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Amelia

The story so far…

 

In the spring of 1888 Harriet Butterow and her friend, Petunia Middlestreet, perished in the sea while trying to salvage goods from a shipwreck. Their respective daughters, Amelia, aged six and Lilac, aged three, became the wards of Harriet’s father-in-law, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot. In order to give the girls the best possible education and home life Bartholomew relinquished management of the inn to his long-term tenant, the odious Tobias Thrupp. Ten years slipped by and Bartholomew died. Nothing more was heard of the girls for the next two years, until they were rescued from Thrupp’s clutches by Abraham, a Passamaquoddy trader who took them to his reservation on the mainland. The girls lived happily with Abraham and his family until Lilac fell in love with Abner Badbrook, a silver-tongued rogue. The two eloped in the dead of night, only for Abner to desert Lilac when he learned that he was to become a father. Fearing that she would not be able to support her small son, Lilac left him on the steps of a convent. While being taken for adoption to New Brunswick, the child, Randall and his guardian, Sister Mary Selsley, of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe, were shipwrecked on Hopeless, Maine, along with the ship’s captain, Sebastian Lypiatt.

 

Amelia was saddened but not surprised by Lilac’s departure from the reservation. Her friend had been acting strangely for a week or so prior to her disappearance. It had become obvious to Amelia that Lilac was smuggling food and soft deerskin blankets to someone in the forest but she said nothing to Abraham or his wife, Cenopi.

Over the following weeks Amelia retreated increasingly into her own thoughts. She took to wandering along the river bank, as though seeking something. In blocking out the rest of the world she seemed to have switched on part of herself that had formerly been sleeping.

Amelia had often heard the seals before, of course, going about their business in Passamaquoddy bay. The plaintive barking that was so familiar, however,  one day became an invocation, a siren-call to those who could hear its message. Like one in a dream Amelia made her way to the water’s edge, then hesitated. The abiding memory she had of her mother was of being warned never to go into the ocean. After Harriet herself became a victim of the grey Atlantic, Amelia could see the sense in this, not knowing the real reason for her mother’s fears.

‘Strictly speaking’, she told herself, ’This is not the ocean. I can be careful.’

In truth, whatever her mind had said, a greater force was at work within Amelia and all of the warnings in the world would not have prevented her from being drawn towards the seal-song.

There is a point where practicality, driven by instinct will always prevail over the modesty imposed by social mores. That morning Amelia gazed over the expanse of shining water and without a second thought, took off her clothes. She laid each garment carefully on a dry rock, then – for reasons beyond her comprehension – threw herself into the chilly waters of the bay.

After the initial shock of hitting the water she began to panic. For a brief moment the old Amelia took control, thrashing and screaming in the swirling current. Then a great calmness swept over her. Dimly she imagined that this must be the end. If this was death it was not so bad. It did not come as some hostile enemy but almost as a gentle guardian, come to gather her into its warm embrace. But she was confused; none of the things she had been led to expect was happening. There was no bright light, no welcoming family waiting with outstretched arms to usher her into the afterlife. What she did feel, however, was warmth and strength and a undeniable desire to eat some fish. Amelia looked down at her body. It was sleek, fat and furry. Instead of arms and legs she had flippers. Then something in her remembered; this was a memory not spun from intellect but from instinct. A memory that flowed in her blood and lived in her bones. She was Selkie.

In the event, there was a family to welcome her, after all. The Harbor Seals had sensed that she was near and had been waiting. Amelia had come home.

 

It was a full two years before Amelia once more took on human form and again it was instinct that drove her to do so. She had watched with curiosity as a man, woman and tiny child bobbed across the water on an upturned dining table. Amelia, who still retained some shadow of her former attributes, could not help but swim up alongside the strange craft. It had been a long time since she had heard human speech. The conversation centred around the child, who the woman had referred to as “Young Randall Middlestreet.”

Middlestreet!

She dimly remembered that she had once had a friend with the same name. An ache grew inside the selkie, suddenly wanting to know more and if her friend was close by. She watched as the little party washed up on to a foggy shore – a somehow familiar foggy shore, she thought –  and made their way inland, abandoning the table and rough tarpaulin that had served as a makeshift sail. Amelia dragged herself onto the rocks. As she dried, her skin sloughed off to reveal her human form. She folded the sealskin and hid it in the rocks, then, in the best tradition of Adam and Eve, became suddenly aware and ashamed of her nakedness. The only item to cover her modesty adequately was the old tarpaulin, which she draped about her as best she could and, in bare feet, made her way inland.

 

Amos Gannicox was sitting outside his cabin when he saw her. His face suddenly became a deathly white, as though he had seen a ghost. It must be admitted that seeing ghosts was not that unusual on this island. Amos had seen several in his years there. This particular ghost, however, had a special place in Amos’ heart.

“Ha… Harriet. Is that you?” he asked, nervously.

“ Pardon?” Despite her selkie years, Amelia had not forgotten her manners.

“I’m sorry,” said Amos, seeing now his mistake. “It’s just that you reminded me of a dear friend who died over fifteen years ago. You could be her twin. Her name was Harriet.”

“My mother was Harriet…” said Amelia as memories of her childhood flowed back.

 

It did not take long for Amos and Amelia to piece together the events that had led up to her disappearance from the island. She told him about her time on the reservation and her living with the seals. Amos reddened. Harriet had always claimed that Amelia’s father was a selkie and he had dismissed it out of hand as delusion. The girl’s story now gave the tale some credence.

After Harriet’s disappearance Amos had salvaged some of her things as keepsakes. He had been secretly in love with her and could not bear to see her few possessions scavenged by the other islanders. From these he found some suitable shoes and a dress, which was a much tighter fit than Amelia had expected it to be. She could not remember having been quite so rounded when on the reservation.

When he was told of the child, Randall Middlestreet, Amos made a few enquiries and soon learned that the boy was in the care of the orphanage. Upon hearing this Amelia immediately resolved to go there herself. It was her plan to volunteer to help, thereby allowing her to keep an eye on Randall’s welfare.

Amelia had been there but a few hours before she found an unexpected ally in Sister Mary Selsley. The nun’s calling asked her to accept, without question, many things that, in a secular setting, she would find to be totally implausible. So, to recognise the existence of a shape-shifting selkie did not demand of her a huge leap of faith. Sister Mary had been born and raised on the wild west coast of Ireland where these creatures were known to exist and held in some regard. To those, like herself, who had lived among the selkies, there was something in their eyes and general bearing that betrayed them immediately when in their human form. These things she saw, and loved, in Amelia.

Sister Mary had nothing like the same regard for Reverend Malachi Crackstone, the principal of the orphanage. Besides his being a protestant, which was cause enough to meet the nun’s disapproval, she found him to be a mean-minded, unpleasant man, given to cruelty. She warned Amelia not to reveal any of herself to him, although the parson had already discovered that her great grandmother had been Colleen O’Stoat, a woman widely suspected of being a witch. Crackstone made no secret of his instant dislike for the girl, a dislike that forthcoming events would turn into something akin to hatred.

 

The mind and instincts of a seal and those of a human have little in common, outside of a desire for survival. That is why – perhaps mercifully – a selkie woman recalls her seal life as little more than a dream, and vice-versa. So, when the nun pointed out to Amelia that she was decidedly pregnant it came as something of a surprise. It certainly explained a few things but she had no recollection of ever mating. Sister Mary assured her she must have done so; to the nun’s knowledge there had only been one instance of a virgin birth and to suggest this might be another was nothing short of blasphemous.

“ As far as Reverend Crackstone is concerned,” advised the nun, “you’ve lived on the island all of your life and the father is unknown. He wont like it but it will stop him from asking awkward questions.”

There was another problem. A human gestation period is nine months, while a seal’s is eleven. A massive conflict was raging in Amelia’s body and she was not having a good time. In the event, the strange nature of the pregnancy brought on the onset of labour several weeks early.

It was a hard and traumatic birth. For two whole days and nights Amelia was wracked with pain that took a great toll on her strength. In her heart Sister Mary suspected that there would be little chance of Amelia or her child surviving the ordeal.

 

As the clock struck midnight, heralding the vernal equinox of 1905, Betty Butterow was born. As Sister Mary had feared, the fight to bring Betty into the world had been too much for Amelia, who, by now, was pale and very close to death. Crackstone, with a heart as cold as ice, took the child casually from the weeping nun’s arms and swept off to find a wet-nurse.

Tearfully, Sister Mary stripped the blood soaked shift from Amelia’s lifeless body and washed her.

“This girl should be returned to the sea, where she belongs” she told herself. “Not in the cold earth, where Crackstone would put her”

As I have mentioned before, Sister Mary was no delicate, frail thing. Effortlessly, she lifted Amelia into her arms and carried her out into the night air.

 

Unless you are a Night-Soil Man it can be perilous to walk about the island after dark. Fortune, or something else, was on the nun’s side, however, as she made her way to the precise spot where Amelia had said she had hidden her pelt.

A mist-shrouded full moon watched with a baleful eye as the sealskin was wrapped securely around Amelia’s lifeless form. For her own peace of mind Sister Mary said a few suitable words to her God, then, gathering up Amelia’s body, waded into the ocean, almost to chest height, and  placed her precious bundle upon its surface. She watched sorrowfully as the dark water folded over the girl and drew her into its inky depths. Making her way back to shore, soaked and shivering with bitter cold, the nun was comforted by the knowledge that she had returned Amelia to her true home.

A sudden noise made her turn. Just a few feet behind her a seal’s head burst through the water. For an instant that felt like a lifetime the two regarded each other in the moonlight. A spark of recognition flared in the seal’s dark eyes.

Sister Mary’s heart leapt.

“She’s alive,” she cried aloud, “Amelia, you’re alive!”

The seal lingered a moment longer and the connection that had momentarily flickered between them gradually faded, like a candle being slowly extinguished.

Without giving the nun another glance, the seal turned and headed for the open ocean, completely unaware of the identity of the human standing in the water behind her.

The selkie that had been Amelia Butterow was now a seal forever, forgetful of the life she had once known and the daughter she left behind on the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine.

Art- Tom Brown

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Lilac

Abner Badbrook had left the city of Calais, Maine in something of a hurry. There had been a certain amount of unpleasantness with several of the locals when they discovered that five aces had mysteriously found their way up the left sleeve of his jacket. Having escaped their clutches, hitching a free passage on one of the many commercial ships that plied the river was easy for a man whose charm was only exceeded by his crooked nature. Charm, however, was not enough when some of the crew caught him cheating during a game of five card stud. In an act of admirable self-restraint  they revised their initial plan of keelhauling Abner and instead deposited him roughly on the banks of St. Croix river, in the heart of the Passamaquoddy reservation.

 

You will recall that Lilac Middlestreet and her friend, Amelia Butterow, had been liberated from the clutches of the evil Tobias Thrupp by Abraham, the Passamaquoddy trader and taken from the island of Hopeless to the safety of his reservation.

In the years that had elapsed since their rescue the two had happily settled into the life and customs of the tribe and, except for Lilac’s fair skin and red hair, they could easily have passed as Passamaquoddy girls.  As it happens, these were the very traits that caught the attention of Abner Badbrook as he lingered on the edge of the forest, holding a spy-glass to his eye, watching the women doing their washing in the river.

Abner was famished. His particular skill-set precluded his living off the land and – not to put too fine a point on it – he was becoming desperate. His instincts told him that his welcome might be less than cordial if he wandered into their village as a beggar, so, clutching at straws, he had spied upon the women, hoping that they would leave something remotely edible behind when they left. Sadly, for Abner, this seemed to be to no avail. Then he spotted the fair-skinned white girl. She just might be his meal-ticket.

Being a gambler Abner estimated that the odds of his being able to sweet-talk her into helping him were worth a try. All he needed was to get her on her own. As it happened Lady Luck was in a good mood that day and Lilac had decided to linger a while after the other women had gone.

Lilac was startled by the figure that emerged from the shadow of the trees. She thought to run but, being the girl she was, her curiosity overcame her fear and she waited to see what the stranger might do.

Abner, checking that he could not be seen from the village, wandered casually over and struck up a conversation. He slipped into charming mode as easily as you or I might put on a pair of well-worn and exceedingly comfortable carpet slippers. From the offset Lilac was as putty in his hands, completely buying his far-fetched story of having been kidnapped by river pirates and making a valiant escape by fighting off seven of them before leaping to freedom into the raging river. Caught hook, line and sinker, she promised to bring food, drink and warm blankets to her silver-tongued hero that very evening.

Events unfolded as you might expect. It was inevitable that Lilac would fall in love with the handsome stranger. Things happened quickly and before a week had passed the impressionable girl was making plans to elope with the card-sharp, whose latest gamble was playing out far better than he had hoped.

While running away might seem a drastic step to take, there was no question of them having a conventional Passamaquoddy marriage, even if Abner had wanted one and had made his presence known to the tribe. According to their customs a couple would have to go through a betrothal period for one year, during which time the groom had to prove to the girl’s father – in this case Abraham – that he was a capable hunter. He would be obliged to make bows, arrows, canoes and snowshoes for his prospective father-in-law. Also, during this year of courtship, the couple would have to be chaste. At the end of the betrothal the bride’s family would hold a feast, making speeches which exalted the groom’s geneology. Believe me, Abner’s geneology left little room for exaltation. None of this, of course was ever going to happen. And so, it was without a word to anyone, not even Amelia, that on one moonless night in midsummer, Lilac and her lover left the land of the Passamaquoddy people forever.

 

It was two years later, in the winter of 1904, that Lilac found herself in New York, penniless, alone and with a new born  baby to support. Abner had disappeared when the prospect of fatherhood was on the horizon, leaving the hapless Lilac to fend for herself. She was too ashamed to return to the reservation, even if she had had the means to get there. In desperation Lilac resolved to leave her small son on the steps of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe. It broke her heart but she knew that as long as he was with her the child’s chances of survival would be minimal. Tearfully she wrapped him in a ragged blanket into which she had tucked a brief note bearing his name. Lilac had refused to give her son his father’s surname; she owed that man nothing, except her contempt. Besides, Randall Middlestreet sounded to be a far nicer person than Randall Badbrook.

 

Sister Mary Selsley of the Convent of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe had relatives in New Brunswick. After a brief exchange of letters the childless couple happily agreed to raise young Randall as their own son. With the blessing of her Mother Superior Sister Mary arranged a passage for herself and the child on the SS Wycliffe, a journey that would take her away from the convent for some weeks. Or so she thought.

 

The storm that had raged for three long days was one of the worst the captain of The Wycliffe had seen in many a long year. He gave the order to abandon ship with a heavy heart and, in the best traditions of sea captains everywhere, resigned himself to a watery grave. Destiny had other ideas, though, and he found himself being hefted on to an upturned dining table by, what appeared to be, a prize-fighter masquerading as a nun. This, in fact, was Sister Mary who had never been known for her delicate femininity.

The two  found themselves floating through a foggy seascape, their only other companion was the small child that Sister Mary had lashed securely to a table leg.  The nun regarded the English sea captain with some warmth. Although he was a burly and rough looking man – even burlier and rougher looking than Sister Mary herself – he seemed kind enough. In fact, the captain took great pains to be a perfect gentleman in the presence of the nun, being careful not to spit or swear, lest he offend her. It was not, however, until they washed up on a barren, mist-strewn shore that he introduced himself.

“I’m Sebastian,” he informed her. “Sebastian Lypiatt. Let’s find that child some warmth and shelter.”

Sebastian and Sister Mary gingerly made their way inland with little Randall strapped papoose-like to the sailor’s back. This was a strange place, to be sure. Eyes seemed to be watching them from every direction, including above. Sister Mary was certain that she saw something scuttle by with teaspoons for legs but she told herself that this was only a symptom of the delirium caused by a lack of fresh water.

Before the day was out Randall Middlestreet and Sister Mary were safely ensconced in the old orphanage, a place which, the nun discovered, seemed to enjoy more than its fair share of bumps in the night. She decided that until rescue arrived, this was as good a place as any to stay and lend a hand. With luck, she thought, with a decidedly unecumenical smile, she might even manage to undermine the strictly protestant Reverend Crackstone, who appeared to be in charge.

Sebastian Lypiatt, satisfied that the nun and her charge were adequately catered for, made his way further inland. He stumbled upon a curiously named inn, The Squid and Teapot but this seemed to be too dismal a haven, even for a stranded sailor. Fortunately, he soon discovered the welcoming portals of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House For Discerning Gentlemen, which would be more than acceptable until either rescue or permanent accommodation materialized. Besides – a girl had caught his eye. Life on this strange island might just about be tolerable with Madrigal Inchbrook by his side.

Art by Tom Brown

An Ill Wind

In the month of March, 1888, one of the most severe blizzards in the recorded history of the United States raged along the east coast of the country, causing devastation from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. The storm claimed the lives of more than four hundred people. At least twenty-five percent of these casualties were seamen, lost to the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean. This is not surprising, taking into consideration that an estimated two hundred ships were either wrecked or grounded over a period of two days.

Where there are shipwrecks, there are, invariably, spoils to be had. Regular readers of ‘The  Vendetta’ will doubtless guess that some of these spoils found their way to the grateful shores of that somewhat strange and foggy island, Hopeless, Maine.

 

Harriet Butterow and Petunia Middlestreet stood knee-deep in icy-cold water. They were anxious to drag a large wooden crate ashore. Neither woman had any clue as to what the crate may have contained but it did not really matter. What could not be eaten, or modified for personal use, could be bartered. On this impoverished island nothing was ever wasted. Try as they might, however, the crate was reluctant to move.

The two young women had a lot in common; Harriet was a single mother and Petunia a widow. Besides having had a friendship which started in childhood, they also shared the bond of motherhood. Both had young daughters who, for today, were in the care of Petunia’s elderly father-in-law, the kindly Bartholomew Middlestreet, landlord of The Squid and Teapot. Harriet and Petunia were secure in the knowledge that their daughters, Amelia Butterow and Lilac Middlestreet, were in safe but albeit, somewhat arthritic, hands.

Like many islanders, it was news of the several shipwrecks littering the coastline that had the pair braving the bitingly cold March morning and looking to salvage as much of the precious wreckage as possible. After the long winter, supplies of everything were low on Hopeless and while the loss of so many lives was deeply regrettable, the islanders could only marvel at their good fortune when they saw the extent of the bounty that the storm had provided. All that was needed now was to bring it safely ashore – a task easier said than done.

It sometimes feels that Tragedy is a trickster always waiting in the wings and never missing an opportunity to show its face; sadly, that face is one that the people of Hopeless are more than familiar with. Even so, none are really ever prepared for it to appear.

The sea had seemed unexpectedly calm that morning, especially after the raging nor’ easterlies that had angered it over the previous few days. Anyone who has lived or worked on the water will tell you that a change of wind direction can achieve that in just a few hours. And that same person would also caution you to be wary; wary of both a capricious sea and all that it contained.

 

Amos Gannicox smiled to himself as he waved to Harriet. He had been on the island for almost four years now and had every intention of winning her heart completely before another year had passed. He was a patient man and felt sure that his patience would pay off before too long. He was well aware that Harriet still harboured hopes that Amelia’s father – who she genuinely believed to be a Selkie – would return to her, but almost seven years had passed since he had left and this seemed most unlikely.

Lost in his own thoughts Amos was brought back to reality by a sudden scream. No – two screams.

An icy hand gripped his heart. A few seconds ago two young women had stood in the water, laughing and care-free. Now they were gone. Look as he might, there was no sign of either. All that remained was the crate which they had been trying to shift. Amos scanned the shoreline frantically. This could not be – he had only taken his gaze off the object of his affections for a few seconds. Panic stricken he ran towards the spot where they had been standing. Others were running too, frantically shouting the women’s names but it was soon obvious that searching would be futile. They had disappeared completely. The ocean, or something dwelling within it, had claimed them.

 

Bartholomew Middlestreet was devastated. Although the shadow of death always stalked the island, he never imagined that his daughter-in-law would be taken before he was and now it fell upon his old shoulders to tell two little girls that they had become orphans. Lilac, at three years old seemed too young to understand but Amelia Butterow, aged six, took it badly. So badly, in fact, that she was literally dumbstruck. The truth is that the girl never uttered another word for the remainder of her days. It is a strange coincidence for, as regular readers will recall, her father,who was of the seal-people, a Selkie, was never heard to speak either.

 

Bartholomew was resolved to look after the girls himself; he had no intention of either of them going to the orphanage. The running of The Squid and Teapot would have to be left to Tobias Thrupp. Tobias, shipwrecked at the same time as Amos Gannicox, had been living there for four years and had done little enough, so far, to pay for his keep.

 

Ten years slipped by; ten years that saw The Squid and Teapot decline in every way. Bartholmew Middlestreet devoted himself wholly to the well-being and education of the girls, oblivious to everything else, including the fact that Thrupp was dragging his beloved inn into certain ruin. Then, one day in the final year of the century, a strange thing happened. Bartholomew, Lilac and Amelia disappeared without a trace. And no one noticed!

 

Whether Bartholomew died of natural causes, or by Thrupp’s hand, is unclear, but die he certainly did. One can only surmise as to the cause. What is known, however, is that a corpse left outside for a night on the headland is unlikely to still be there by daybreak. The age-old problem of disposing of the body is no problem at all on Hopeless.

As the old man had been absent from the inn for so long, ownership of The Squid passed seamlessly to Thrupp. The girls, too, had not been seen for years and were all but forgotten. Such disappearances, while unfortunate, are not uncommon on this island.

 

In unearthing and relating these tales for you it sometimes feels as though I am putting together a vast and complex jigsaw puzzle, filling intriguing gaps in the picture as each new piece comes to hand. Like any jigsaw, this one has areas filled with light and clarity; it also contains great sweeps of darkness. The rest of this tale is, I fear, one such piece, darker and more dreadful than any other I know, or, indeed, ever wish to know.

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown