Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

The Ghost Ship

Drury, the skeletal dog, had been spreading happiness and mayhem in equal measure upon the island of Hopeless, Maine for far longer than any living soul could remember. Many generations had passed since anyone had deemed themselves to be his master; Drury was a law unto himself, a force of nature, a free spirit. In truth, he was the very essence of dogginess epitomised, notwithstanding the fact that he had died years ago. However Drury, being Drury did not allow this slight inconvenience to get in his way for one minute.

If any two humans could be said to elicit the osseous hound’s affection above all others, they would be Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man and the palely beautiful Philomena Bucket, who worked in “The Squid and Teapot”.

While Philomena frequently enjoyed the dog’s company by day, when Rhys did his nocturnal rounds, it was often with Drury at his heels. He was under no illusion, however, that the dog was attracted purely by his bountiful nature and irresistible charisma. There was little doubt that a Night Soil Man’s messy and malodorous calling had no little part to play in persuading Drury that here was as good a companion as one could wish for.

There were no stars visible on the night of our tale. Only the baleful eye of the full moon was able to penetrate the mist that blanketed the skies over Hopeless. Rhys looked up and could not suppress a slight shudder.

“Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless under a full moon,” he thought to himself, then almost laughed out loud at his musings. Nothing remotely good happens on Hopeless at the best of times, why should tonight be any different? Dismissing such thoughts from his mind, he hitched his tightly lidded bucket up on to his shoulders. Just two more stops and then he’d sit down for a bite of supper, grateful that Philomena had left a cold starry-grabby pie and a flask of ‘Old Colonel’ on his doorstep earlier in the day. Lovely Philomena! Salty tears, borne of an impossible and unrequited love, threatened to cloud his eyes, until Drury gave a sharp bark, instantly dragging Rhys away from his reverie.

A few hundred yards from the shore, sitting in the pathway cast by the moon, was anchored an old-fashioned galleon. Rhys looked on in horror, for he knew at once that this was no ordinary craft. Even with its sails furled he could see that they, like the rest of the galleon, were rotting and ragged and shimmered with an eerie, lurid iridescence. He had heard of such a vessel before but always dismissed the tales of a phantom ship, damned to roam the seas for eternity, as an island myth. He had laughed at the legend that spoke of the ship that, once every hundred years, would anchor off Hopeless in order to send a press-gang of wraiths ashore to replenish its crew. He wasn’t laughing now.

“Thank goodness they’re still a fair distance away,” said Rhys to Drury. “Time to pack in for the night and get home and lock the door, I think.”
But Drury wasn’t listening. Unseen by Rhys, a small tender, known as a jolly boat, had drawn up on the beach, a short distance away. It glowed with the same ghastly light as the galleon. Half a dozen cadaverous shapes had clambered over its rotting sides and  were even now lurching up the sand towards the terror-stricken Night Soil Man.

The six crewmen were dreadful to behold. In their tattered, tar-stained apparel of a time long past, these hollow-eyed wraiths were barely recognisable as creatures who had once been living, breathing men. Their shrivelled flesh and hollow eyes chilled the blood of all who beheld them. Even wraiths can be taken aback, however. When they were within no more than a few feet away from Rhys, Drury sprang fearlessly into action, a calcified ball of canine fury.
As I have stated on many an occasion, Drury is, to those of us who know him, a bony but loveable bundle of chaotic mischief. In view of this, it is easy to forget that he also has access to those hazy, liminal regions that bridge the realms of the living and the dead. So, while the slightly overweight representative of the species Canis lupus familiaris, snoring contentedly on your sofa, can certainly see ghosts, not even the meanest, fiercest fighting dog in the world could wrap its jaws around a phantom leg. Drury can.    

“It’s that bloody dog again,” screamed one of the wraiths as a very real set of teeth attacked whatever bits of him Drury could get hold of.  
“He was here causing trouble the last time we came.”

Rhys had no idea what to do. He knew he would be no match for just one of the wraiths, much less six and although Drury was fighting valiantly, he wouldn’t be able to hold them all off for very long.

Sure enough, no sooner had the thought entered his head than an ice-cold hand had grabbed Rhys by the neck and started to drag him towards the jolly boat. The Night Soil Man could see a furious and struggling Drury being restrained by the remaining five ghostly sailors, who, quite frankly, was having their work cut out.
“Get a move on, Charlie,” shouted one of them. “We can’t hang on to this little bleeder for much longer.”

Suddenly and from nowhere the air was filled with a thunder of hooves, excited yapping, some nasal brays and the distinct effluvium of flatulent mules as the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt swept down from the sky, their spaniels yelping madly and nipping at the heels of the surprised sailors. Suddenly dropped, with an ungainly clatter Drury fell to the ground and, with some relish, immediately joined in the fray, any previous dispute with the spaniels put to one side, at least for the time being.
Opportune as this intervention was, it had not prevented Charlie from escorting Rhys down to the jolly boat. He was just about to push the Night Soil Man headlong into its bilge when a sharp rat-a-tat-tat cut through the night like a blade. All who heard it stopped, frozen in their tracks. The mist on the beach swirled and gathered. Rhys turned his head to see shapes forming within its murky depths until, to the accompaniment of a stirring drumbeat, yet another phantom host appeared. These were the drowned sailors that the Little Drummer Boy had led ashore to safe haven many years before. Like the Mild Hunt, they regarded this island as their home. No upstart band of ragged-trousered wraiths was going to suddenly come in and scare the living daylights out of its inhabitants. That was their job! Besides, all of the ghosts on Hopeless (with the possible exception of Obadiah Hyde, The Mad Parson of Chapel Rock) had something of a soft spot for the generations of Night Soil Men whom they had seen come and go. They had watched them perform their thankless work night after dreary night with little chance of respite; this was a fate, they perceived, not unlike their own.

“At ‘em lads”, shouted one of the shipwrecked ghosts.
Spectral cudgels and belaying pins swung through the air, raining mercilessly on  phantom flesh until, before long, the press-gang was sent scuttling back to the jolly boat.
Rhys, who, in the confusion, had escaped Charlie’s clutches, felt himself being gently led to safety by the ghostly (and curiously wandering) hands of the maiden ladies of The Mild Hunt, who giggled girlishly to themselves as they flew once more up into the night, followed closely by their unruly spaniels.

The Little Drummer Boy and the drowned sailors lingered on the beach until the galleon could be seen to weigh anchor, set its decrepit sails and disappear from sight around the headland. Rhys, lying on the dark shingle, watched, still shaken, as one by one, the sailors dissolved into the mist.
“Thank you,” he cried, as the Drummer Boy, the last to leave, began to fade from sight.
Rhys could swear that he waved back to him, but it may have been his eyes playing tricks.
Drury nuzzled the Night Soil Man’s neck with a bony nose.

“And thank you too, old friend,“ said Rhys, getting up and retrieving his bucket. “Hopefully they won’t be coming back for another hundred years. Now let’s go home. I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”


Author’s note: Although that most famous of ghost ships, The Flying Dutchman, is generally associated with the  waters of the Southern Hemisphere, there have been reports of other crafts seen in the North Atlantic, as evinced in the following poem by Irish poet and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

Written On Passing Deadman’s Island, In The Gulf Of St. Lawrence, Late In The Evening, September, 1804.

    See you, beneath yon cloud so dark,
    Fast gliding along a gloomy bark?
    Her sails are full,–though the wind is still,
    And there blows not a breath her sails to fill!

    Say, what doth that vessel of darkness bear?
    The silent calm of the grave is there,
    Save now and again a death-knell rung,
    And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung.

    There lieth a wreck on the dismal shore
    Of cold and pitiless Labrador;
    Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost,
    Full many a mariner’s bones are tost.

    Yon shadowy bark hath been to that wreck,
    And the dim blue fire, that lights her deck,
    Doth play on as pale and livid a crew,
    As ever yet drank the churchyard dew.

    To Deadman’s Isle, in the eye of the blast,
    To Deadman’s Isle, she speeds her fast;
    By skeleton shapes her sails are furled,
    And the hand that steers is not of this world!

    Oh! hurry thee on-oh! hurry thee on,
    Thou terrible bark, ere the night be gone,
    Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
    As would blanch for ever her rosy light!

Diswelcome 5. HOSTILE FLORA

I was much relieved when the skyskiff made landfall on Hopeless. I understood that the crew needed to feed their families. If anyone was to blame for the barbarous slaughter I had witnessed, it was rich fools seeking to enhance their natural virility by means of make-believe magic, regardless of the tragic implications. Nonetheless, after having seen the crew unrestrained by any civility whatsoever, gleefully enjoying their brutal work even, I was eager to be rid of them.

“This hee-ah is Lowuh Hopeless, which you’ve been wantin’ to see so badly,” the skipper told me. “We’ll be back in seven days. We’ll wait an ho-uh at the most. In case you decide not to go native, and be wantin’ to retuh-n to the civilised wahld.”

Mewton? I restrained the grin that wanted to form on my face, but thanked him instead, trying to sound as sincere as I could.

The skyskiff had landed in what seemed the middle of a vast plain of mud, with tufts of sickly green vegetation dotted around. Vague shadows in the distance gave promise of higher, more solid ground, supporting far more vegetation.

The air was disconcerting. It was tense, like the sky at home before a thunderstorm, laden with ominous promise, daylight transformed into a weird, gloomy glow though still brighter than the sky here in Hopeless, which mostly resembled a discoloured twilight.

To my left, I could see people, tiny in the distance, crawling over the carcass of a wingless kyte, most likely the one we had hunted like ants scrambling over a juicy caterpillar. They were far away though, and I had my fill of dead and dying kytes for the day, so I opted to head for that promise of mainland up ahead. I could always intercept the inhabitants of Hopeless there, I reckoned, for surely those Hopeless folks would be heading that way too, to get back to wherever they lived.

There was another reason for my choice. Even though Ole Ted had said that a high tide was a rarity here, growing up along the Sussex coast had given me a very healthy respect for tidal movements. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to arrive at just such a rare moment that the tide did come in, and a child could see that a sudden surge of the sea in the middle of this muddy vastness could easily be lethal.  

Every step was a struggle, my boots sinking deep into the soggy underground, sometimes submerging altogether, leaving me knee-deep in the muck. Upon retraction, a foul decomposing smell would be released. The mud seemed to be toying with me, pulling and tugging me down, changing consistency, giving false impressions of shallow semi-solidity, only to then open up and inhale me into its suffocating depths.


Keep moving. Don’t stop moving.

Several times I had to retrace part of my path to more agreeable depths of mud, to seek a route less likely to see me drowned in mud.

I paid little heed to the wildlife, mostly small and buzzing, much as I would expect in any bog back home. I was alarmed several times, when I felt movement below the mud, something long and scaly briefly rubbing past my boots. Twice, fortunately at some distance, I saw thick limbs or tentacles emerge from bog pools for a brief instance, before silently slithering back beneath the surface. Once, I had to use my suitcase to swat something resembling a giant dragonfly, the length of a man’s leg, with rows of shark-like teeth between powerful jaws.

All in all though, my attention was focused on the need to keep on moving. It was disheartening to see that I barely seemed to be making progress towards that higher ground. At times it even seemed further away. My logic overrode the sense of panic at that. I recalled the low tide flats of Camber Sands at home, where your eyes play tricks on you regarding distance. Whether it appeared that way or not, I told myself, I am advancing, slowly but surely.

Battling the mud was exhausting, and at long last I gave in to the overwhelming urge to rest for a moment, just to catch my breath.

It didn’t take me long to begin to learn the mistake of this. A mere thirty seconds after coming to a halt, my skin crawled when I sensed movements around my boots, a great many worm-like tendrils circling, and then spiralling up my legs. I jerked a leg upwards, to see a tangle of greenish, snakelike vegetation slithering up and around my boot. A few kicks shook most of them loose, just in time to change footing, for the other boot, having been stationary all the longer, began to tighten around my calf and foot, squeezed by the mass of slithering strands.

Hopping from foot to foot, kicking wildly to escape the snare of Hopeless flora, I failed to see that tiny shoots of the stuff had appeared from the mud, to spiral upwards and then form a web around the bottom of my suitcase. Looking that way when the stuff began to tug at my suitcase hard enough for me to feel it, I saw thicker tentacles reaching up to get a firmer grasp on the suitcase. What followed would have seemed to any spectator as an absurd tug-of-war. Continuing to change my footing to kick away the relentless entanglement of my feet, I pulled at one half of the suitcase, sometimes winning, and sometimes losing the struggle with a local plant.

Whilst the thicker strands were engaged in our jester-esque tug-of-war, the smaller tendrils continued to explore their intended prize. Displaying far more intelligence than any species of vegetation known to me, they worked out how to unspring the clasps of my suitcase, and it snapped open, its contents scattering towards the ground. Immediately, all the plant’s tendrils and tentacles released whatever they were clinging onto, to all dive onto the loose items of clothing and toiletries, the separate elements of the plant wrestling with each other in their haste to lay claim to my belongings.

My boots and legs thus released, I beat a hasty retreat. I chanced one quick backward look to see that all trace of my belongings was gone, apart from my suitcase, but that was being pulled beneath the mud before my very eyes. I wondered with a wry smile what need a mud plant had for men’s shirts, or my pyjama bottoms. However, the thought of my razor in the grip of those persistent and apparently intelligent tendrils, was less cause for amusement.


This time I kept moving beyond pain and back again , until I had reached the higher grounds, where the ground’s consistency resembled the resistance of a wet sponge, and how mightily solid that felt!

Pluff Monday

“What’s a pluff?”
Norbert Gannicox sat cross-legged on the floor, a large book folded open on his knees.
He had been helping Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, to clear up the not inconsiderable mess that littered the floor of the inn. Several days had passed since the bar room brawl that had flared up on New Year’s Eve, wrecking just about every stick of furniture, piece of glassware and item of crockery in the place. Such a thing had never happened before.

If you want anything in particular on Hopeless, the chances are that, if it exists on the island, you will find it somewhere in the dusty attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’. Over many years these rooms, with their small, cobweb-draped windows, had become the natural repository of the many and various – but otherwise unwanted – items of flotsam and jetsam that washed up on Hopeless’ rocky shores. For all of the dust and cobwebs, the several generations of stewards of the inn had been scrupulous in keeping their salvaged goods in reasonable order. Because of this, it was no great hardship to refurbish the bar with everything it needed to resume normal business.

Next to the clothing, furnishings and household items, which were organised in their separate spaces, there were books; hundreds of books, placed in tall stacks, piled more by size than subject matter.  

The particular tome that had caught Norbert’s eye was a weighty volume, snappily titled ‘The Every Day Book: or, A guide to the year: describing the popular amusements, sports, ceremonies, manners, customs, and events, incident to the three hundred and sixty-five days, in past and present times, (ed. W. Hone.)’.
 ‘‘ I think I’ve found the next fixture on our calendar of traditions, said Norbert, with some excitement. “Listen to this…

   …The first Monday after Twelfth-day is called Plough Monday”, he said, pronouncing ‘plough’ as ‘pluff’’. “It appears to have received that name,” he continued, “because it was the first day after Christmas that husbandmen resumed the plough. In some parts of the country, and especially in the north, they draw the plough in procession to the doors of the villagers and townspeople. Long ropes are attached to it, and thirty or forty men, stripped to their clean white shirts, but protected from the weather by waistcoats beneath, drag it along. Their arms and shoulders are decorated with gay-coloured ribbons, tied in large knots and bows, and their hats are smartened in the same way. They are usually accompanied by an old woman, or a boy dressed up to represent one; she is gaily bedizened, and called the Bessy…”

“What do you reckon?” he asked.
“Well,” considered Bartholomew, “If I knew what a pluff is I might have a go at drawing one.”
Norbert nodded. “There again”, he said, “it might be a ploff, not a pluff.”
“That’s real helpful,“ said Bartholomew, his tone not without a degree of sarcasm, “but I can’t say that I’ve heard of either one of them. Ploff just don’t sound right. No, it’s definitely a pluff, and dammit we’ll spell it as pluff, as it should be. Blasted English!”

The dramatist, George Bernard Shaw, once famously commented that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language and this can frequently be seen in the variation in spellings, pronunciation and even meanings of certain words. As neither Norbert nor Bartholomew –  or practically anyone currently alive on Hopeless, come to that – had wallowed in the dubious delights of a British schoolroom, they were happily unaware that the implement they knew as a plow was, indeed, a plough to those inhabitants of Shakespeare’s ‘Scepter’d Isle’.

After deciding that neither man had the faintest idea as to what a pluff might be, that they didn’t have thirty or forty men to pull one and that no self-respecting old woman, or lad in drag, would have anything to do with the project, gaily bedizened or not, it was agreed that they would go ahead and celebrate Pluff Monday anyway. They were pretty dam’ sure that if they didn’t know what a pluff was, no one else on the island would, either.

An hour or so later a casual bystander might have witnessed two middle-aged men taking a nonchalant stroll along the shoreline and pushing a ricketty handcart. According to the book, Pluff Monday was due to fall on the day after tomorrow; Norbert and Bartholomew were looking desperately for an item, any item, so odd, so unusual, so totally alien that it would act as a stand-in for the elusive pluff. It would become, in the eyes of their fellow islanders, unmistakably a pluff through and through. Both knew that it was, of course, an outside chance that they would find such a thing but, as we all know, Hopeless is an outside chance sort of place, so neither man was particularly surprised when, carelessly deposited by the tide, on a beach of dark shingle, sat the very epitome of pluffdom itself.

Imagine, if you will, a rusty iron sphere, about three feet in diameter. Protruding from its surface is a series of horn-like spikes, resembling something not unlike the shell of a huge, metallic horse-chestnut. Norbert stopped in his tracks.
“This is it,“ he murmured with a certain amount of awe in his voice. “A pluff!”
“It’s impressive,“ agreed Bartholomew. “Let’s get it on to the cart before the tide takes it back out.”
This was easier said than done. Try as they might, the pair could not lift the pluff an inch off the ground.
“It must weigh a ton,” said Norbert, “We’ll never shift the thing. That’s probably why the book said that it took thirty or forty men to drag it around.”
“How about…” said Bartholomew, a thought was forming in his head. “…How about if we can’t take Pluff Monday to the people, then they can come here to see it? We could dress the pluff up in ribbons and things and create our own version of Pluff Monday – a Hopeless version!” He said, the last bit completely without irony.

The two retired to the warmth and comfort of “The Squid”, where they set about the task of writing posters to advertise the ‘Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza at Scilly Point’. Philomena Bucket, who had been press-ganged into the scheme, dug out some ribbons and bells from the attic to festoon about the horns of the pluff. Somebody suggested taking the old phonograph to the event and playing ‘Molly Malone’ a few times. ‘Molly Malone’, with its ‘Alive-alive-o’ chorus, was a favourite with the people of Hopeless, mainly because it was the only wax cylinder that they possessed. Ideas poured from the three friends; they could light a fire on the beach and maybe take a cask of ‘Old Colonel’ and some starry-grabby pies to make the day go with a real bang. Wisdom of hindsight may have told them, a day or two later, to be careful what they wished for.

Pluff Monday had arrived at last! Bartholomew opened the big oak door of ‘The Squid’ and looked out at the new day. It was a little before 8a.m. and somewhere above the swirling mist, morning could be said to have broken. It displayed, however, a certain amount of defiance regarding the sentiments expressed in the popular hymn, for it bore little resemblance to that first morning, the temperature well below the four thousand degrees farenheit that the earth had then, apparently, enjoyed. Here, on eternally foggy Hopeless Maine, the glass would be lucky to struggle above freezing point on a typical day in early January. Not that this dampened the spirits of the organisers of the Pluff Monday Grand Extravaganza.
By midday everything was ready. The phonograph sat on one handcart, while a firkin of ‘Old Colonel’, snuggling companionably with a large haybox, generously filled with hot and steaming starry-grabby pies, graced another. Drury, the long-dead and skeletal hound, gambolled happily around, getting generally in the way and underfoot, as only an over-excitable dog can. Drury loved a celebration of any sort, especially one that involved the phonograph playing ‘Molly Malone’.

When Bartholomew, Norbert, Philomena and Drury arrived at Scilly Point, where the beribboned and bedizened Pluff bobbed gently as the incoming tide lapped languidly around it, a crowd had already gathered on the headland.
“Welcome, friends, to the very first Pluff Monday celebration, here on Hopeless, Maine,” announced Norbert grandly. “I hope this to be the start of a long and abiding tradition on the island.”

With that, Philomena wound up the phonograph and immediately the strangulated voice of an Irish tenor cut through the mist, telling the sad tale of a female fishmonger who navigated her barrow through streets of varying width.

Drury was happy beyond words. So happy, that he wandered down to the beach, splashed into the shallow water and lifted a back leg against the rusting iron pluff. This was, of course, a pointless exercise, but old habits are inclined to die hard. It was just around that point that the tenor reached the popular refrain of his ballad and suddenly everyone joined in; the headland rang with ‘Alive, alive-o! Alive, alive-o! Crying cockles and mussels, alive alive-o!” This was Drury’s favourite bit and he rushed excitedly back to the gathering, leaping headlong into the arms of his beloved Philomena. Taken by surpise, she stumbled against the cart which held the firkin of ‘Old Colonel’ and the box of starry-grabby pies. Filled with dismay, she watched it roll away in the direction of the beach, gathering speed as it went. The company on the headland looked aghast as the precious provender careered violently into the pluff. As one, they dashed down towards the water, hoping to salvage whatever they could. All might have been retrievable, had not the pluff, which had bobbed innocently around the North Atlantic for some years, decided to do the job it was designed for, and exploded in spectacular fashion. The inhabitants of Hopeless experienced the unique sensation of simultaneously being knocked off their feet and showered in a blend of strong ale and desicated squid. If such indignity was not bad enough, this was followed shortly afterwards by an uncomfortable rain of smoking matchwood and wisps of burning hay.

One by one, slightly deafened and covered in a quite malodorous and smoldering aley-fishy-woody debris, the Pluff Monday revellers got to their feet and looked around, dazed and bewildered.
“Was that supposed to happen?” asked Doc Willoughby suspiciously, removing a squid leg from his waistcoat pocket.
Norbert didn’t answer. Maybe it was time to give up unearthing traditions. It was too dangerous.
Up on the headland, a reedy voice was still warbling away about Molly Malone.
Drury wagged a bony tail.
“Now that’s what I call an entertaining afternoon!” he thought to himself.


Author’s note: Phonograph enthusiasts may like to look at the tale ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/ghost-in-the-machine/

Diswelcome part 4 – Kyte Hunt

“Kytes Ahoy! Kytes Ahoy!” The look-out cried. “To lahboahd, kytes to lahboahd.”

We had just cleared a series of billowing ridges, and were treated to the vast expanse of a near level valley, its bottom formed by gentle cotton-like undulations.


About twenty kytes were gliding serenely over the centre of the valley. About fifteen feet long, their oblong bodies tapered into vast triangular wings to either side of their streamlined rumps, with a long, muscular tail trailing behind them, ending in caudal fins.

As we closed in, it became apparent just how gigantic the beasts were. I began to discern eyes, a long row of them, just above the front edge of the flat circular head, and then another row below, enabling the creatures to look both up and down simultaneously. When their wings moved, they did so with slow grace, displaying all the elegance of a dancer.

Entirely oblivious to the busy activities of the crew all around me, I stared at the majestic kytes…spellbound. I would have never dared to dream that such magnificent creatures could possibly exist. What an enchanting sight to behold!

The closest kyte regarded us curiously, making no attempt to distance itself from the skyskiff, and lazily flapped its tail, as if wagging it in a friendly greeting.

“Aren’t they grandiose?” I asked dreamily, turning to the crew member nearest to me.

To my shock, I now saw that the crew had mounted numerous harpoon guns all along the railing, and were bent over them, sighting and aiming…

“No…no…” I began to say.

“FIYAH!” The skipper thundered. “HAHPOONS AWAY! FIYAH!”

The first harpoon sped towards the kyte, trailing a rope. Others followed.

I watched in horror as they plunged into the kyte, penetrating its hide and burrowing deep into muscle and flesh beneath. The kyte uttered screams of pain, and started to trash its body left and right, in an attempt to dislodge the harpoons.

“Bind those ropes!” The skipper commanded, and the crew tied the ends of the harpoon ropes to belaying pins.

“Get ready for the ride of youh life, Mistah,” one of the crew advised me. “Better hold on tight.”

“RELOAD,” shouted the skipper.

Clutching at the railing once more, I focused my attention on the kyte again. Instead of dislodging the harpoons, its wild movements had ensured that the harpoon’s barbs had found firm purchase, caught behind sinew or bone. In that process, the kyte’s wounds had been ripped wider, and blood gushed out of them, running down in rivulets until falling into the nothingness of the sky, a steady drizzle of bright red drops, like a macabre, ruinful rain.

The kyte stopped shrilling its pain, snorted, and then barked angrily.

“Hee-ah we go!” the skipper exclaimed. “She’s gittin’ ready to run.”

On cue, the kyte lurched forwards, its tale circling in a corkscrew motion to propel it forward with all of its might. All the grace of its former dance-like movements was gone, this was now a desperate struggle of life and death. The ropes attaching us to the kyte grew tauter in an instant. When they reached full rigidity, the kyte was momentarily jerked back, more blood gushing from its wounds. It screamed again, drawing concerned calls from the other kytes, which began to circle our skyskiff at a wary distance.

Roaring frustration, the kyte redoubled its efforts, gaining the necessary momentum to move forwards, dragging the weight of the skyskiff with it. Having gained enough speed, it suddenly nosed down into a steep dive, dragging the skyskiff into its plunge, bow pointed steeply down, and once more we hung on for dear life.

The skipper shouted at the crew manning the harpoon guns. “Let’s tiyah the beast out, fiyah at will!”

More harpoons sped towards the kyte. When they struck, the creature bucked wildly, uttering desperate sobs. Possibly in a vain attempt to escape the harpoons, it came out of its dive and banked to larboard, before turning starboard in a steep ascent that turned into a loop.  

“You’s kyte dancin’ now, Mistah,” one of the crew shouted at me.

I didn’t have the breath to answer. My fists clutching the railing had turned white, and most of my concentration was on anticipating the next sudden twist or turn…gut-wrenching motions as my body tried to adjust to being jerked sideways, up, down, and even, during particularly hair-raising moments, upside-down.

“Cease fiyah! Cease fiyah!” The skipper shouted, as we eased out of one such loop. “We git it wheah we wants it.”

He strolled casually across the heaving deck to join my side. “The trick is not to kill the beast. If it dies on us, it releases the gas that keeps it afloatin’. They-ha’d be a lot of dead weight plummetin’ down towahds the island, draggin’ us with it!”

I nodded, not caring to contemplate the impact of a skyskiff barrelling down into solid ground.

The stricken kyte, weakened no doubt by the loss of copious amounts of blood, started to slow, its evasive moments now sluggish, and almost bereft of power. Its screams, barks, and roars diminished into pitiful cries.

“That’s it!” The skipper hollered at the crew. “Start haulin’ her alongside.”

He helped, grabbing one of the harpoon ropes, and soon all six of them were straining at the ropes, hauling them in.

“HEAVE! HEAVE!”

With reluctance, I too, grabbed one of the ropes and begun the struggle of pulling the defeated kyte towards our starboard railing.

“HEAVE!”

When the creature was closely abeam, the ropes were tied to the belaying pins. The crew grabbed boat hooks, and used these to arrange the kyte’s body in such a manner that one of the wings draped over the railing, spilling onto our deck.

The kyte began to struggle again, beating the tip of its wing against the deck with forceful thumps, powerful enough to shatter a man’s leg, should it be in the way. Using smaller harpoon guns, the crew, shooting at point-blank range, pinned the wing to the deck. Then, grabbing axes and long meat cleavers, they began to hack wildly at the wing, cutting and cleaving at flesh and muscle.

I retreated to the bow, horrified. The kyte’s blood sprayed everywhere, covering the crew in so much gore that they resembled demons more than men as they carried out their bloody business.

The other kytes were still circling us, although their anxious calls had changed to deep, melodious, bass sounds, almost as if they were singing a resigned dirge of loss and mourning.

The kyte’s screams of pain mixed with pathetic mewls that cut through my soul. Some of its eyes were frantically looking in each and every direction, others staring aghast at the bloody ruin the crew were making of its wing. A few stared straight at me…I shuddered…the eyes focused on me seemed to convey a desperate plea for mercy. I recognised at that moment, the soul of a deeply-sentient being, in anguish at uncountable pains, fully aware of its imminent demise…even longing for it…wanting an end to the pain…begging it to end…

I wanted to look away, but those eyes wouldn’t release me.

“FOUND ONE! FOUND ONE!”

I willed my eyes away. One of the crew was holding his hand up, clutching a small object the size of a walnut, dripping with blood.

The skipper took it from him, then strode towards me through the gore on the deck.

“You ah-wight, Mistah?”

I managed a weak: “Why?” Indicating the butchery on the deck, I added: “Why this?”

The skipper opened his hand, to reveal the small item retrieved from the kyte’s wing. It was almost perfectly rounded, with the texture of an orange skin. “A genodus.”

“Genodus?”

“Ayuh. Similah to a tumah. As kytes grow oldah, they-ha staht growin’ in they-ha wings. All of ‘em have a few, some of ‘em as many as half-a-dozen.”

“What…does it do?” I asked, staring at the genodus in his hand.

“Ah!” The skipper grinned. “They-ha’s some folk what believe that a genodus, dried and powdeh’ed, enhances and sustains noctuh’nal activities, if you git my meanin’.”

“Not really.”

He sighed. “They-ha’s plenty willin’ to pay good money foh just a scrit pinch of this stuff, in brothels from Bangah and Pawtlan, to Bahstan and even New Yahk.”

I stared at him, flabbergasted. “What about the meat? Can you…”

“You cahn’t eat it, Mistah, tastes like mummified bog lemming hide.”

He looked at me expectantly, and I realised he was measuring my reactions. When I said nothing, he continued: “Ole Ted was insistent you’d be paht of our fihst hunt.”

“He did?”

“Ayuh. Told me to tell you this…” The skipper briefly shut his eyes, as if searching his memory, and then continued. “If you’s feelin’ squeamish now: Do. Not. Go. To. Hopeless.”

I stared at him. I was strengthened by a sudden, granite conviction: No matter what awaited me down on Hopeless, no matter what manner of creatures I would encounter there…nothing could possibly equate the brutal savagery mankind was capable of.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Ready to touch down on the island.”

The skipper nodded resignedly. Something in my altered bearing changed his attitude. He became apologetic as he gestured at the mess amidships. “I git an invalid fathuh, a dementin’ muthah, a widowed sistah, a harried wife, and a total of five li’l uns at home. Ten mouths to feed altogethah, Mistah. Same such tales foh the rest of the crew.”

“I understand,” I said, sincerely. “Tis much of the same in Sussex for working folk.”

He nodded again, then made his way back amidships. Most of the wing had been shredded, one more genodus found. The skipper supervised the crew, half of whom, using boat hooks, began to turn the kyte’s feebly struggling body about to get at the intact wing. The other half of the crew began gathering chunks of flesh and strands of sinew to throw overboard, into the sky where gulls and other feathered scavengers I didn’t recognise wheeled around screaming frantically, nose-diving after the plummeting remnants of kyte, or contesting ownership of a seized titbit.

The utter barbarity continued when the other wing was in place on the deck, its soon demolished ruin yielding three more genoduses, much to the crew’s delight.

When the kyte was released from our bonds, it seemed barely alive at first, but somehow still contained enough strength to attempt to beat at the air with the stubs of its wings as it began its free-fall to the ground. To Hopeless.

The Murk

Obadiah had forty different words for fog. From his fishing shack on the waterfront, he watched various fogs come and go, ebbing and flowing around the town. He needed every one of the words to describe the varied types that ran their blurry touch over the island.

There was the mist, the slight tendrils of cloud just barely wrapping around the houses. That one was so omnipresent that folks rarely even bothered to note it. Most of the town was mist-touched at any given time. The moments where you could see clearly end-to-end were the real rarities. Obadiah had no word for that kind of weather. It had never seemed worth it.

There were the pea-soupers, the thick deep fogs that ate the sound and blocked out all sight more than an arm’s length away. They rolled in on the regular, removing the rest of the town from view and giving Obadiah the impression that he lived on an island the size of his three rooms. If the windows weren’t sealed it was even less than that, as the fog seeped in through cracks and hid even the corners of his own house from him.

In between the two extremes were the mousters, the corrywinders, the bell-smiths and dozens more. Obadiah knew every sort of fog the sea could cough up and had names for them all. Seventy years of waterfront living would do that to a man.

Which made this fog all the more unusual. It wasn’t like any other he’d ever seen. It crawled along the ground in slow waves, gently rolling along paths and around corners like it was looking for something. It didn’t spread out evenly, either, but clumped together in great dense folds. Parts of it were nearly transparent, while others seemed almost solid.

Despite its intermittent thinness, it muffled sound as well as the thickest fog Obadiah had ever seen. The whole house felt wrapped in cotton batting. The lapping of the sea, the creaking of the dock, the mournful calls of the birds—all of these, the background of Obadiah’s life, were gone. It was this sepulchral silence that kept him staring out the window. He told himself he was just casually watching, but the truth was that he needed to keep an eye on the world to reassure himself that it was still there.

A booming knock sounded at the front door. Obadiah startled from his chair, the sudden sound no less concerning than the silence that had preceded it. He craned his neck to try to see along his front porch, but the drifting fog and awkward angle kept him from getting a good view.

The knock came again. Obadiah headed for the front door, taking up his stout oaken stick as he did so. If it was a neighbor who needed help outside, he’d be happy to have the extra support to keep his footing in the thick fog. And if it turned out to be someone who meant him ill, he could still hand out a pretty good wallop.

A third time: the knock. “I’m coming!” called Obadiah, his voice abnormally loud in the silent house. “Who is it, anyway?”

“Me, Obie,” came the muffled reply. He cocked his head. Sounded a bit like Isabel, the neighbor woman. Nice woman, lovely young mother, but not the sort to just drop by randomly. Especially not in weather such as this.

“What do you need?” he asked, opening the door. To his surprise, the battered wooden porch stood empty. The rocking chair creaked gently next to the door, but only the wind was stirring it.

“Your help.” Isabel’s voice drifted up from the bottom of the steps. Obadiah squinted into the fog. It was swirling thickly here, obscuring even the railing posts beside the stairs. He could make out a humanoid figure, but no more.

“What is it, Isabel?” Maybe she needed his help finding a lost animal. Maybe she’d gotten lost herself. “You need to come in?”

He took a step back, holding the door open, but the fog-shrouded figure shook her head. “No. I need your help. Can you come down here?”

Obadiah hesitated. Something was off about her voice, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Still, if she needed help, he wasn’t about to turn her down.

“Let me get my coat,” he said.

“You don’t need it. Please, hurry.”

The air was chillier than he liked, but if Isabel was that desperate, he could handle the discomfort. Surely she only needed him for a short time if she was encouraging him to go out coatless. With a sigh and a shrug, he stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him.

The fog had thickened again. Everything was a uniform shade of grey. Even the bottom step was hidden from view now. Obadiah gripped the railing with his left hand and his walking stick with his right, stepping carefully down the weathered steps.

“Isabel?” he called, unable to see her through the fog.

“Right here,” came the reply. He took a few tentative steps toward the sound.

“No, over this way.” Her voice was to the left of him now. He edged forward again, but still saw nothing.

“Where are you?”

“I’m here.” Her soft tones came from the right of him now. “I can see you. Just walk toward me.”

Two more steps, and there was still nothing there. “Girl, are you playing games with me?”

“Never, Obie.” But there was laughter in her voice, and not the kind sort, either.

“All right, enough of this. Nothing better to do than taunt an old man? I’m going back inside,” he grumbled.

“How do you plan to do that?”

Obadiah took several steps forward, expecting to see his house swim into view. It did not. There was nothing but an endless grey wall. He stopped, befuddled. “Musta gotten turned around in this.”

He turned back and tried the other direction, but found nothing there either. The fog swirled hungrily at his legs, hiding his feet from view. Isabel’s voice rang out from all around him, laughing gaily, shifting positions with every sentence.

“This way.”
“No, over here.”
“You’re close.”
“Right here.”

“Obie.” This one practically a breath in his ear.

“Enough!” He whirled, striking out with his walking stick, but the heavy wood swooshed uselessly through the air. Obadiah staggered and nearly fell as the momentum tugged him to the side. The fog fluttered in its wake, forming curlicues that winked and smiled before vanishing into the main mass.

“Try again,” whispered Isabel’s voice. Clearly mocking though she was, Obadiah settled his grip on the cudgel and took her advice. He struck out blindly, swinging from shoulder to hip in a repeated X-shape. The laughter rose around him, mocking as he hit nothing but air over and over again, but Obadiah gritted his teeth and continued.

With every strike, he took a small step and made a quarter-turn. Swoosh, swoosh went the stick, and the circle Obadiah walked in grew steadily larger. He might not know which way his house was, but he knew it had to be close. If he just maintained the pattern….

Suddenly, the stick collided with something solid with a resounding crack. The impact jarred the walking stick from his hands, sending it spinning off into the fog. Obadiah reached out with desperate fingers and grasped the wooden ball that topped his porch’s newel post. He wrapped his arms around it, grabbing it like a drowning man seizing hold of a piece of floating wreckage.

“Wait!” called Isabel as Obadiah hauled himself up the three stairs to his porch, one hand always maintaining a strong grip on the railing. “I’m still out here, Obie. I still need your help.”

He shook his head. “No, you aren’t.”

“Look.” And then, in a voice quieter and more tremulous than before, “Obie? Is that you?”

He looked over his shoulder. Behind him, a path had cleared in the fog, the mists shifting aside to make a brief corridor. At the end of it, fifty yards away or more, stood Isabel. She looked confused and afraid. She appeared to have been crying.

“Obie, help!” She took a running step toward him and then the mists fell over her again, consuming her.

“See?” Isabel’s voice again, though Obadiah knew well it was not her. “She needs your help.”

Obadiah shook his head once more. “All I can do if I go out there is give you another voice to play with. And I don’t even have my coat.”

“Wait!” called the voice once more, but Obadiah was already at his front door, opening it to step into the safety of his house. Fog swirled in with him, but it dissipated quickly when the solid wood slammed shut behind it, tiny wisps of cloud vanishing against his carpet runner.

The knocking started again, loud and insistent. Obadiah, ignoring it, walked slowly around the house, checking the latch on each window and then pulling thick curtains to block out the view and muffle the sound. He turned on the record player, settled into his chair and let the scratchy sounds of a trumpet flow over him. He could still hear the knocking in the background, but he figured it would give up soon enough when it realized he couldn’t be lured back out.

Soft cries could be heard behind the trumpet now, the sounds of a young woman in distress.

“You can still save her,” whispered a voice clustered outside his windows.

Obadiah dragged his chair over closer to the record player and increased the volume. He’d seen too many men swept overboard in storms to wonder if Isabel could really be rescued. All you could do by jumping after them was add another death to the tally.

“A murk,” he said out loud. “That’s a good name for it. A murk.”

The fog would pass. They all did, eventually. He’d go find Isabel after that. If there was anything left of her to find.

By Micah Edwards, with art by Tom Brown.

Micah and Tom have collaborrated before and it is likely that they will do so again.

The Lord of Misrule

Another year had passed on the island of Hopeless, Maine. This is not as bland and obvious a statement as you may imagine, for while most places on this planet enjoy an orderly, straight as an arrow, passage through time, Hopeless does not always choose to conform. Time on this island – like so many of its denizens– can be a slippery and unpredictable beast. Mostly, it will obediently trot forward at a regulation pace but, at the slightest caprice, will career away at a gallop, or, just as often, slow to a snail’s pace. Once or twice it has stopped totally and then gone off in completely the opposite direction, which causes no end of anxiety and confusion… but I digress. Upon the occasion of which I speak, Time had meekly wandered up to the very brink of the old year and waited quietly, to listen patiently for the chimes of midnight.

To all intents and purposes the evening was progressing in a most satisfactory manner. The produce of the Ebley Brewery and Gannicox Distillery flowed freely and the mood was high-spirited and ebullient. Bartholomew Middlestreet watched happily as the pallid but strangely beautiful barmaid, Philomena Bucket, weaved her way through the crowded bar of ‘The Squid and Teapot’, deftly carrying, in one hand, a tray brimming with hot and steamy starry-grabby pies, and two foaming mugs of ‘Old Colonel’ ale in the other. Business was good in the inn tonight– but after all, it was New Year’s Eve and everyone here, and those at home by their own firesides, had survived another year. Bartholomew beamed to himself as he remembered the chorus of a song, penned years ago by the late Spencer Lypiatt. Being a better poet than he was a musician, Spencer had set the lyrics to a popular show-tune that he had picked up from somewhere or other in his travels (although his claim that South Pacific had at last reached the North Atlantic had baffled more than one member of his audience).

We all live on Hopeless, Maine,
(Hopeless by the sea)
There’s no reason to complain
If you’re living on Hopeless, Maine.

A lot of people thought this was nonsense – after all, the inhabitants of Hopeless have a whole host of reasons for complaint. Bartholomew, being somewhat cannier than most of his neighbours, knew only too well that they just did not appreciate exactly what Spencer was driving at when he wrote the song. The operative word in the chorus is, of course, ‘living’, as opposed to dying or being dead, and this is exactly what the patrons of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ were doing this evening – celebrating the very fact of being alive.

No one who was present on that particular New Year’s Eve can say with any certainty that they can remember when the tall, elegant stranger first came into the inn. He must have been there for some while, for it was about eleven-thirty when he was spotted pushing back the small table, rising from his chair and making his way across the bar to the far corner of the room.

When he put his hand on the shoulder of young Ambrose Pinfarthing and whispered a few words into the lad’s ear, you could be forgiven for assuming that the two had been friends for years . In response the young man gave him a slightly drink-fuddled and puzzled look; he shrugged and raised his eyebrows as he watched the stranger return to his seat, having no idea what had just happened.

Ambrose was sitting with a small party of friends, all of his age, who had been noisy but by no means troublesome, allowing themselves to become mildly inebriated as the evening progressed. With the minute hand creeping towards midnight, however, the group became increasingly vocal, blatantly ignoring Bartholomew’s more than tolerant request,

“Keep it down, lads, it’s getting a bit rowdy over there.

It soon became apparent that their general mood was becoming worryingly ugly. As voices became louder, tempers began to fray. Bartholomew tried to calm things down but to no avail. The innkeeper knew that he was losing control when bickering broke out on other tables and what was, only minutes before, a good-natured gathering, descended into a seething and hostile environment. It was as if an unaccountable madness had gripped every patron of the inn– or nearly every patron. Sitting quietly in his corner was a lone and enigmatic figure, who appeared to be totally untouched by the chaos breaking out around him. He smiled to himself and sipped his ale, seemingly oblivious to the carnage. Fists flew and tankards were thrown, glasses shattered and tables upturned, and all of the time the stranger sat unruffled in his own little oasis of calm.

Bartholomew could only watch in horror as furniture and furnishings, fixtures and fittings, plates and drinking vessels succumbed to the quite insane behaviour that had overtaken his customers. The normally feisty Philomena Bucket and Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, wasted no time and hid, trembling, in the privy. Even the prospect of sharing the cramped space with its resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady, was preferable to braving the turmoil that rocked the public bar.
As if in response to some invisible signal, at the stroke of midnight the elegant stranger arose, left some money on the counter, and strode towards the door. As he passed each brawling customer they stopped fighting and, in a daze, looked around as if waking from a terrible dream. The room grew suddenly and weirdly quiet; the only noise was the sound of shattered pottery and glass being crunched beneath a pair of highly polished leather boots.

“There’s something not right about him,” muttered Bartholomew to himself. “Did he say something to start all this?”

With a degree of bravery that surprised even himself, Bartholomew sprinted towards the door just as it was closing. Catching it by the handle, he threw the door wide open. A fierce and icy blast shook the few curtains that still hung tenuously in place. Bartholomew shuddered, drew his arms close around his body and looked out on to the inky darkness that heralded another new year on Hopeless, Maine.

The night before him was cold and totally empty. A light dusting of snow had been falling steadily for an hour or more, leaving a pure white carpet to grace the front yard of the inn. It was indeed beautiful – and not a single footprint was there to disturb its pristine surface.

Author’s note: Anyone wishing to see the complete (and frankly, extremely irritating) lyrics of ‘We all live on Hopeless, Maine’ will find them in the tale of that name – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/we-all-live-on-hopeless-maine/

Diswelcome – Upper Hopeless

UPPER HOPELESS

The Skyskiff was much the same as Free Traders use back in Sussex. It was open to the elements, barring the small engine house at the stern, with two small funnels rising from its low roof. The steam engine within powered the propellers, one each attached to outriggers on either side of the stern. An oblong inflatable was rigged to two low masts, and there were dorsal, caudal and pectoral sails attached to booms operated from the deck.

The craft was crewed by six men, all wearing oiled canvas breeches and anoraks. After hauling aboard my suitcase and a knapsack, which the innkeeper had kindly filled with ample provisions, I was kitted out in one of the protective suits as well.

“Expecting rough weather?” I asked.

I got the village-idiot-said-something-numb look, which the locals seem to reserve for outlanders or flatlanders as they call them.

“Expectin’ wildlife,” the skipper told me, with a knowing grin.

“I see,” I said, not understanding at all.

I waved at Ole Ted as we took to the sky, engine thudding erratically, propellers whirring, and plumes of smoke spitting from the funnels.

“He’s something else,” the skipper said. “Ole Ted is.”

“How did he lose his eye? And leg?”

The skipper chuckled. “Old Ted was a kyte huntah, just like us. Best skippah in Mewton by fah. Then one of the kytes he netted put up a scrid of strugglin’.”

It began to dawn on me that the skies over Hopeless might be fraught with potential hazards, and I hoped that the skyskiff crew would descend to the safety of the ground within a reasonable time. Whatever they were up to high over Hopeless wasn’t really any of my business. I needed to find Salamandra, and as far as I knew, she was mostly groundbound.

§ § § § §

The sky was clear, apart from that strange cloud formation I had noted the day before. The dark band hadn’t shifted an inch since then, it appeared to be oddly stationary. When the skyskiff headed straight towards the murky mass, I began to wonder if the dirt-coloured gloom was somehow related to Hopeless…

§ § § § §

The crew seemed content to ignore me, and I was familiar enough with skirring a skyskiff to know how to stay out of their way. Leaning over the railing, happy to rediscover the sheer thrill of riding the wind, I hummed a song from home.

Oh my love, you have a cosy bed

Cattle you have ten

You can live a lawful life

And live with lawful men

I must make do with nothing

While there’s foreign gear so fine

Must I drink but water

When France is full of wine?

As we approached the band, it began to assume a more distinctive shape, it’s upper half forming expansive landscapes, the dark clouds billowing up to form high ridges and towering peaks, between which were broad valleys, glens, or ravines. Ere long we were skirring through this surreal scenery, the helmsman taking care to stay clear of the various cloud formations. It all looked remarkably solid, even though I knew the mighty mountain ranges were naught but unsubstantial illusions.

The skipper joined me. “This hee-ah, is Uppah Hopeless.”

“Upper Hopeless! So the island lies below?” I asked eagerly.

One of the crewmen quipped: “You can tell the scribblah is a smaht fellah. I’d have nevah guessed that.”

“Well it ain’t Japan or Iceland below our keel,” the skipper said. “That should be about as cleah as the cause for yellah snow.”

I watched a creature emerge from behind a foul cloud. A bulbous head the size of our skyskiff, with multiple eyes so large they should have been terrifying to behold, but there was a merry twinkle to them, and they conveyed so much amiable warmth that it made the creature appear endearing, like an old childhood friend come out to play. I felt an urge to get nearer, to reach out for it, and stroke its salmon coloured skin.

I pointed. “Is that a kyte?”

The skipper’s eyes bulged. His mouth fell open in horror for a moment, before he regained his composure and shouted: “CHOUT! CHOUT!! SKYSTINGAH ON THE STAHBOAHD BOW. EVADE! NOW! NOW!”

“Evah-body HANG ON TIGHT!” the helmsman bellowed in response.

He spun the helm, and I clutched the railings tightly with both hands. The skyskiff lurched to port.

“FULL SPEED AHEAD!” The skipper hollered.

“Aye-Aye, Skippah! Full speed ahead!”

I looked astern, to see that the skystinger had now fully emerged from its cloudy concealment, revealing a long trail of pink tentacles, writhing in a most obscene manner. The creature’s giant eyes had lost all sense of implicated kindness, narrowing as they beheld our attempt to manoeuvre away, the look in them now one of chilling malevolence.

The skystinger followed us in pursuit, but to my relief, seemed unable to match our speed. One of the longer tentacles rose high in the air, before whipping in our direction. To my horror I realised that we were in reach of the tentacle’s furthest extremity.

“CHOUT!” a crewmember shouted. “INCOMING TENTACLE!’”

“SHIELD!” The skipper commanded. “SHIELD!”

“Aye-aye, Skippah! Shield!” The helmsman spun the helm again, and the skiff lurched once more, this time keeling over so far that we had to hang on for dear life.

The incoming tentacle now swept towards the copper-plated bottom of the hull. I braced for the shock of impact, but it never came. Instead, there was an insistent staccato, as of hail stones striking a window.

The skyskiff straightened out again, engine chugging at full speed, and fast moving away from the skystinger and its fearsome tail of tentacles, including the long one which had so nearly swept us all off the deck.  

I rushed to the side and looked down along the hull. It was peppered with dart-like quills, the size of a porcupine’s, but far tougher because they had punched right through the copper sheeting. Most were firmly embedded, but a few hung partially loose, and I could make out ridges of vicious barbs.


I reached out for one of the quills, but a crewmember grabbed my arm.

“You don’t want to be doin’ that, Mistah,” he said. “They-ha’s poison in them barbs, one tiny scratch and you’s as dead as a Tommyknocker.”

I quickly drew my arm back up, feeling foolish and out of place. “I can’t wait to get to the ground, away from these confounded skies,” I confessed.

The crew man laughed. “Suh-ely somebody told you Uppah Hopeless is by fah the safest paht of the island?”

I stared at him. He laughed again. I recalled the haunting cries from the sanatorium the previous night, and for the first time, began to doubt the wisdom in seeking Hopeless.

§ § § § §

Diswelcome – Ted Talks

TED TALKS

I spotted a solitary figure on the beach, just beyond the boats by the sudden drop to the turmoil of the tide pounding the rocks. His back was towards me, but he turned as I approached him, outlined by the ocean behind him, and a murky band formed by a group of filthy coloured clouds on the horizon.

The man was wearing a weather-beaten great-coat that matched his grizzled face. One eye was covered by an eye patch, the other half-concealed by wrinkled flesh. Most of his face was hidden by a frumious silver beard. He wore a sailor’s cap, from beneath which spilled wild locks of grey hair, and one of his legs had been replaced by a wooden peg.

“Mister Ted?” I asked, cautiously.

“Ayuh, Mistah. Ole Ted is what they-ha call me round hee-ha. And who might you be?”

“I’m Ned Twyner, from England. May I ask you a question?”

Ole Ted sighed deeply. “I reckon I know what the question is, and tis hahd tellin’ not knowin’, if you catch my drift.”

“Mayhap you could tell me why it’s still high tide? I don’t recall any sign of low tide all day.”

I could see he wasn’t expecting that question, for he looked surprised, before answering with a shrug : “Tis always highish tide hee-ah in Mewton, just a couple a times a month that it ain’t and it ebbs somewhat.”

“But…how is that even possible?”

“On account of it bein’ lowish tide most of the time…elsewheah.”

Elsewhere?

“Hopeless?” I asked hopefully.

Another forlorn sigh, before he shook his head and began to say: “Now listen, Mistah. You cahn’t git they-ha from…”

“…from heehaw. Yes, I’ve been told.”

I can sigh as well as the next man, so added a weary one of my own. “Them that asks no questions, isn’t told no lie.”

Now why would you be sayin’ that?”

“It’s something we say back home, in Sussex. Mostly to inquisitive strangers.”

“Ayuh. Well you know how things stand then.”

Suspecting that Ole Ted could talk in endless circles forever and longer, I decided on a different approach. I dug in my trouser pocket, found what I was looking for, and fished it out. I held out my hand to show him a dull, iron coin, with a prominent skull raised in its centre, around which were written the words Memento Mori. The coin had no monetary value…but was priceless nonetheless, when shown to the right people in any port around the world. I just hoped that applied to Mewton as well, isolated as it was.

“An Owler’s Ducat!” Ole Ted exclaimed. “Now wheah’d you git that?”

“My gaffer skirred under Captain John Hawkeye, on The Salty Mew,” I said with suitable pride.

“Ayuh. We’ve heahd of Cap’n Hawkeye, even hee-ah in the boondocks. Do you know what the coin means?”

“Yarr.” I agreed in Owler’s lingo, before reciting:

Tis the wayward life.

Tis Free Trader’s strife.

The Joy of the Owler’s soul.

“Ayuh. But you don’t look like much of a smugglah to me, Mistah.”

“Not smuggler. Free Trader,” I corrected him automatically. “My Gammer wanted me to pursue a different career. She said there were enough Owlers in the family.”

“Theah’s wisdom in that, Mistah. Now your ducat be obligin’ me to help you, but I feel I’d be helpin’ you most by tellin’ you NOT to go to Hopeless. See that building they-ha?” 

He pointed at the grim building on the slope.

I nodded, and he continued speaking. “You evah stop to think why a village this size would have a sanatorium lah-gah than its school? They-ha’s always some folk showin’ up, hell-bent on getting to Hopeless, you’s not the first. A few even make it back. But nevah the same, Mistah, nevah the same…” He tapped his gnarled index-finger against his temple.

“I want to go, regardless,” I insisted stubbornly.


Ole Ted shook his head with dramatic regret. “Now why would a young man such as yahself be wantin’ to go to Hopeless? Ain’t nothin’ they-ha that’s healthy, nor wholesome.”

“I am a journalist. I was sent by my paper, the Brighton Gazette, to interview someone who lives there, one Salamandra.”

 “HER?! They-ha say she’s a powahful witch of sohts. A wicked bad idea, Mistah. I figuh-ed you were smahtah, that’s just numb, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.”

“The Owler’s Ducat,” I reminded him.

“Ayuh. I’m bound to it, and so must help you. And I will. Be hee-ah at dawn. They-ha’s a crew goin’ kyte huntin’. They-ha’ll take you if I tell ‘em to.”

“Thank you.”

Ole Ted shook his wizened head again. “You’ll be unthankin’ me soon enough. Just know this, anything that befalls you on that cuh-sed isle is beyond my control. I can git you to Hopeless, and do my utmost to git what remains of you off the island again. That’s all.”

“It’s a deal.”

§ § § § §

I barely slept that night, exhilarated by the knowledge that I would finally reach Hopeless. Upon the chime of midnight, however, that sense of triumph began to be replaced by other feelings.

I paid little attention to the screaming at first, assuming that the seagulls, whose cacophonic mayhem had ceased when darkness came to Mewton, had discovered something to excite them.

My attention was roused when some of the repetitive screeches began to sound like words – unmistakably English words.

Something, somebody… other than seagulls…screaming into the night.

Tentatively, I got out of bed and walked to the windows. I drew open the curtains, and then opened one of the windows, now clearly hearing the haunted howls, shrill cries, and plaintive wailing. My eye was drawn to the building on the slope…the town’s sanatorium.

I was close enough to see the barred windows, and unfortunately close enough to see dark shadows clutching those bars with pale hands, or else sticking their arms through it, hands clutching frantically at the air.

I dare confess that their screeches filled me with some trepidation.

“…The eyes! The eyes!! THE EYES!!! The eyes…”

“…Don’t DRINK me! PLEEEEEEEEAASE

“…I FEAR I FEAR I FEARIfeArIfEaRIfeArifearifearifear…I FEAR!”

Another Hopeless Christmas

It has, in recent years, become traditional for a few of the residents of Hopeless to come together in order to arrange some manner of Christmas entertainment, basking in the vague hope of igniting a small spark of festive joy in the hearts of their fellow islanders. The crucial words here are, of course, ‘to arrange’; on Hopeless it is seldom that an arrangement of any description pans out as planned. This said, however, the dubiously named ‘Christmas Extravaganza Committee’ gathered in a small back-room of The Squid and Teapot and allowed hope to prevail over experience.

“We could do a Nativity play”, suggested Philomena Bucket.
Doc Willoughby, who was only there on sufferance and the off-chance that there might be a free drink or three coming his way, raised an eyebrow.

“Not on Hopeless,” he said. “You’d be lucky to find three wise men and a virgin around here.”

This was the Doc’s annual joke – possibly the only one he knew – which he trotted out every Christmas with regularity. The others around the table laughed dutifully, probably in relief that the old chestnut had been aired and safely put to bed again until next year.
Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, looked thoughtful.

“Do you remember the actor guy who lived here, the one that some folks reckon was eaten by that sea-serpent, Aboo-dom-k’n?
“Fromebridge somebody-or-other,” offered Norbert Gannicox, the local distiller.

“That’s the one,” said Bartholomew. “Well, he left behind a few bits and pieces, including a book on the history of acting. There was something in there about some ancient Christmas entertainment called… mummifying, I think.”

“Now that does sound entertaining,” observed the Doc, brightening visibly. “I can’t say that is something I’ve ever witnessed.”

“Well, as I recall, these various characters come on stage, they say who they are, then a couple of them have fight and one of them dies…”
“Ah…and then he gets mummified?” asked the Doc.

“Could be,” said Bartholomew. “But somewhere along the line the doctor brings him back to life.”

Doc Willoughby rolled his eyes.
“I think you’d better bring us the book,” he said, uneasily.

After the initial disappointment of discovering that, when mummers go out to mum, they rarely, if ever, have mummification on their minds, Doc Willoughby reluctantly agreed to take part in the entertainment, after making a mental note that the promised drinks tally had just doubled.

“Okay – so who are the characters, the dramatis personae?” he asked, always happy to drop in the odd Latin phrase, in hopes to impress.

“In this version there is Father Christmas, somebody called Room, Robin Hood, Beelzebub, Saint George, Bold Slasher, Mince Pie, a doctor and a Turkish Knight. That’s a lot of people!” replied Norbert, scratching his head.

“We’re going to have to cut a few parts out, as there are only four of us,” he added.

It was decided that Father Christmas, Saint George, the Turkish Knight and the doctor would have to do. Doc Willoughby was adamant that he was the only person qualified to play the doctor. After a certain amount of bickering the other parts were agreed; Bartholomew was to be Father Christmas, Philomena would be St. George and Norbert took on the role of the Turkish Knight.

Over the next week the troupe learned their not-too-demanding lines and Philomena, who doubled up as wardrobe mistress, trawled through the dusty attics of The Squid and Teapot in the hope of finding some vaguely credible costumes. By Christmas Eve the little band of thespians deemed themselves ready to meet their public.

Ariadne Middlestreet, wife of Bartholomew, was run off her feet behind the bar of The Squid and Teapot. The inn was full to bursting with the curious inhabitants of Hopeless (and some were certainly more curious than others). Beyond all hope, it seemed, they had gathered together on this cold Christmas Eve to witness the cultural highlight of the season. That, at least, is what the four actors told themselves. The truth was that most of the island was dying to see Doc Willoughby make a fool of himself.

Bartholomew, resplendent in a cherry-red dressing gown, matching woolly hat and cotton-wool beard, began the proceedings.
“In comes I, old Father Christmas.
Welcome in or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.. “

As the play unfolded the characters introduced themselves. Saint George appeared in a helmet made from a saucepan with a broken handle and grey knitted woollen ‘chain mail’, eliciting cheers and whoops from the audience. As to be expected, the emergence of the Turkish knight, whose turban looked suspiciously as though it was made of pink chiffon, was met with boos and catcalls. These reactions, however, were as nothing compared to the negative reception given to the doctor, an innocuous member of the cast who is usually received on stage with a chorus of polite cheers. It is fair to assume that this display of general antipathy was not so much directed towards the character as at the actor, who had made no effort whatsoever to don any form of fancy dress, loudly opining that he knew better than most what sort of clothes a doctor should wear.

There are many who will tell you that Christmas is a time of miracles and this little entertainment, put on for the people of Hopeless, Maine, is proof positive that this is, indeed, the case, for, miraculously, nothing went wrong. The Turkish knight slew St. George, the doctor brought him back to life again with his bottle of elecampane and, to huge cheers, St George gave the Turkish knight his comeuppance. Nobody fluffed their lines, there were no embarrassing costume catastrophes and, unusually on Hopeless, no one was abducted, eaten, or even seriously injured. The general concensus was that the night had gone swimmingly well.

By the time that midnight struck most folks were home and safely in bed. Christmas Eve is, however, the most haunted of nights and the ghosts of the island were wide awake and honouring tradition by manifesting for the occasion.

Down in Creepy Hollow old Lars Pedersen, whom time had rendered so faint as to be almost invisible, tramped through the night, seeking in vain for his precious missing eggs.

In the privy of the Squid and Teapot, Lady Margaret D’Avening, the Headless White Lady, had perched herself daintily on the lavatory seat, while her head, floating next to her, sang Christmas carols.
Some distance away, on the other side of the island, her nemesis, Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was busily venting his joyless and protoplasmic spleen against the iniquities of Papists, adulterers and anyone guilty of enjoying a spot of Christmas debauchery, or indeed, anything at all.

Up on the headland the Little Drummer Boy marched proudly along, leading a rag-tag procession of shipwrecked wraiths inland. As it was Christmas Eve he had abandoned his usual ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ drumbeat for the more seasonal ‘pa rum pum pum-pum’

Meanwhile, high overhead, the phantom maiden-ladies of The Mild Hunt, mounted on flatulent mules, with their highly-strung spaniels forever yapping and getting in the way, had come to grief when they had become entangled with some flying reindeer. The somewhat overweight, white-bearded gentleman who seemed to be in charge, was desperately trying to turn his sleigh the right way up, while at the same time fiercely berating them. His face had become as red as the clothes he wore and, with no little venom, he concluded angrily (and quite correctly, as it happens) that they must be English, driving like that on the wrong side of the sky.

The only islander abroad that night was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. Ghosts were familiar to Rhys and little surprised him anymore – but even he couldn’t believe his eyes as a not-particularly gentle rain of candy canes, sugar-mice and assorted toys fell noisily to earth.

Author’s note: The ghosts mentioned in ‘Another Hopeless Christmas’ can be encountered in several other tales, including:
‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’; ‘The Headless Lady’; ‘Chapel Rock’; ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’.

Diswelcome – Mewton

By Nils Visser

MEWTON

When I arrived, it was hard to imagine anywhere more isolated than Mewton, Maine…but that was before I experienced the diswelcome that awaited me at my final destination.

Mewton had no railroad station. Coaches couldn’t negotiate the few rough tracks that offered a semblance of connection to the wider world. The fishing village’s minute landing field was only visited by an Air Mail cutter once a fortnight.

I had bartered passage to Mewton on such a flight, and as the cutter approached from the ocean, I found a porthole that allowed me an opportune view. I saw a wall of grim, grey cliffs, towering hundreds of feet over their base, battered and bashed by furious waves. We were coursing for a gap in the cliffs, where they sloped downwards to meet in a narrow glen, in which I could see cottages huddled protectively around a church. Just outside of the village, about halfway up one of the slopes, was a solitary low stone building, remarkable because it succeeded in looking even grimmer than the rest of Mewton combined.

There were more buildings on the lower side of town: A series of sheds, workshops, and racks on which fishing nets had been hung to dry. The ‘beach’ was a grassy slope elevated some twenty feet above the ocean’s raging waves, suggesting that the fishing craft parked there were dependent on flight to make it in and out of port.

Before too long I was hauling my suitcase through Mewton’s unpaved streets. My other luggage was my writing satchel, slung over my shoulder, containing paper, quills, and my precious inks. I checked in at the Merry Tentacle Inn, which boasted two whole guest rooms left mostly unused I was told , and quickly departed again to explore the village.

Mewton smelled of brine, as fishing villages and towns ought to. Apart from the pale green grass on the glen slopes, and the muddy brown of the streets, everything appeared grey. The wooden boards of the small cottages, many of which looked like they had been salvaged from the hulls of shipwrecked boats, had been white-washed in a distant past. The paint was faded now, or peeling and blistering to reveal the ghostly grey of the weary wood beneath. The few stone buildings on Main Street were constructed from the same grim rocks that made up the cliffs. There wasn’t much in the way of shops: A butcher’s, a baker’s, two General Stores, three fishmongers, a barber shop, and the Post Office.  The largest building was a tackle, bait, and net store.

My ears were filled with the screeches and squawks of seagulls wheeling overhead in the dull, overcast sky. The human population seemed vastly outnumbered by the seagulls, and added to the general greyness of Mewton, for I saw very few younger people, and only a handful of children.

The outlying structures between the village and the ‘beach’ were remarkably familiar in sight, sound and smell, for I had grown up along the Sussex Coast. The stench was a vicious, olfactorial assault which permeated everything. Remnants of fish, deemed unappetising even by the seagulls, were strewn around at random. Equipment dating from the previous century stood rusting or rotting in between machinery still in use. The quality of the boats ranged from possibly usable, to skeletal ribs rising from the ground in a spectral fashion.  

My tour of Mewton was mercifully short, for there really wasn’t much to see. I was grateful this dire place was just a temporary stop, like so many others on my long journey from Sussex. I didn’t want to stay here a minute longer than I had to. All I had to do was arrange some sort of passage to…

§ § § § §

…“HOPELESS ?!?”

They all reacted in the exact same manner…all of the Mewton folk I tried to talk to about finding a way to reach a small island named Hopeless. They stared at me like I was some kind of a possibly violent lunatic, as they repeated the name of my destination. That was followed, invariably, by:

“You cahn’t git they-ha from hee-ah.”

The reply confused me at first. “Pardon me? Heehaw?”

I got it the second time, when a fishmonger became exasperated, and pointed repeatedly at the ground by his feet…“Hee-ah! Hee-ah!”… and then at the door of his shop… “They-ha! They-ha!”

§ § § § §

Made despondent by my lack of progress in finding a possible means to reach Hopeless, I returned to the Merry Tentacle. There were only a few customers in the inn, and I chose a table by a window, offering me a view of that foreboding, low building on the slope. I could see now that its narrow windows were barred.

It was fast becoming clear to me that reaching Hopeless seemed…hopeless, but I hadn’t come all this way to give up now. I’d be the laughing stock of the news room at the Gazette, if I returned with empty hands after having travelled so far.

By now I was quite famished, and I recalled that Gaffer had always said victuals should forever be a primary concern, before sipping away at his illicit Dutch Gin or French Brandywine.


There was no menu of any kind, so I beckoned the voluptuously rotund innkeeper, who swayed her waist as she approached my table. She was wearing a low cut apron, apparently designed to accommodate the ample bosom that threatened to spill out of her blouse.

Ignoring her none too subtle winks, I asked: “Do you serve food?”

“Ayuh, Mistah! We got all kinds of food. Spoilin’ you with choice, is the Merry Tentacle’s motto!”

“Excellent,” I said, somewhat relieved. “What’s on the menu?”

“Bug chowdah or quahog chowdah. Both of the finest kind.”

BUG?!

The expression on my face appeared to trigger the amusement of the local clientele, especially the two old men seated closest to me, who grinned and guffawed appreciatively.

“I see, wonderful…erm, do you serve any other kinds of food?”

“Othuh kinds?” The puzzled look on the innkeeper’s face provided my answer.

The quahog sounded so outlandish, that I opted for the bug option, in the hope that it was unlikely that anyone in the world would truly serve bugs as a meal.

The two old men were still chuckling when the innkeeper returned with a steaming bowl. Their comments were just loud enough for me to hear…

 “…flatlander…”

 “…from away…”

The innkeeper set the bowl in front of me. “One servin’ of bug chowdah, Mistah. Don’t you be minding these chucklin’ old-timahs now. They-ha wicked numb, not a braincell between ‘em.”

Bug chowdah turned out to be a delectable creamy lobster stew, and I speak not one false word when I state that it was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.

I told the innkeeper so, when she returned to collect my empty bowl.

“Mighty kind of you to say so, Mistah!” She beamed, then leaned in low, to add in a conspiratorial tone: “Now if you don’t mind me meddlin’, tis Ole Ted you’ll be wantin’ to speak to.”

“Ole Ted?”

“Ayuh. Ole Ted. This time of day, he’s usually to be found down the road apiece. By the boats.”