint illumination in its depths but nothing like the eerie conflagration that he had seen when Dog died.
Sadly, and cursing himself for being a fool, Killigrew made his way back to his cottage slamming the door behind him. Someone was obviously playing a very cruel joke on him.
A short distance away, Hyacinth Jones discovered that her husband’s long underpants had been mysteriously removed from the washing line… and somewhere, out by Chapel Rock, a dog barked.
While attempting, without any great success, to map the island of Hopeless, Sophia O’Stoat believed that she had discovered her long lost cousin, Killigrew. It appeared that since his disappearance, over a year earlier, he had been living among the Commoners, who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. Sophia wasted no time in returning home and reporting back to his father – her uncle Caswell – who asked her to take him to the place where she had spotted Killigrew.
Like all who lived on the common, Corwen Nailsworthy was unused to receiving visitors. When a tall, gaunt stranger rapped at the apothocary’s door, the old man had no idea what to expect. He withered visibly beneath Caswell’s intense gaze.
“Is it right that you have my son, Killigrew, here?”
Corwen immediately guessed to whom the stranger was referring. Both the newcomer and the girl who accompanied him bore an uncanny resemblance to the strange lad that he had nursed back to health. Corwen invited the pair in, offered them a cup of elderberry cordial, and told the tale of Killigrew’s rescue and long recovery.
“His memory is completely blank, poor fellow,” said Corwen. “I had no idea of his name until you told me, just then. We just call him the Night-Soil Man.”
Caswell raised a quizzical and decidedly annoyed eyebrow. He had heard of the night-soil collectors of his own country. This was a job far beneath the dignity of an O’Stoat.
“It’s his choice totally, sir,” said Corwen hurriedly, sensing trouble. “Nobody makes him do it.”
“Take me to him, please,” said Caswell curtly, not entirely trusting the old man.
Caswell could hardly believe that he was looking at his son. He had always regarded Killigrew as being somewhat effete, given to indolence and too much romanticism. The young man who stood before him was sturdy and muscular, not at all like an O’Stoat. Besides this, he smelt like a cesspool.
“Killigrew? Is that really you?’
The young man stared at his father blankly; there was no hint of recognition in his eyes.
“I don’t know. That’s what she called me earlier,” Killigrew pointed at Sophia, adding
“And who are you?”
Caswell placed his hand firmly on the young man’s head and closed his eyes in deep concentration. The two stood motionless for what seemed to be an eternity.
Slowly Caswell opened his eyes once more and removed his hand from Killigrew’s head, placing it instead on Corwen’s shoulder. The old apothecary stiffened uncomfortably.
“You spoke the truth. I can never thank you enough for saving my son – the O’Stoat family will be forever in your debt. And now I’d like to take him home, where he belongs.”
Corwen’s heart missed a beat. He had heard of the O’Stoats. Rumours of their mystical abilities had been whispered in every corner of the island.
If Caswell had possessed a fatted calf it would have been slaughtered in Killigrew’s honour. As it was they had to make do with squid pie (this was, of course, some time before starry grabby pie had been invented). Sadly, despite his family’s efforts to restore his memory – which included no small amount of magical persuasion – Killigrew did not recognise any of them or have any recollection of his past. Nothing worked. A stranger in his own home, Killigrew longed for the solitude he had enjoyed as the Commoners’ night soil collector. Eventually his family relented and decided to let him have his way. They built him a cottage, far away from any other habitation, next to an old and apparently bottomless sinkhole, where few dared to venture. With heavy hearts they gave him their blessing to carry on with his chosen life. If you care to look into the history of Hopeless – or read the tale ‘The House at Poo Corner’ – you will find that Killigrew O’Stoat is recorded as being the island’s very first Night Soil Man.
You will recall from the tale entitled ‘Killigrew and Joliette’ that the Chevin brothers had viciously beaten Killigrew and left him for dead. You may well ask why they did not finish the job, once they learned he still lived. The answer is simple. By the time that everyone was aware of Killigrew’s reappearance he had firmly established the role of the Night Soil Man, going about his work under the cover of darkness, thereby guaranteeing his not having to meet other people. It is a life suited to the the most introverted, the most reclusive. The Night Soil Man, protected as he is by his malodorous calling, repels every terror walking the island – even the Chevins.
A year had passed since Killigrew O’Stoat had disappeared. His family had long since given up scouring the island for him. The general feeling was that he had been taken by one of the nameless menaces that haunt Hopeless and the waters that surround it. That was, at least, the official view. In reality, the O’Stoats were convinced that his demise had more to do with the Chevin family taking issue with his romantic relationship with young Joliette Chevin (and of course, they were absolutely correct). The Chevins, at the same time, believed that Killigrew had bewitched Joliette and his actions had driven her to madness and death. There was also the matter of their child, Ophelia, whose parentage was kept secret from all but the immediate members of the family and passed off as being the youngest of the Chevins – and perceived to be something of a surprise to her ageing parents!
In the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’ it is told how a rag-tag band of sailors and convicts – in the shape of whores and petty thieves, originally bound for penal servitude in Virginia – discovered a small, tightly-knit community living at the foot of the Gydynap Hills, in the area known, these days, as Iron Mills Common. These people, who called themselves Commoners, conversed in a language approximating to Old English and were probably descended from the Saxon slaves of Norsemen who had settled on the island centuries before. The influx of lusty young newcomers ensured that, by the time the founding families arrived some hundred years later, the ancient language of the Commoners had all but disappeared and their gene pool was considerably less shallow than it had previously been.
In order to survive the Commoners had taken to beachcombing on a grand scale. A party of ten or twelve would venture out with a variety of baskets, buckets and barrels, carried on their backs, scouring the shoreline for anything deemed remotely useful or edible. So, when they came upon the crumpled form of Killigrew sprawled upon the rocks, there followed some discussion in which it was unanimously agreed that he was definitely not edible. Whether he would prove to be useful was another matter altogether.
Corwen Nailsworthy was the nearest that the Commoners had to a doctor. He was their self-appointed vintner, distiller and apothecary. His remedy for most ailments involved the administration of one concoction or another that relied upon the fruit or flowers of the elder tree. When the bruised and battered Killigrew was presented to him, however, he realised that his medical skills would be pushed to their limit. Bone-setting and bandaging would be only part of it. The young man had been so badly beaten that no one could possibly know what internal damage had been caused.
The weeks turned into months and thanks to Corwen, Killigrew’s body mended. His memory, however, had deserted him completely. He had no clue as to who he was, where he lived or what had happened. Furthermore, he had little desire to uncover his previous existence, convinced that he would not like the things he might find.
To begin with Killigrew was happy to stay among the Commoners and hide from his past. As the time slipped by, however, he grew increasingly reclusive, eschewing the company of others. Although grateful to Corwen for bringing him back to health, Killigrew had no wish to interact with those around him any more than was necessary.
Despite his wishes, Killigrew was forced to relent a little. In order for any small community to thrive, every living soul has to contribute in some way. There can be no passengers, no hangers-on. Reluctantly Killigrew made it known that he was content to do anything and would happily embrace the most menial of tasks as long as he was allowed the solitude that he so craved. As it happened, there was one menial task above all others that no one had the slightest desire to fulfil. That is how Killigrew found himself collecting human waste – or the ‘night‐soil’, as the Commoners called it – and each morning ferrying it far away from the settlement, where time and nature might hopefully transform it into a usable compost. Strangely, Killigrew came to love his job. Nobody bothered him but in gratitude for his services, they left gifts of food on the doorstep of the little hovel he had constructed, on the edge of the common.
Sophia O’Stoat, being an adventurous young lady, had made it her business to explore and map as much as the island as she was able. This was especially problematic, as certain vital landmarks had the annoying habit of disappearing, then turning up in odd spots where they had absolutely no business to lurk. Fortunately the larger, less portable places tended to stay more or less where they were expected to be. It was while she was surveying the area around the reliably immobile Gydynap Hills that Sophia spotted a once-familiar figure ambling over the edge of the common. She rubbed her eyes in astonishment. If it was not her long-lost favourite cousin Killigrew, then it was his double… but the smell! What on earth was he doing?
“Killigrew, is that you?”
The young man took no notice. She tried again.
“Killigrew. It’s me Sophia.”
Killigrew stopped and looked at the pretty girl who seemed to be calling to him. There was something vaguely familiar about her – and those names – where had he heard them before? He shrugged, turned and walked on; the bucket strapped to his back was too heavy to allow him to linger.
“Killigrew…” Sophia’s voice trailed off as she watched the unmistakable shape of her cousin disappear into the mist…
To be continued…