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The Elders

The Royal Navy vessel, HMS Sabrina, was a frigate of the ‘Scamander’ class, one of a series of ships that had served in the late Napoleonic War. These were constructed of pine, a wood selected because the Royal Navy needed to build ships rapidly. Although quick to build, they were not expected to last as long as those made of oak. The ‘Sabrina’ was no exception and floundered in the North Atlantic in 1815, during her stint supporting an expedition that was searching for the fabled North-West Passage. Some of her hapless crew survived the shipwreck and found their way to Hopeless, Maine. For a while they believed that they were safe.

Those familiar with the unforgiving nature of Hopeless will be aware that the mortality rate is high, especially among newcomers. Over the years, the island has been the salvation of many a shipwrecked individual. For the vast majority, however, this was but a temporary reprieve. Only the lucky few have managed to survive the challenges posed by a landscape seething with hostility. After almost a year on the island, the remaining survivors from HMS Sabrina felt confident that they had beaten every obstacle that Hopeless harboured. With the aid of some of the tools and weapons salvaged from the ‘Sabrina’, they had successfully evicted a colony of spoonwalkers from the deserted hovel that they now called home and valiantly fought off some strange tentacled beasts who seemed comfortable on both land and sea. The company had put up with wailing ghosts and the attentions of assorted night-stalkers. As the months slipped by the original band of thirty was depleted to just six. Despite all, these six felt themselves to be impervious to anything that the island could throw at them; after all, they had been the ones who had managed to stay alive. In time they would, undoubtedly, have been proved wrong. As it happened, they did not get chance to find out; it was their own ignorance and inclement weather, that doomed them.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful summer’s day to gladden the heart and warm the soul. Sadly, in the year of 1816, no one in the north-eastern states of America could claim to have enjoyed a beautiful summer, or indeed any sort of summer at all. You will not be surprised to learn that Hopeless, Maine, was no exception.

Even by the usual, unremarkable, standards of Hopeless weather, the season, so far, had been abysmal. It was late June and it seemed that no one had bothered to inform the weather gods, who appeared to have been asleep since Christmas. When the killer winds that brought in blinding hail storms abated, a blanket of freezing fog wrapped itself around the island, chilling all life-forms (not to mention one or two of the non-life forms) to the bone.

The small community clustered around the acre or so of spiky grass, common-ground that many years later would come to be known as Iron Mills Common, were faring better than most. The majority of ‘Commoners’, as they were called, were descended from the Saxon slaves of Vikings who had settled on the island hundreds of years earlier. For generations they had suffered every privation imaginable and had learned to survive, no matter what. A bit of wind and icy fog was nothing to them.

There was one man, however, who felt the detrimental effects of the unseasonal weather more than most. Old Corwen Nailsworthy was the community’s apothecary, vintner, distiller and protective guardian of a little copse of elder trees that grew on the edge of the common. These trees were the source of many of Corwen’s remedies and were generally hardy enough to put up with Hopeless’ awful climate. In the past they had produced a wealth of blossom, providing the small community with elderflower wine, cordial, tea and when flour was available, fritters. Besides their culinary uses, the flowers were applied to the skin to alleviate joint pain and elderflower water soothed sore eyes. In addition, of course, the ripe berries, also rich in medicinal properties, made ample stocks of elderberry wine, port and syrup for all to enjoy. Corwen worked tirelessly to use the bounty provided by the elders to keep his fellow Commoners happy and relatively healthy. Sad to relate, 1816 offered no such provision. Such a long and unrelenting winter, having refused any hint of spring to dress the trees, ensured a barren harvest.

Corwen was in his stockroom, looking in dismay at the fast-emptying shelves. Luckily, the previous year had endowed them with a generous supply of medicines and alcohol but the apothecary feared for the future. If they were to be cast into a permanent state of winter – as seemed likely – there would be no more elderberries, or elderberry blossom. He gazed out of the small, grimy window at his beloved trees, bare and forlorn in the grey evening light. Suddenly, his eye was drawn to a group of men standing on the edge of the copse. They seemed to be paying close attention to one of the trees. To Corwen’s horror, one of the group produced an axe and began chopping its trunk, as if to fell it.  He rushed out, shouting to them to stop.

The axeman, burly and tattooed, spun on him angrily.

‘We’re cold, old man. You don’t need all these trees. We’re taking this one today and when it’s gone, we’ll take more. Now get out of my way.’

‘You can’t burn elder,’ shouted Corwen, angrily. ‘You will be cursed. The elder is a sacred tree. If you dare burn it, death will follow soon after.’

The men laughed heartily

‘Your superstitions don’t scare us,’ said the axeman. ‘We’ve survived war and shipwreck and everything that this accursed island has thrown at us. We’re not going to be frightened by you or your fairy tales.’

With that, he pushed Corwen out of the way and swung his axe at the base of the tree. It was tougher to cut down than he had thought but eventually the old timbers gave a death-rattle creak and the elder fell to the earth.

Corwen watched, miserable and helpless, as one of the men threw a rope around the fallen tree. Without glancing back they dragged it away, still laughing at the old man’s superstition.

That evening there was less merriment to be had than the six survivors of The Sabrina had hoped. Instead of the roaring blaze in the grate that they had envisioned, the wood of the elder burned with little heat and much smoke. But, they reasoned, with an icy storm raging outside, little heat was preferable to no heat. In view of this they resolved to keep the fire going all night and, when the whole tree was burned, go back for more, as promised.

The following day Corwen looked out of his window, filled with trepidation. Despite his warnings of the terrible consequences of burning the elder wood, he only half-believed the tales. He expected the ex-naval men to return at any moment and take another of his trees. All day he waited anxiously but no one appeared. They did not come back on the following day either, or the one after that.

‘Could it be true?’ he wondered to himself. ‘Is there really a curse?’

Curiosity got the better of him. Taking care not to be seen, Corwen made his way to the place where he knew that the men lived. It looked empty. There was no smoke issuing from the chimney and the front  door was firmly closed against the weather. Gingerly, Corwen peered through the window. The sight that met his eyes made him reel back in shock.

The bodies of the six men were strewn around the room, their faces a dark red with features twisted in agony.

‘The curse,’ muttered Corwen to himself. ‘It has come to pass.’

The story of the terrible retribution of the elders spread rapidly through the length and breadth of the island and Corwen and his trees were never threatened again. The following year the weather reverted to something resembling normality, much to the relief of one and all.

Should you be tempted to scoff at this tale and prove it wrong by burning elder, I beg you not to. While the wood has been proved to be excellent for the construction of whistles, pipes and chanters, it can be fatal on a fire. One of its more unpleasant effects is, that when burned, it releases a lethal cyanide gas. More than one mediaeval peasant has discovered this to their cost, which has undoubtedly contributed to the adverse folklore surrounding the tree. As my mother never tired of telling me, it always pays to respect your elders!

Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown

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Dancing on a Sunday

A celebrated entertainer (whose name escapes me for the moment) once opined, via the medium of popular song, that Saturday night is, apparently, alright for indulging in a certain amount of fighting. Being one not renowned for pugilistic endeavours, I could not possibly comment on such an assertion. What I do know, however, is that, traditionally, Saturday night is definitely alright for throwing a party. This seems to be true the world over. True, except, maybe, on the island of Hopeless, Maine, where, let’s face it, one day is very like another and if anything can go wrong, it probably will.

This particular tale was born around the time when the founding families first settled on the island. Two centuries have passed since the fateful Saturday night that Clarissa Cockadilly celebrated her twenty-first birthday. As it happened, it was also May Day Eve. Even on Hopeless, one of the most cheerless places on earth, Clarissa truly felt that no date could have been better for the occasion.

The party was well under way when the first, few early stars began to shine wanly through the ever-present mist, their sickly pallor shamed by the gentle glow of the restless and innocent gnii, quietly meandering through the foggy skies. As the day was lost to darkness, the flickering firelight, coupled with the candle lanterns hanging from every tree, gave the celebration a dramatic chiaroscuro backdrop, endowing the bleak island with a mysterious, theatrical atmosphere. Trestle tables, while not exactly groaning beneath the weight of party provender, grumbled ever-so-slightly as more starry-grabby-pies, elderflower fritters and moonshine liquor was heaped upon them. For once, Hopeless felt almost as cheerful a place as one could wish to be, the night air alive with fiddle music and the energetic dancing of Clarissa and her companions.

In those distant, more pious times, the one gaping disadvantage of celebrating anything remotely joyous on a Saturday night was the inescapable fact that it would be followed by Sunday morning. The chimes of midnight would inevitably sound the death-knell of any merriment, ushering in the strict and stultifying observance of the Sabbath, with all of its attendant ‘thou shalt nots.’ And so it was with this particular celebration. If the revellers appeared to have had wings on their feet, then time itself danced even quicker. Clarissa could have sworn that only minutes had passed when the fiddler abruptly halted his playing, right in the middle of Sir Roger De Coverley.

“Midnight,” he said, packing up his violin. “Time to go home. I can’t play for you on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at him defiantly.

“Why ever not? We’re not doing anything wrong.”

“There are those that will tell you otherwise. All this frolicking is sinful on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at her companions.

“Sinful? If innocent pleasure is a sin, then I don’t care if I go to Hell, what say you?”

After some nodding and uncomfortable laughter at her blasphemy, the partygoers unanimously agreed that it would be pleasant to dance a little longer.

The fiddler stomped away angrily, promising to inform Preacher Chevin of their wickedness.  The dancers, fuelled by adrenalin and no small amount of moonshine liquor, merely laughed at him.

Despite the fact that the music had stopped, they made a valiant effort at dancing ‘The Bishop of Chester’s Jig’ and ‘The Collier’s Daughter’ but it was not the same. Just as they thought to give up in disgust and call it a night, a jaunty figure came over the hill brandishing a violin.

“Anyone fancy a dance?” he called brightly.

The revellers could hardly believe their luck. For a fiddler to turn up at such an hour was surely more than chance, but who cared? He wanted to play and they wanted to dance, so where was the harm? Had they noticed that his boots bore an uncanny resemblance to cloven hooves, a pair of small horn-like projections protruded through his cap and that a shower of sparks flew from the neck of the fiddle every time he drew his bow across its strings, they may have been more cautious. Such was their enthusiasm to dance, however, they were blind to all else.

‘The Beau’s Retreat’ and ‘Old Noll’s Jig’ went normally enough. It was only when the fiddler struck up the appropriately named ‘Midnight Ramble’ did the tempo change. Faster and faster the fiddler played and faster and faster the dancers danced. They pranced and gavotted, polkaed and fandangoed all the way from the partying ground to the old swamp that lay on the eastern borders of the Gydynap Hills. As the dance quickened and the dancers tired, a strange thing happened. One by one, they turned to stone, leaving an avenue of petrified sentinels marking the route towards the narrow causeway. By the time the road through the swamp was reached, only Clarissa remained, tirelessly spinning and reeling in time to the music. The causeway is exactly one hundred and seventy six yards long, a tenth of a mile. Clarissa danced at such speed that the fiddler, whose multi-tasking skills left much to be desired, could hardly keep up with her and play at the same time. It took her just forty seconds to cover the distance, end to end. Upon reaching the furthest bank she put her right leg in, put her right leg out and just as she was preparing to shake it all about, missed her footing completely and fell headlong into the swamp. It is sad to relate that poor, twenty-one years old. Clarissa, was sucked into the morass, where she drowned immediately. To look on the bright side, by dying unexpectedly Clarissa at least managed to cheat the fiddler, thereby avoiding the eternal embarrassment of being turned into stone.

Of course, most of the above account is patently untrue. The story of various innocents having some fun on the Sabbath, only to be rendered into stone by Satan, often playing a violin, is a common one in the western world, there to explain the existence of groups of standing stones and unusual rock formations. I have often wondered how these tales would have panned out if the devil had chosen to take up playing the tuba instead of the fiddle. It would have made this whole business of playing until someone danced themselves into a lump of stone a much more ponderous and drawn out enterprise. However, I digress. It is true that there is, indeed, an avenue of largish rocks lining the path to the causeway. It is also true that they look too staged to be natural. All that this means is that they have, at some point, been put there for a purpose. This is where my tale grows dark.

There exists another version of this story, still spoken in anger by the O’Stoat family, close cousins of the now extinct Cockadilly clan. After the party was over and the fiddler had left to report the blasphemous goings-on to the self-appointed Preacher Chevin, a terrible retribution took place. Full of self-righteous indignation and a seething dislike of the O’Stoats, as well as anyone connected with them, Preacher Chevin and a handful of like-minded islanders turned up to teach the party-goers a lesson. With one side fuelled by hatred and the other by alcohol, violence was sure to erupt.  According to the O’Stoats, not one of the dancers was ever seen again. It is thought that Clarissa and her companions were thrown into the swamp. The rocks that marked the road to the causeway, however, appeared overnight and the legend of the devil and the dancers spread rapidly, probably by the Chevins, to cover up the atrocity and strike fear into the hearts of anyone rash enough to seek enjoyment on the Sabbath. If this account is true, then it is clear that we have no need to believe in devils while people like this walk the earth.

In the years following the disappearance of the dancers, tales began to be told of a ghost haunting the far end of the swamp. It was – and indeed, is still – believed that unless you clear the length of the causeway in exactly forty seconds, the wraith of Clarissa Cockadilly will rise from the swamp and demand that you dance with her. If you are fortunate and dance well, she will thank you and you may leave. Resist, however, or dance badly and she will drag you into the stygian depths forever. Such is its reputation, the way through the swamp has long been shunned by most people. Despite this, it has acquired a name. Don’t be fooled by its innocence, however. You most decidedly won’t wish to meet those dancing feet on the avenue I’ve described to you  –  40 Second Street.

Author’s note: There is one tiny fact in all of this that disturbs me disproportionately. In order to cross the causeway (which, you may remember, is exactly a tenth of a mile, or one hundred and seventy six yards long) in forty seconds, you would have to be running at 6.666 miles per hour…

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Above we see the Chevins enjoying their favourite pastime (which is to say, being a mob)

Baking Bad

Regular readers of ‘The Vendetta’ may recall that The Squid and Teapot once experienced some difficult times under the stewardship of one Tobias Thrupp, a most egregious sort of fellow.  Thrupp’s evil nature and eventual downfall is recalled in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’.  To my knowledge, this is the only period in the inn’s long history that its reputation for generosity has  been tarnished. Except for this brief interlude, newcomers to the island have been given board and lodgings in exchange for some basic chores. This arrangement has continued until such times as they were able to make their own way or, as is more likely, disappear without a trace, as so many do on Hopeless, Maine.

Philomena Bucket had been a resident of The Squid and Teapot for two months. Originally, she had been living in a room on the ground floor of the inn but wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible, she asked to be moved to a tiny attic space that boasted a single window that looked out towards the ocean. At least, it would have, had it not been for the thick and ever-present mist that obscured everything. Now and then an inquisitive gnii would nudge against the glass, spilling its soft, warm light into the room. At first Philomena was alarmed by this intrusion but it had not taken her long to come to love these strange and enigmatic creatures.

Philomena had spent her early life on the streets of Cork, making a precarious living sketching anyone who might give her a few pennies for her efforts. After such an existence, Hopeless, bleak as it was, posed few challenges to her. She was given shelter and food – not plentiful but adequate – and no one looked twice at her, for which she was grateful. Her hair and skin were as pale and translucent as winter moonlight. This albinism, which had occasionally been a source of fear and derision, went by unnoticed on Hopeless. People had better things to worry about than the way that others looked. Besides, she was a hard worker who more than earned her keep, and that counted for much.

One of Philomena’s chores was to forage, in the hopes of finding something a little different to excite the palates of the inn’s patrons. On the day that our tale begins she came across a wreck washed up on the rocks. It reminded Philomena of her own recent arrival on the island. She had been a stowaway, the sole survivor of the ill-fated merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’, which had been carrying a cargo of Irish whiskey. Unsurprisingly, this had been enthusiastically liberated from the ship’s hold and safely stored in the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.  Philomena wondered if this latest wreck contained such a treasure and without another thought, scrambled over the slippery rocks to find out. Being light and nimble, it took her no time at all to reach the ship and climb into its hold. To her disappointment, much of what remained of the cargo had been damaged beyond salvaging when the ship had been ripped open.  A dozen stout barrels, however, stacked above the water level, still looked as though they might contain something worth having.

News travels fast on Hopeless, especially when it concerns bounty from the sea. Before long a small procession of islanders could be seen carefully rolling the barrels over the rough coastal path, headed by Philomena who wanted to make sure that at least one of them reached The Squid and Teapot.

There was much rejoicing on the island when it was discovered that the recovered barrels contained rye flour. Although denser than that ground from wheat, it would make a pleasant change from the acorn flour they usually used, made from the acorns dropped by the island’s scanty oaks, or those washed up on the shore. Fortunately, those living on Hopeless have never demanded much in the way of choice or sophistication in their diet. The most exotic dish known on the island is starry-grabby-pie, which should not be confused with the Cornish delicacy, starry-gazey-pie. Starry-grabby-pie is far more appetising, having tentacles sticking out of the pastry, rather than fish heads and tails.

The rye flour was fairly distributed and before long the air was redolent with the intoxicating scent of baking that wafted from almost every home.

That afternoon, Philomena, standing in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, was preparing to make a batch of pies. She had not bothered to look too closely at the contents of the barrels earlier. After all, there was not really that much to see once the initial excitement had passed. Now, however, something disconcerting caught her eye. There were small black flecks in the flour that ought not to be there. She picked some out and examined them closely. They certainly were not mouse or rat droppings, as she had initially thought. She paused. Something in the deepest recesses of her memory stirred, stretched, yawned, scratched its belly and tried to go back to sleep. Philomena, being the woman she was, had no intention of letting it rest until she had remembered whatever it was that was bothering her.

 

It had been a long, tiring day but Philomena could not sleep. Buttoned securely into an industrial-strength, full-length, Victorian nightdress, she lay in her bed in the little attic room, idly watching the gnii floating quietly by outside her window. She smiled to herself in the darkness, reflecting on the way in which time changes everything. Here she lay, three thousand miles from home on the strangest island imaginable. Why, just a few months ago, if she had witnessed these weird but strangely beautiful creatures passing by her bedroom window she would have thought that she was hallucinating… hallucinating! She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. Hallucinating! That was it. A series of gears and cogs shifted in Philomena’s brain and several pennies started to drop. It must have been well past midnight but her earliest childhood memories finally gave up their secrets, providing her with the answers she had been looking for.

 

Doc Willoughby was not accustomed to waking quite so early in the morning. The insistent rapping at his front door, however, was enough to waken the dead (on Hopeless, one does not say these things lightly!) He peered out of his bedroom window to see that the disturber of his slumbers was Wilhelmina Woodfield, spinster of the parish and fully paid-up member of the hypochondriacal society. The Doc opened his window and glared angrily at her.

“Doc, you must help me. My arms and legs are on fire and a colony of woman-eating turnips in ginger wigs are nesting in my tin bath.”

The Doc eyed her wearily.

“Madam, your extremities are decidedly not on fire. As for the turnip infestation, I cannot possibly comment. This is, after all, our beloved Hopeless.”

By now a handful of Doc’s patients had joined Wilhelmina, all complaining of similar symptoms. Percy Painswick claimed that a candy-striped kangaroo has taken up residence in his bed. This was an especially remarkable revelation as Percy had never seen, or even heard of, a kangaroo, candy-striped or otherwise. Further down the street a growing throng of islanders could be seen running wildly around in various states of undress, screaming and gibbering through the morning mist.

“I need to think about this” exclaimed the Doc and slammed his window shut.

An hour or so passed before anyone knocked on his door again. By now, Doc Willoughby was up and dressed.

“Go away,” he shouted, without opening the door. “I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” said a voice. It was Philomena’s. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve seen this before, in Ireland, years ago, when I was a child.”

 

Word soon got around that Doc Willoughby wanted to address those afflicted, summoning them to the courtyard of The Squid and Teapot that afternoon. This was easier said than done, as most of those attending were, by now, exhibiting a certain amount of noisily challenging and eccentric behaviour.

“I have been doing some research into your problem, at no small inconvenience to myself.”            The Doc had to shout to make himself heard over the cacophony. He caught Philomena’s eye and reddened a little.

“With some… ah… minor assistance from Miss Bucket I … that is, we… have come to the conclusion that you are suffering from Ergot poisoning, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The rye-flour that was found yesterday was infected with ergot fungus. It causes hallucinations and a burning sensation in the limbs.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the more lucid sufferers.

“Throw away your flour and eat nothing else that was made from it. Other than that there is nothing you can do. One of two things will then happen. You will survive… or you will die. Horribly, apparently, and in great pain. The good news is that I haven’t eaten any of the blasted stuff myself”

The Doc wandered off, leaving the assembled throng somewhat disappointed. Philomena decided to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Don’t worry,” she advised them. “This malaise will pass. You will all be fine. Just remember, these strange things you are seeing are just hallucinations. Go up and touch them and they will pop like a bubble.”

Philomena was, of course, perfectly correct. Once the ergot had done its work and the remainder of the flour was safely disposed of, tossed into the depths of the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole in the Night-Soil Man’s garden, all was well and there were almost no fatalities. Almost…

If you have read the tale ‘Bog Oak and Brass’ you will remember that the sinkhole was created centuries earlier, following a battle between the necromancer, T’Abram Spitch and a demon that he had inadvertently and magically freed from a sealed chest. The demon was a bizarre looking creature with the head of a lion, no body and five legs radiating from its head. These legs had cloven hooves and revolved like a Catherine wheel around the head, which remained static. A quick perusal of a 16th century grimoire – still available in various forms – snappily titled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’ by Johann Weyer, will tell you that the demon’s name was and indeed, still is, Buer. As scary things go, Buer sounds far-fetched, even by Hopeless standards. This is exactly what Percy Painswick thought. Whether Buer had been disturbed by the flour barrels being hurled into the sinkhole or just paying a social call, I have no idea but he was lurking in all his demonic glory when Percy passed by.

Taking Philomena’s advice to heart, Percy strode boldly up to, what he imagined to be, his latest hallucination and tugged its leonine mane with some force, then tweaked the demon’s nose. For a second Baur was a little taken aback – but only for a second. Strangely, since then, no one has seen hair nor hide of Percy.

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Scents and Sensibility

Philomena Bucket, having fled Ireland, had endured a month cooped up in the hold of the merchant ship Hetty Pegler’, with cotton pollen irritating her nose and eyes. Following the sudden death of the kindly ship’s captain, she had been slandered as a witch and a harbinger of ill-luck by the first mate of the doomed vessel and now, as its sole survivor, she had reached the island of Hopeless, Maine. Within an hour of setting foot on relatively dry land, however, she found her leg to be in the vice-like grip of something that deigned only to show, so far, a single maliciously powerful, grey-green tentacle. As it dragged her towards its dark lair amid the rocks, Philomena had little doubt that such an unsettling extremity could only belong to a creature who was fully equipped to enjoy a robust and unfussy carnivorous diet.

Suddenly the darkness deepened as a strange, indistinct shape blocked out the meagre moonlight. As the figure drew nearer, she could see that it was that of a burly man with a battered hat and a huge bucket strapped to his back.

Without the newcomer having to say a word, or raise the stick that he was carrying, the suckered tentacle loosened its grip around Philomena’s leg and slithered silently and sullenly into the shadow of the rocks.

‘‘Are you alright ma’am? Sorry’’

‘‘I’m fine, thank you”, she affirmed, “Though the old leg’s a bit on the sore side.”

She paused. “Why did you say sorry?” she asked.

“The smell. Sorry about the smell.”

“Ah. Not a problem.”

It had been such a long time since her olfactory functions had ground to a halt that Philomena had quite forgotten that she had no sense of smell. She could only assume that her saviour had been referring to some slight body odour or even – and Philomena’s pale cheeks flushed ever so slightly pink at the thought – that he was apologising for having inadvertently passed a little noxious gas just before they met.

“You really don’t mind?” even in this dim light Philomena could see the puzzlement on the man’s face.

“No, not at all.”

The Night-Soil Man shook his head in disbelief, tempered with no small degree of pleasure.

For those who have never encountered the Night-Soil Man, I should explain. It is his task to go about by night, servicing the cesspools, privies and earth closets of the inhabitants of Hopeless. It is a lonely occupation, executed with dignity and discretion by one who has been bred to the life. The Night-Soil Man is invariably recruited, as a young boy, from the orphanage. He serves an apprenticeship and when his master eventually succumbs, often sooner rather than later, to the strains and perils of his trade, the apprentice takes over. Because of the perennial stench that surrounds him, the Night-Soil Man is destined to be virtually friendless and definitely celibate for all of his days. The one advantage, however, to this seemingly dreadful curse, is that every creature on the island, however nightmarish, will give him a wide berth.

“Would you be knowing somewhere where I can dry me dress off and get some sleep?” she asked, hesitantly.

“There’s always The Squid, or The Crow,” said her companion, stroking his chin with a grimy hand.

Philomena was confused. The squid or the crow? What good were squids and crows if you wanted your clothes drying?

The Night-Soil Man saw the look on her face and assumed she had no wish to go to either establishment.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “I’m going to be working for hours yet. I’ll show you where I live, it’s not far from here, and you can sort yourself out there. In private, like.”

Fifteen minutes later Philomena found herself in the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, drying her dress in front of the fire, while he continued on his rounds. For reasons he could not fathom he found himself to be somewhat distracted by thoughts of this pale stranger who had wandered into his life.

When he returned home, just before dawn the following morning, the Night-Soil Man found Philomena curled up in his armchair, snoring gently. Tenderly he draped a rug over her sleeping form and tiptoed out to the kitchen to make breakfast. He was not able to get that sweet, pale face out of his mind. There had suddenly manifested a strange sensation deep in the pit of his stomach, a sensation for which he had no explanation – unless, of course, it was the Starry-Grabby Pie that he had had for supper.

When Philomena awoke, some hours later, the Night-Soil Man offered to take her to ‘The Squid and Teapot’, an inn famed for its generosity towards newcomers to the island. Philomena would be safe there, until she found alternative accommodation or – as was so often the case – disappeared without a trace.

As they walked along the cobbled road to the hostelry affectionately known locally as simply ‘The Squid’ Philomena was somewhat alarmed to see anyone they encountered shrink back from them, covering their mouths and noses. As an albino she had suffered more than her share of discrimination over the years, but the people of Hopeless seemed extreme in their reaction. Standing in the courtyard of ‘The Squid’ the Night-Soil Man told her that he could not go any further.

“The landlord and his wife are good people – they’ll give you room and board for as long as it takes. Help as much as you can and they will ask for no other payment.”

Philomena thanked him and he watched wistfully as she disappeared through the stout oak doors of the inn.

Everything happened exactly as the Night Soil Man had predicted. Philomena was granted full board in a comfortable little room on the ground floor of the inn, in exchange for helping out with cooking, cleaning and other chores. After her experiences on the road, she was a little surprised to find that she received no hostile stares within its confines.

Each morning Philomena would find that a posy of tiny flowers had been left overnight and placed upon her windowsill. These cannot be called wild flowers as such; wild flowers, on Hopeless, are really wild. They attack people, run around on limb-like roots and generally cause havoc. No – the flowers on Philomena’s windowsill were of the tame variety, flowers that had struggled up through the unforgiving terrain of this most inhospitable island. She had little doubt who had left them.

She developed the habit of getting up early and making her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, catching him just as he reached home at the end of his rounds. They would exchange news and gossip, laughing like children beneath the greasy, fog-bound skies of what passed as Springtime on Hopeless, Maine. As the days slipped by, a gentle, platonic love blossomed between the two. They would often sit in silence for hours, the tips of their fingers barely touching, each innocently enjoying the simple presence of the other.

It was maybe two weeks after Philomena first reached Hopeless that the landlord of ‘The Squid’ declared a state of emergency. The inn’s supply of alcohol was running dangerously low. It was only then that she remembered that the ‘Hetty Pegler’ had been carrying a consignment of Irish whiskey. If the ship had not disappeared completely, maybe it was still salvageable.

Philomena, along with a small but enthusiastic band of ‘Squid and Teapot’ regulars, made their way to the cove in which the wreck still lay. She was lying considerably deeper in the water than Philomena remembered. She hoped that liberating the whiskey would not be too arduous a task.  The party set to and before long, a reassuringly large number of casks were sitting on the rocks. Besides these, they had managed to salvage a veritable treasure-trove of pots and pans, coils of rope, ink, paper, furniture, cutlery and crockery. All this had been carefully stacked, safely out reach of the encroaching sea, which was becoming increasingly rough, threatening to sink the ‘Hetty Pegler’ for good.

“Just one more look around before she goes down,” yelled Philomena to her companions on the shore. Despite their declaring that they had collected enough and further trips would be dangerous, she ignored their protestations and returned to the ship for one last foray.  Waves had begun to break over the bows before she reappeared on the sloping deck, brandishing a bottle of rum and a china chamber-pot, both of which she raised above her head in triumph.  As she did so, the wreck gave an awful groan, like the death-rattle of some great beast. It lurched and, with little warning, rapidly slid beneath the waves taking Philomena with it. The watchers on the shore could only stare helpless as Philomena disappeared and the rum and chamber-pot flew into the air.

Luckily Philomena managed to escape the sinking ship before it had chance to drag her beneath its shuddering bulk.  All the same, she was no swimmer and the icy salt water was in her eyes, her throat and up her nose. There was seaweed – if seaweed it was – wrapping itself around her legs and tugging her to certain doom. She flayed wildly, desperate for life, not wanting to die just yet… or anytime soon. As if in answer to her unspoken prayers, she felt strong arms tugging at her, lifting her from the angry ocean. The salvage party had turned into a rescue party.

Philomena sat in front of a roaring fire in the snug of ‘The Squid and Teapot,’ drinking a bracing concoction of hot water and whiskey. The excursion to the wreck had been a great success and despite her last, somewhat foolhardy actions, she had become the toast of the island – but something was different. Philomena could not pinpoint exactly what it was but something in her life had changed.

The next morning, she made her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, as usual.  She smiled to herself; it was her turn to give him a present. During the previous evening she had taken one of the sheets of paper, recently retrieved from the wreckage, and sketched, from memory, his portrait. Philomena, it must be said, was an accomplished artist and had supported herself – albeit frugally – drawing and painting for some of the wealthier citizens of Cork, who unwittingly bore within them the spirit of the Medici.

The Night-Soil man came to greet her at the door, smiling broadly but his smile froze when he saw her reaction. She had stopped abruptly, a startled look upon her pallid countenance. She gagged, putting her arm to her mouth. If it had been possible for her face to have blanched even more, then it would have.

“It’s okay,” he said sadly, his head bent in despair. “It’s not your fault. I understand.”

She could not open her mouth to speak, for fear of retching, but the sorrow in her eyes said it all.

She reached out and stretching her arm to its full length, offered him the sketch that she had so lovingly made. He took it from her and for one last, brief time their fingertips touched.

“I love you,” he said, softly, tears rolling down his cheeks.

She looked at him with brimming eyes, then turned and fled into the grey morning, uncontrollable sobs racking her frail body.

The Night-Soil Man returned to his cottage, his heart heavy. His tears had smudged the picture slightly but it did not matter. Written in neat, rounded letters at the bottom of the page were five priceless words that he would treasure forever.

‘With all my love – Philomena’

 

“It’s quite simple,” pronounced Doc Willoughby, joyfully sampling a generous mouthful of the whiskey that Philomena had brought him.

“You were suffering with anosmia. Loss of smell. Almost certainly to do with the pollen stuck up your nose.”

“But how…?” she started to ask a question but Doc, who never missed an opportunity to flaunt the limited knowledge that he possessed, cut her short.

“One of the remedies is to flush the nasal passages with salt water, which you did in some style, may I say.”

Philomena looked down sadly. Anosmia. Oh, how she wished she still had anosmia.

“Can I reverse the process?” she asked, hopefully.

The Doc frowned. Why would she want to?

“We don’t get troubled by too much pollen on Hopeless” he shrugged, pouring himself another drink.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Philomena Bucket

 

Philomena Bucket had found it easy to stow away aboard the merchant vessel Hetty Pegler’, as she lay anchored in the Coal Quay of Cork. It had been almost as easy as Philomena’s decision to leave Ireland for good and seek fame and fortune as an artist in the United States of America.  That, unfortunately, was where ‘easy’ came to an abrupt halt. It took just three days for her to be discovered. Racked by hunger and confident, though misguided, in her belief that the ship would be deserted in the early hours, Philomena crept on all-fours from her hiding place in the hold, only to come face to face, or rather, face to knees, with the first mate, who was attending to his duties as middle-watchman.  It took very little time for Philomena to learn that here was a man who had little room for freeloaders on the ship and would happily have thrown her overboard. Fortunately, however, his respect for the chain of command overcame his natural instincts.

Captain Longdown was cut from a different cloth to his second-in-command. He had been at sea for forty years, had a weak heart and really did not want any more difficulty than was avoidable. To the first mate’s barely concealed disgust, he treated the waif-like creature, unceremoniously hauled before him, with great leniency. It was tricky enough keeping his crew in order at the best of times, without having this young woman aboard. Despite her bone-white pallor and long, snowy tresses, he could see that standing before him was a beauty, albeit an odd one, who could cause more than her fair share of trouble if left to wander about his ship.

“You can get off at the first landfall,” he said, not unkindly. “In the meantime, please keep out of the way.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Just go back into the hold, or wherever it was that you were hiding. I’ll get food brought down to you.”

Not wishing to advertise the presence of the strangely attractive stowaway, the captain entrusted the task of conveying her meals to the less-than-amused first mate, who fumed quietly. It was bad enough for a stowaway to be aboard, but for him, second only to the captain in rank, having to wait upon her was untenable.

From Philomena’s point of view, things were not too bad. She was enjoying a better quality of food and shelter than she had ever known. Staying out of sight was a small price to pay. The only fly in the ointment was a sudden attack of hay fever, which, in this enclosed space and hundreds of miles from the nearest land, puzzled her. The truth was that ‘Hetty Pegler ‘ had previously conveyed a cargo of raw cotton from Virginia, the spores of which still stubbornly fluttered around the rotund casks of Irish whiskey now gracing the hold. The result was that her previously pink, albino eyes were now quite red and her sense of smell seemed to have abandoned her altogether.

It was fully three weeks into the voyage that things started to go awry. A violent storm blew up from nowhere, mercilessly lashing the merchant ship and sweeping a young seaman overboard. For two hectic days the storm refused to abate. A ripped section of the foresail came free from the gaskets. It took four men to climb the rigging to secure the sail but only three returned. The other fell to his death, sprawled like a stringless puppet upon the deck. When, at last, the depleted crew breathed a weary sigh of relief as the tempest eventually blew itself out, an extra rum ration was distributed. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had been blown far off course and it was not many days later, picking their way gingerly through the many islands peppering the coast of Maine, that the Captain Longdown, succumbing to his heart condition, watched the sun sink over the yardarm for the last time and quietly died. Command of ‘Hetty Pegler’ passed to the first mate, a man, we have already learned, not known for his tender heart.

 

The captain’s body was still cooling when the recently promoted first mate dragged Philomena up on to the deck. Stunned and blinking in the sunlight, she winced as he grasped her roughly by the wrist.

“Here is the cause of all of our troubles. This albino witch has cursed this voyage and all the time your oh-so-tender-hearted captain just stood by and let her do it.”

The superstitious crew muttered angrily as they saw, for the first time, the pale, fragile beauty being paraded, humiliatingly, before them.

“Even now she casts some sort of spell. Look at the fog curling up around us. This is not natural.”

The sailors looked and had to agree that the thick mist that had suddenly engulfed them was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced. Its murky tendrils, sinuous and smoky, curled over the ship’s sides, slithering up the masts and coldly caressing their legs. One could, indeed, be forgiven for believing it to be an enchantment, for the crew, to a man, stared in absolute silence, totally mesmerized by the ghostly fog. They quite forgot that their ship, now almost becalmed, was quietly inching forward through dark and hazardous waters. Only when the agonised scream of tortured timbers being reduced to matchwood shattered their reverie, did they realise that they had hit a submerged reef. The ‘Hetty Pegler’ was sinking.

“Abandon ship. Get to the lifeboats” yelled the mate, quite unnecessarily as it happened; the self-same thought had occurred to everyone else.

Philomena suddenly found herself alone, standing on the deck of a doomed ship. She could just make out the blurred forms of the retreating lifeboats. Despite the fact that everyone else had apparently escaped unscathed, there seemed to be an inexplicable amount of noise and commotion coming from their general direction. Terrified screams and huge splashes, as if a large object was being smashed to a thousand pieces by an even larger object, filled her ears. She strained her eyes, still sore from the hay fever, to see through the creeping fog and ascertain what, exactly, might be causing such a disturbance. Mercifully, they failed her and she was spared the spectacle of a gaping beak and long, thick tentacles writhing from the churning ocean, savagely ripping apart the fleeing lifeboats and their gibbering occupants.

It was less than a minute later that the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’ came to an abrupt halt, with her wooden walls still intact, by and large, and bobbing about just above the waterline. Philomena’s feet were barely damp. She gazed about her with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The ship appeared to have run aground on an island. Had the crew known how close they were to safety and not acted so hastily, they could have reached the shore with ease. Why, there were even lit candles, tiny beacons that would have guided them in. It was almost as though they were expected. She could not help but notice other lights, too. They seemed to be moving, as if with a purpose, yet high in the sky, barely discernible through the murky air. Wading thigh-deep through the chilly waters, Philomena wondered to herself how such a thing might be done but immediately dismissed the question from her mind, as the more pressing problem of getting dry and finding shelter occupied her. Stepping on to terra firma, she sneezed violently three times. Despite this, the cotton pollen that had insinuated itself deep into her nasal passages was determined not to move.

Within the hour, night had fallen and a weak, sickly moon peered through the misty sky. Philomena had made slow progress. She found herself walking a dark and rocky path that she fervently hoped led somewhere. Anywhere that had four walls – three walls, even – and a roof of some sort, would suffice. She was frozen. Her wet dress clung heavily to her pale legs and seemed to be getting heavier by the second. It was almost as if something was trying to drag her to the ground. She looked down and stifled a small squeal. Something was!

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine, Philomena Bucket.

To be continued…

 

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

New England Gothic

Hello people! (and others)

Many years ago, when Nimue and I started this whole Hopeless, Maine thing, Nimue wrote two books that went along with the timeline of The Gathering.  The first of these two books was New England Gothic, which takes place before book one and gives a lot of background on Annamarie and her earlier life (Yes. Those of you who have read Sinners will be having feels at this point) NEG is a bloody wonderful strange tale and we thought we’d bring it and the other prose book out along with the graphic novels, lavishly illustrated, of course. Well, this was before we learned a lot of things about the publishing industry (some of which we would rather not know, but that’s a long story for another time) We do plan to release both of these books in PDF form in the near future on the same Etsy site that the game is on. Then, hopefully, later there will be the fully illustrated print version. In the meantime, you can get New England Gothic in installments by pledging to Nimue’s Patreon!

Hoping, as always, this finds you well, inspired and thriving.

Hopeless Friendship

The sloop drifted, dull brown timbers on grey waves. Its sails were rags, the portholes in the little forward cabin were dark. No hands held the wheel. And yet, it seemed to holding some sort of course. Not entirely direct and not swift, but with the cresting of each wave it drew slowly closer to Hopeless and the low earth cliff that lay to be devoured by the hungry sea.

Standing on the rank grass at the cliff edge was the pilgrim. He watched the sloop coldly. He did everything coldly these days. The warmth of life had left him. It was his own fault, he had thought that he understood the nature of the world and had been wrong. Now he was stranded between life and death and only his quest for the light at the end of the world could sustain him.

Friendship, he thought, was a peculiar name for a boat. Friendship was about warmth and laughter and human contact. There was, in his experience, little warmth or human contact with a boat. Cold loneliness had been his experience.

And every journey had to be paid for.

The ship of the weird sisters had demanded a sword in payment. The Demeter had taken every life aboard, and who knows what price the crew and passengers of the Marie Celeste had paid.

The pilgrim, in life, had always been in favour of payment in advance. This was no exception, and as he watched the boat approaching he found his thoughts driven back to another boat, on a different sea.

It had been the shortest day of winter, when the pilgrim had chartered passage on an open boat (known as a Billy Boy) from the Humber to Boston. The first Boston that is, the one in England. They had set off in the early evening from the old whaling quay at Hull and followed the coast south. It was full dark when they reached the Boston Deeps and the pilgrim began the ritual that was the true purpose of the journey. Singing loudly and joyfully, he praised the oceans and cast flowers upon the water. He spoke in rhymes of his love of the wind and water. With tears of passion in his eyes, he cried out in ecstasy.

By the time they reached the Haven, he was spent. Looking out across the marshes, to the place of the skraeings, he saw lights fly up into the sky amid strange guttural howls. The pilgrim shuddered, wondering if his gifts were not enough. But then a new sound drifted across the water. A voice, high and keen, sang an old song of the landsman who kept his faith and his promises and the pilgrim knew that his offerings had been accepted.

Now, so many years later and hundreds of miles away, the pilgrim waited for his reward. No mighty clipper, no warship, no royal barge would do for him. But instead the simple boat of a fisherman, a sloop called Friendship. It was a promise honoured, and the first spark of hope he had felt for many long days and nights.

The sloop bumped against the cliff, and the pilgrim stepped aboard…

Story by Jim Snee– art by Tom Bown

The Prospect of Joy

 

Lady Alison Tiffany Hempton Addleby Pettigrew had a very long name, very long head of hair, two very long legs, and came from a very long line of somewhat eccentric English explorers and adventurers. Her grandfather, Allan Tiffany Addleby Pettigrew, had crossed the artic by balloon, and one of her distant ancestors, one Wilfred Addleby Pettigrew, had discovered the fabled Isle of Black. (Which subsequently disappeared in a rupture of the ocean floor sometime in the Sixteenth Century.) And although Alison shared her surname with her illustrious, intrepid and inspired ancestors, there was one important aspect about her that was thoroughly different – her sex. She was the first of the Tiffany Hempton Addleby Pettigrew women to take up exploring. She was a very determined young lady, and despite it being unfashionable and ill-advised, she was heroically determined to outdo all her masculine predecessors, or at the very least, equal their dauntingly impressive list of achievements.

To this end, she spent her formative years pursuing all those pursuits that admirable, well- prepared, professional explorers should. She learnt about geography, astronomy, navigation, survival, baritsu, fencing, horse riding, negotiation and more. She mastered several languages from both European and Eastern cultures, and a number of classical writing systems. She also kept herself physically fit, through hill-walking, cycling and workouts with dumbbells, medicine balls and a fitness instructor named Henry. (She always smiled when she mentioned him – I’m still not sure why).

As you might imagine, all this was wildly unusual for a lady in society, and it was regularly remarked upon with tuts being muttered almost constantly when she occasionally mingled with the country’s social set. Partly because of this, but mostly because she had little time for her fellows, she withdrew early on and kept herself to herself. This was easy enough to accomplish, given that she lived in a large mansion in the English countryside surrounded by servants, landscaped grounds and a certain air of mystery.

As I was her nephew and perpetually intrigued by this “mad” and possibly dangerous lady, I would visit her often. I found her neither mad nor unfriendly; she insisted I called her Auntie Ally, which amused her – probably because she considered herself far too young to be an auntie. (Her brother – my father – was considerably older than she and had married, and then fathered, young).

She liked to tell me of all the activities she had planned, the trips she had been on, the strange people she had encountered and the effective use of a garotte. I was captivated by her.

One hot June day, she told me of the strange rumours she had heard of a mysterious island. No-one was quite sure where it was, but the few scattered accounts she had managed to put together had indicated three things. Firstly, that it was always surrounded by a strange mist. Secondly, it seemed that there were a handful of tales of people and ships disappearing near the Island – but remarkedly – not one of anyone actually returning. Thirdly, a solitary scrap of parchment from a fifteenth-century, fire-damaged collection of

books briefly mentioned a mist-covered island and then one other discernible word had been shakily scrawled in the margin; “Hopeless”.

Whether this was a comment on the search for the Island, the chances of returning from it, or more poetically perhaps, the name of the Island, Auntie Ally really didn’t know. But she became irrevocably intrigued by the possibility of its actual, physical existence.

She was planning an expedition she told me. “Can I come?” I asked.
“No” was the simple, but firm reply.

And that was that.

I was at college by this time and at a crucial stage of my education. So, most unfortunately, it was quite a while before I could find the time to visit again, and by that time Auntie Ally’s disappearance was in all the newsheets.

The following are the collected accounts from her personal papers, recovered from her exploratory vessel. I have omitted the more routine entries and those of a personal nature.

–– •◊• ––

I, Alison Tiffany Hempton Addleby Pettigrew, depart now, on a great adventure. I do so in the spirit of my many illustrious forefathers and the greats of exploration; Columbus, Polo, da Gama and others of their ilk. I would be modest – but modesty has no part in a great exploration; I have studied them all and I know that only through a steadfast will and an iron determination did they manage to succeed in their endeavours.

And so I set off now, my quest fixed firmly in my mind. I was fortunate that a relative owned a number of merchant ships, and a suitable vessel was hired for the conveyance of my very own transport of delight – the submersible, The Prospect of Joy. It had taken three years to build and was designed by the finest submarine builder in Europe – monsieur “Eau” Cousteau. Whilst I had supervised its construction at Chatham and had insisted on some modifications of my own, I cannot claim responsibility for its magnificence. And although it was a one-woman vessel, it was quite large – for I had ensured that plenty of fuel and food could be stored on board. It incorporated a number of truly revolutionary devices – the most impressive of which, was the atmosphere recycling unit – this patented and highly secret apparatus cleaned the air and allowed the submarine to stay in its natural environment under the water for weeks at a time. I am looking forward to seeing if it’s endurance would be matched by its captain. For in maritime tradition I was now Captain Pettigrew – yes, that has a certain ring to it – almost heroic I think!

–– •◊• ––

We have been asea for many days now – I have finally become accustomed to the roll of the ship and the nature of the changing seas. The Captain tells me we are about halfway. Of

course, he doesn’t know exactly what we are halfway to – he only has a longitude and a latitude to work with. Indeed, there may well be nothing there, but the clues I have pieced together point to that spot if they point anywhere at all.

Why a submarine I hear you ask? After all, it would surely be easier to discover an island in a boat? Well, the tales I read spoke of many shipwrecks, some quite ancient, and I wanted to see if I could find these and use the submarine’s equipment to recover whatever treasure was still extant. And the number of shipwrecks suggested treacherous waters for a surface vessel, and likely hostile natives – it was a matter of record that savages in war canoes had caused the fateful end of many a sea-going expedition. I shiver now, even to think of it – tall, strong, muscular, dark-skinned natives attacking the ships and dragging the helpless passengers into their canoes and then doing who knows what to them, whilst fires rage, native drums beat and strange substances are inhaled. I often lie awake at night thinking of it…

A submarine, on the other hand, may well be able to investigate the seas around the island whilst remaining undetected by local miscreants. And there was yet another reason – the sketchy accounts I had read spoke of strange sea creatures like none seen anywhere else on God’s Earth. Perhaps I could become the first to discover a new species – to document them and classify them. I must admit, the prospect filled me with an almost sensual feeling of anticipation. But the final reason I chose a submarine was simply childish fun – travelling under the water like Verne’s Captain Nemo would be immensely exciting!

–– •◊• ––

Finally, oh finally, we are here. As much as an empty patch of ocean can be a here. There is nothing on the Captain’s charts. I am suddenly reminded of Melville’s Moby Dick; “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” But, there is a curtain of mist in front of us – halfway to the horizon. The Captain has become quite agitated and is insisting we turn back. “There is nothing here!” he protests – but I assure him, the mist is the sign that I have been seeking. He refuses to lower the submersible into the water citing my womanly frailty and delicate beauty – why, I do believe he is sweet on me! I remind him of his contract, the money accorded to his account and afford him a kiss on the cheek and with that he orders his men to do the work whilst hiding his blushing cheeks from them.

–– •◊• ––

At last, it is time and I climb down, through the hatch and into my new temporary home, waving cheerily to the assorted sailors watching bemusedly from the rail. I reduce the buoyancy, throw the lever to disconnect the cradle and drift off into the unknown – free of all restraint and feeling a truly unique freedom to explore.

–– •◊• ––

It’s the end of the first day – a routine day. I have been spending most of it ensuring I was fully familiar with all the submarine’s systems, equipment, layout and living arrangements. It goes without saying that I had trained for this – I am not a foolish person, and proper planning was a topic close to my heart, but truly nothing can prepare you for an actual expedition – no matter the circumstance or mode of transport. I surfaced to signal to the ship that had so recently been my home and that I had now left a short distance behind – letting the captain know I was fine and everything was as expected. I took the opportunity to prepare a simple meal and sat carefully on the deck of the Prospect to eat it under the darkening sky. Later, I submerged, anchored the vessel in the currently placid depths and repaired to my cosy berth.

–– •◊• ––

Today, I had planned to skirt the mist covered area – looking for any signs on the ocean floor or in the undersea fauna and maritime life that the environment was changing and an island might be nearby. I rose early and manoeuvred my craft to run parallel with the edge of the mist. And here was my first surprise, the water in the distance was noticeably darker than that I was currently travelling through. Whilst ahead of me the visibility was good – here a shoal of small fish, there a solitary squid, below some modest coral; to my right side – starboard if you will – there was only an inky black greenness with occasional swirls of lighter grey-green water. The difference was striking.

–– •◊• ––

I had travelled around the misty area for three days, and I hadn’t been able to discern a shape to my path. By always keeping the mist on my right, I imagined I would circumnavigate the area in two days at most – given the lack of any landmass on the charts of the area, any island would surely have to be correspondingly small.

–– •◊• ––

It is now the fourth day of my trip around the island – for I am now convinced that an island does indeed lie at the centre of the mist, although, truth be told, I cannot place a finger on why I feel that so strongly. Navigation has proved difficult. At first, I thought only to circle the area of mist – feeling sure that I would return to the start and find the ship waiting for me. And although I have steadfastly kept the mist on my right, I have not returned to the ship’s position, or if I have, then the ship is no longer there. Perhaps an emergency has compelled them to return to the nearest port. I was not worried, the ship’s captain was beguiled enough to return for me, I had plenty of supplies, and if I was in real trouble, there was always the Island…

–– •◊• ––

Waking up this morning I found to my astonishment that the misty area was now to my left. I checked my instruments, but there were no signs that my little underwater ship had been turned around in the night. (My compass had long since proved useless – which would help to explain why so many vessels ran aground in this area). I resolved to surface that evening and check the stars.

I had been inching closer to the edge of the darker waters and occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a mast or a fragment of broken hull. Indeed as I am writing this, I can espy a piece of rudder just visible in the murk. It seems I would have to leave the safety of the clearer waters and venture beyond if I wanted to seek out ancient treasure. I would not be long – just a quick dip in. But I probably shouldn’t, something there is not quite right.

–– •◊• ––

Night-time – I have surfaced, but the night sky is full of constellations I do not recognise. Admittedly, there are wisps of cloud – or is it mist? – obscuring parts of the sky. I tried to force the stars into shapes I knew – but they did not oblige. I could not explain this, and I was struggling with it, but then – The Plough! Yes – a constellation I recognised – the first I learnt as a child. I hung on to this, despite the lack of other signs, I let the familiarity of the Plough reassure me, and I retired to my berth and slept.

–– •◊• ––

In the morning I realised that I still did not know where I was exactly. It was strange – part of me found that disconcerting – almost frightening, and yet a part of me found it exciting, after all, I could always land on the island and gain directions. Hopefully it will not come to that.

–– •◊• ––

There were things moving in the dark. Curious things. Strange things. There would be a flash of serrated fin or a brief sighting of a split tail, and even now – a dark mass, which as it came closer, was revealed to be hundreds of small fish I think. Yes, fish. Let’s say fish. I was very close to the dark water now, and as the fish turned I saw a rippling glitter which I thought most beautiful. That was, until I realised that it was hundreds of sets of wildly angled teeth that caused the effect. I wanted to see more – to know more. They looked dangerous. But you must take a risk to learn, must you not? Surely the risk is too great? But science! I should venture in for science. No, no, I should be cautious, history tells us that many an expedition failed through rash decisions.

–– •◊• ––

I feel I must learn more, the tantalising impressions of wrecks and strange, odd, well, weird really, marine life seem to be exerting a strange pull on my intellectual self, my curious self. I was suddenly reminded of a cat one of the servants had, many years past. It was forever chasing and catching frogs, and one day it had decided to investigate the well in an exploration that did not end favourably for the poor cat. Yes, my feeling self is ill at ease in these waters. I sense a sadness, a foreboding, a dark presence. But that’s just nonsense. I must investigate – after all, I’ve come all this way…

–– •◊• ––

I realise I have lost all track of the days that have elapsed since I launched from the ship, I can’t even bring myself to surface to gauge the time of day. The Prospect of Joy is touching the darker waters now on the starboard side, creating weird little eddies in the murky wall of water. Water which even seems physically different, exerting a greater drag on that side of my craft, so I am having to compensate in the trim and the heading to keep the Prospect from spinning around. I am strangely torn – half wanting to end the suspense and sink into the velvet green black darkness, half wanting to run away. Although, there is precious little space in the submersible to get very far on foot.

–– •◊• ––

I have not slept well. Strange dreams have been visited upon me and haunt my waking hours too. I am not a religious person, but I found myself praying last night. Praying. Preying. Preying on my mind.

I need to pull my self together and be the great explorer that is my destiny… or leave. Yes, I must leave. I don’t want to be a cat. My mind feels so woolly – what is wrong with me?

Leave, immediately….
…Or soon at the very least…

…But not before I examine, capture, erm… take a sample of the water, it is in my head I think, therefore I am Ishmael. Sorry? Who said that?

Is it too late? Can I still go? In. Out. Where is my hat?
Onwards. Away. To the Island or to my home? Where was my home?

The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. I must anchor, go full speed, dive, surface. Swim, relax. Oh – I just don’t know anymore? So difficult to think. In two minds. To decide. Today. Too much. I must get a grip. A moment of clarity…

…So can I escape?

Or is it hopeless?

–– •◊• ––
That was the last entry in my Aunt Ally’s notebook.

At around the same time, I had received word she was missing, and immediately mobilised the family’s resources to find her. There was no trace of the boat that had given her submarine a ride, but by chance, they had encountered another ship the day before my aunt had launched into the sea, so we managed to determine a start point for our search.

After three days we found The Prospect of Joy. It was bobbing on the surface just in front of a wall of mist. I was a most superstitious person, and so arranged to have the vessel grappled from a distance and then reeled in. Once we had lifted it on board I wrenched open the hatch, expecting the worst. And the worst was what I found.

At this point, you may be forgiven for imagining that we found a ravaged body, some inhuman horror, or no body at all. But what we found was far worse.

Aunt Ally was lying in her berth – apparently asleep, the picture of peacefulness, not a mark upon her. We brought her out and laid her on the cot in the Captain’s cabin. It was a while, but eventually, she opened her eyes and I breathed a sigh of relief. That feeling quickly drained from me and became deep dismay as she turned to look at me. Her face was entirely blank, her eyes devoid of the normal human spark. She sat up and we fed her, but she said not a word.

It has been six months since that fateful rescue, and Alison’s condition hasn’t changed. She breathes, eats, sleeps – the basic movements of life, but there seems to be no-one there. I cannot look her in the eye – the emptiness chills my soul. Her body is physically present – but there is no Aunt Ally – she is simply not at home.

Having read her account and being close enough to that mist to feels it’s power, I have my own fanciful ideas of what has happened. I am no scientist, and I fear if I fully state my thoughts out loud I would be laughed at. But even so, I will say that I just have this feeling that Aunt Ally was left behind that day we rescued her. Where she is, I do not know. What form she now takes, I can only fantasise.

I am having The Prospect of Joy refitted to my own design – for I am resolved one day to return and search for her – no matter the personal cost.

But, whatever has happened to her, I just pray it’s not Hopeless.

Written by Keith Errington who has joined us on the island for the first time with this fine piece. (we hope he will return as soon as may be)

Art-Tom Brown

Scilly Point

As has been mentioned previously in ‘The Vendetta’, towards the close of the nineteenth century, two Norwegian-born Americans, Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, successfully rowed across the Atlantic. Setting off from New York they made landfall on The Isles of Scilly, just fifty five days later.

Although the achievement was not widely reported, the news eventually reached Hopeless, Maine some fifteen years after the event, via a large piece of flotsam. This was washed ashore in the shape of a tea chest, in which a few old newspapers had been unsuccessfully used to protect some rather expensive crockery.

 

There are several families living on Hopeless who are able to trace their ancestry back for more than nine centuries. These are the descendants of British slaves, transported here when Vikings settled on the island. At some point, in the last two hundred years, one such family, who had for generations been known as Mearthelinga, updated their name to Marling. While the name Marling is far easier to pronounce and spell than Mearthelinga, Mr. Cyril Marling always regretted his ancestors’ decision. Instead of some proud Anglo-Saxon moniker that might have shaped his destiny in a completely different way, he had been gifted, instead, with a name that reminded him of a fish. Admittedly, a marlin tends to be a large and somewhat formidable creature but when all is said and done, it is still a fish. Then there was the matter of his first name….

Throughout his life Mr. Marling had found that to be called ‘Cyril’ had always been something of a bully-magnet. It somehow indicated its bearer to be mild-mannered, studious and bespectacled, although Cyril Marling was none of these things. And so, when his sons were born, he turned a deaf ear to his wife’s protestations and decided that they would be given names to live up to. His boys would proudly bear the appellations of great explorers, then maybe they could make their mark upon the world.  Sadly, like so many others on Hopeless, Mr and Mrs Marling disappeared under mysterious circumstances before they had chance to see their boys grow up.

It was, therefore, the dismal fate of little Humboldt Marling and his younger brother, Magellan, to one day find their young selves languishing in the boys’ dormitory of the Pallid Rock Orphanage.

 

Unsurprisingly, the Marling boys fared no better with the bullies than had their father. What Cyril had failed to realise was that bullies the world over will latch on to whatever is available in order to bestow pain and derision upon their victims – and let’s face it, the names Humboldt and Magellan are quite substantial somethings upon which to latch. It is little wonder, therefore, that the boys looked only to each other for companionship, eventually becoming painfully and resolutely reclusive. As soon as they were old enough to take care of themselves they fled the orphanage and sought shelter as far away from its grim walls as was possible.

 

Due to the aforementioned phenomena of disappearing adults, Hopeless has many abandoned buildings littering its coastline, all in various states of disrepair. The Marling brothers’ chosen abode was an elderly, tumbledown, shack that squatted precariously on a headland, overlooking a sheltered cove. Although its best days were far behind it, the shack looked reasonably habitable if you held your head to one side and squinted. Once they had evicted the puddle rats that had taken up residence and boarded up the windows, the old place felt almost comfortable.

 

The boys were in their teens when the tea-chest arrived on their shore. With a great deal of excitement they prised open its top, only be disappointed with the contents. They had hoped for food, or at least something to barter at The Squid and Teapot. The landlord, Sebastian Lypiatt, could always be relied upon to give them a good deal but today not even Sebastian could have helped. The tea-chest contained nothing but old, crumpled-up newspapers and the ruined pieces of china that those inky pages were supposed to have saved from breaking. Despondent, the boys smashed up the chest for firewood and put aside the paper to help ignite it when the winter came.

 

Winter did come with a vengeance, at the close of 1911. The two were glad of the driftwood and kindling that they had gathered. It crackled and spat in their leaky little stove but served to keep them warm during that chilly December.

It was one morning, just after Christmas, that Humboldt was making firelighters from his supply of old newspapers, when he spotted the article concerning the Atlantic oarsmen, Samuelsen and Harbo. He read with wonder about the two intrepid adventurers who had taken a rowing boat from New York to somewhere called the Isles of Scilly, in England. Humboldt had no idea how far away England was, or how difficult such a venture might be but his imagination was immediately fired with an unquenchable enthusiasm. It took little effort to infect his brother with a similar passion and there and then the two resolved to emulate the feat of Samuelsen and Harbo and leave Hopeless forever, living up to the explorers’ names that their parents had bestowed upon them.

 

“Of course,” said Humboldt,  “we’ll have to wait until spring but that’s fine as there will be many preparations to be made. We will need provisions for the voyage. I guess at least one change of underwear each as well. The weather might get bad so probably some rudimentary shelter for us on the boat…”  His voice trailed off and his face fell. In his haste he had forgotten the, not inconsiderable, matter of not actually having a boat in which to make the trip. Then he brightened.

“April is four months away. That’ll be plenty if time for us to get hold of a boat.”

 

It seems to me, in unearthing these tales, that on Hopeless, Maine the old adage about being careful what you wish for is worryingly apt. I may be being fanciful here but I sometimes get the idea that the island – or something connected to it – is listening, making notes and taking a certain malevolent glee in granting wishes.

 

Humboldt and Magellan were thrilled but not particularly surprised, when, on one foggy morning in early April, an unmanned rowing boat appeared in their cove. There was a heavy yellow tarpaulin and a coil of rope neatly stowed under one of its seats and two pairs of oars lying along its length. Where it came from was a mystery that the boys had no wish to solve. Here was their passage to England, which lay somewhere to the east. By rowing in the direction of the rising sun they would be certain to reach their destination. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Before leaving, Humboldt fashioned a rough sign, which he hammered into the ground. Their cove, which had never been specifically named, had now become ‘Scilly Point’ in honour of their intended destination, and Scilly Point has been its name ever since.

 

Things did not go quite as planned for our brave explorers. The Atlantic ocean, which they had only ever glimpsed through a foggy haze, was far rougher and less predictable than either had expected. After only only a few days out they had become hopelessly lost, totally at the mercy of the wind and waves and surrounded by sea-ice. Had they known it, they were wildly off course and floundering about four hundred miles south of Newfoundland. Things were not looking good. The boys huddled together in the bottom of their little rowing boat, frightened and exhausted in the darkness,and fearing the worst.

 

At the orphanage, Reverend Crackstone had often told the children that righteous souls need not fear death, but when the time came, the Angel Gabriel himself would ferry them to heaven in a great chariot of fire. In view of this, Humboldt and Magellan felt no surprise when the stygian darkness that had surrounded them was banished by a great beam of light, brighter than either had ever seen. They felt a certain degree of apprehension, however, when Gabriel hailed them in a nasal, Liverpudlian accent,

“Ahoy there, you young buggers. Are you coming aboard or do you want to stay there all night?”

They peered out, only to be dazzled by the beam of a spotlight. A boat had pulled up close by – a tender from a cruise liner – and rough hands pulled the two to safety. Within half an hour they were huddled aboard the liner, wrapped in blankets and drinking hot cocoa, which neither had tasted before. It was then that an important-looking man in an impressive nautical uniform came up to them. To their relief he smiled.

“ It is not every day that one has the privilege of rescuing such brave young adventurers from death,” he said, kindly. The gilding on the peak of his cap glittered in the cheerful lights of the upper-deck where a small orchestra was playing popular tunes of the day.

“Don’t worry, chaps, we’ll have you safely back on American soil in a couple of days,” he said reassuringly. The sailor turned to leave, then checked himself, stopping abruptly.

“I do beg your pardon, you must think me very rude,” he said apologetically. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Edward Smith of The White Star Line. It gives me great pleasure to officially welcome you aboard my ship, the R.M.S. Titanic.”

Art by Tom Brown

 

The end of an era

Joseph was tired. For the last twelve months he had been to-ing and fro-ing to the Passamaquoddy reservation, bringing in supplies purchased by the ex- Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet. These trips had taken their toll on him.

“You’re not a youngster any more,” Betty had scolded.

“It’s high time you moored that old canoe for good.”

It was true. Joseph was over seventy and had paddled across the treacherous channel more times than he cared to remember.

“You’re right,” he conceded, wearily.

“One more trip to say goodbye to everyone and then I’ll retire. It’s sad, though. My family has been alone in regularly trading with this island for generations – even before the founding families reached here. It will be the end of an era.”

Betty knew that Joseph wished he had a son to carry on the tradition. They had not been blessed with children. She smiled to herself ruefully and reflected that this was not for the want of trying.

“Okay. Just one more trip and then you finish,” she said, in a voice that would brook no opposition.

 

Although, in the past year, Hopeless had acquired enough Indian-made goods to last an eternity, Randall had asked that Joseph bring more over. It was his altruistic way of transferring his new-found and unexpected wealth, inherited from his mother, into the economy of the impoverished reservation.

Jingling with the money Randall had given him, Joseph kissed his wife goodbye and set off on his farewell trip with mixed feelings. It would be hard to say goodbye to his old friends on the mainland and give up his lifelong trade. On the other hand, the prospect of never again having to negotiate the hazards and eternal fog that beset the treacherous channel was appealing.

 

His days on the reservation went very much as expected. There were hand-shakes, back-slaps and manly hugs a-plenty, shared between Joseph and his friends and relations. At last the appointed day arrived for him to leave the mainland for the very last time and return to the cabin that he and Betty shared on Hopeless.

 

The morning was grey and dismal and a harsh north-east wind was freshening by the hour. These were not ideal conditions to cross the channel but there was every indication that this weather was hunkering down for the duration.  If he left his departure any later Joseph feared that he could be stuck here for another week and Betty would be frantic with worry. Throwing caution to the wind – quite literally on this occasion – and, with his last ever cargo lashed securely down, Joseph paddled into the foggy channel.

 

Betty Butterow looked at the worsening weather with a troubled eye. While she had every faith in Joseph’s abilities, it would need more than his considerable skills to ensure his safe arrival home. Maybe she could help. She made her way to the rocky shore where, years before, she had first learned of her true identity, that she was a seal-woman, one of the legendary selkie people.

Hidden in a cleft in the rocks was her seal-pelt. Betty could not remember the last time she had donned it. She had heard tales of seal-women who had gradually become less human with every transformation. That is why she was loathe to shape-shift too often. It always worried her that one day she would be unable to change back.

Stripping off her clothing, Betty resolved there and then to go as a seal and look for Joseph, to bring him home safely, whatever the consequences. If, as she feared, Joseph was dead, then there would be nothing to return to. No reason to be Betty Butterow any longer. She would become a seal forever and little by little, all recollections of her human life would be no more than a distant dream.

 

The selkie scoured the treacherous channel for hours. There was no sign of Joseph. She had twice circled the island, desperately hoping that he had moored somewhere other than his usual spot but to no avail. Then she spotted something floating close to the shore. It looked like a canoe. Full of hope, she raced towards it.  “Please, let him be alive… please, please…” she prayed; prayed to who or whatever might be there to listen. Then an icy hand gripped her heart; it was indeed Joseph’s canoe, but smashed and ruined. There was no sign of Joseph.

 

The island echoed with the mournful wail of the seal-woman. She raised her dark head above the churning waves and threw her anguished soul upon the wind.

Then, her heart breaking, she flipped over, dived through the icy water and turned her back upon the foggy shores of Hopeless, Maine.

 

In her haste to leave she had not seen the figure of a man on the shore. Dazed and confused, he rose groggily to his feet, her bellow of grief having dragged him from the murky shadowlands of unconsciousness. Joseph looked helplessly across the foggy channel, somehow knowing that the unearthly cry that had woken him and shattered the peace of the day had been that of his beloved Betty. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched the dark, sinuous shape of a harbor seal disappear into the foggy distance.

 

The ocean boiled and churned. Startled, the selkie came to a halt as the huge bulk of the Kraken erupted through the water and caught her in its deep and unswerving gaze.

It spoke, not in words but in thoughts that echoed in her head with a voice as deep and sonorous as the ocean itself. It was a voice that she had heard before, many years ago.

“Go back, selkie. It is not quite time yet. Not yours, nor his. Go back. He is safe. As I have said, Betty Butterow, the sea looks after her own.”

With that she felt a suckered arm entwined around her sleek body. The kraken gently hoisted her high into the misty air, above the angry waves and jagged stone teeth that have brought many a ship to its doom around the coast of Hopeless. The creature lifted her trembling body to the rocks where Joseph stood weeping.

With her heart-beating fit to burst, Betty sloughed off the seal-skin, her body shaking with a mixture of cold and emotion. With an effort she rose to her feet and stood, shivering and naked in Joseph’s embrace. Every minute of every day would now would be precious. Betty could feel the tears running down her husband’s face as he laid a soft kiss upon her lips.

“Let’s go home,” she whispered.

Art by Tom Brown