Mrs Beaten has somewhat romanticised the Hopeless Maine mermaids for the purposes of this poster. She cannot bear to dwell too much on what she has seen…
Mrs Beaten has somewhat romanticised the Hopeless Maine mermaids for the purposes of this poster. She cannot bear to dwell too much on what she has seen…
A patchwork of bricks undulate in smog
the houses and inns connected by arteries of alleys
Walls sag like tired frogs sat in grime and bulge from years of swallowing
In between the amphibious buildings that eat people whole is a man a cobalt dragonfly
his hood up a hole and no face sleeves connected at a chest no outline of legs when he glides
A rag child said two claret dots inhabit the dragonfly’s shroud
This the only statement that was said aloud but whispers chatter in cupped palms and over drinks
since shutters sealed when patrons leave as a weary bird calls and light wheezes through sky
In the darkest blue speckled with stars streets are glossed black and cherry
as human-flies pop no fists connected or intoxicated braying just echoes of thick snoring
In the grey when fish fill noses port stains dry on the road tasting like rusted pig salt
Investigators finger the outlines squatting in corners writing a profile on bleached yellow paper
Children push at thighs to spot guts but there are no gizzards no sliced hands or spoiling innards
just a spattering of puddles saturated in stonework crannies that insects stick to like seeds in jam
No victims just a switch of people to pools on mouldy cobbles
The Blue Emperor flutters on a headline before being washed down gutters
Handymen scrub watching every seagull shadow stains not cleaned just passed to skin
The thin and sick vagabonds that don’t know tricks chant and pray in warped corners
Ankles poised to kick a bolted hatch when the dragonfly hovers and silk flows
On a pub door fingernails dig and oak is scratched and split
Watch at two for a dragonfly
If it stops in front say goodbye
To loved ones embrace and sound a bell
The Blue Emperor is where you dwell
Pray Pray Pray
and a good sea wind to take his wings away
The Blue Emperor by performance poet Ziggy Dicks (welcome to the island, Ziggy!)
Art by Tom Brown
It’s Tuesday, and regular blog followers may have noticed the absence of a Squid and Teapot post. For more than a year now, we’ve had Tuesday contributions from Martin Pearson, exploring the history of the island. Hopeless has been much enriched by his contributions, and intermittently terrified of his puns.
Martin is currently taking a break. There is only so much time a person can spend on the island before this becomes necessary. Unlike actual islanders, people who visit from this reality can leave, but don’t always manage to, so breaks are good and necessary.
But this isn’t one of those. No. Rather than take the opportunity to flee for safety, Martin is pondering an even more elaborate tangle with the island’s tentacles. A top secret tango that we’ll probably cave in and start telling you about sometime fairly soon.
In the meantime, Tuesdays may get used for other things. There’s a great deal going on in Hopeless Maine right now, both in the imagined life of the island, and the rest of world stuff where the island gets made. Or drops its fruiting bodies into people’s brains, as may be closer to the truth.
Huge thanks to Martin for his Squid and Teapot contributions. We wait with curiosity to see what he does next…
Hopeless has not always been fog-bound and desolate as it is today. Throughout its long history the island has enjoyed occasional but brief interludes of a much more pleasing climate. It was during the most recent of these verdant periods that the Danish settlers arrived.
The warriors came here first, in their long, fiercely elegant dragon-boats. They found the island to be a most agreeable place, with green pastures, bubbling streams and a sparse, timid population that was easily subjugated. It took little time for the invaders to realise that this would be a good island upon which to settle. Many were weary of having to fight. Maybe the Allfather would be kind and let them begin a peaceful existence in this new land.
They sent a longboat back with word of their discovery and over the next months and years a steady trickle of Danes found their way here, bringing with them everything that they needed to survive so many miles from home, including slaves from Britain.
It was high up in the hills, which are now known as the Gydynaps, that there lived a vǫlva – that is a seeress, a shaman, a wielder of the old magic. She was old and proud, only coming down to the village when summoned by the chieftain. In order to gain her favour and that of the gods, the settlers would ensure that she never went cold or hungry, regularly leaving food, furs and firewood at her door, especially on the occasions of the four great religious festivals, Eostre, Lithasblot, Winternights and Jul.
It was on the eve of Lithasblot, or Midsummer, that a slave (who, legend tells us, was one Cadman Negelsleag) was sent with a basket of food and wine to the vǫlva’s house. It was not a particularly arduous task and the day was pleasantly warm. The slave, knowing that his master did not expect him back for some hours, sat down upon a grassy bank and before long drifted into a deep and dreamless sleep.
It was a terrible commotion of squawking and croaking that dragged Cadman rudely from his slumbers. While he had been sleeping, two ravens had come down to inspect the contents of the basket and were quarrelling noisily over its ownership. Some of the food had been strewn on the grass and one of the birds was perched precariously on the edge of the basket, intent on removing the remainder. Without a second thought Cadman picked up a stone and threw it at the raven, hitting it squarely on the back of the head. It instantly dropped to the ground in a tangle of blood and feathers.
An awful dread came over Cadman when he realised what he had done. These birds were sacred to Odin and although the one-eyed deity was not his god, he was well aware of the power that Odin exercised in the minds of the Danes. Suddenly the beautiful summer day disappeared. The sky darkened, filled with threatening clouds. A cold wind shook the trees. The songbirds stilled their voices and an icy hand gripped Cadman’s heart.
There, standing on a ridge, was the vǫlva, her long, grey hair and midnight-dark cloak billowing in the freshening wind. In her hand was a long, ash staff, tipped with brass. The vǫlva’s face was a mask of anger.
“Cursed is he who kills the raven, most beloved of the Allfather,” she screamed, pointing her staff at the hapless slave. The staff crackled and sparked, then sent a cold blue bolt of light that froze his body to the core.
The vǫlva’s eyes glittered and it seemed to Cadman that she grew in stature, towering over him, filling the skies. She pointed to the smitten raven, where it lay on the grass.
“You will pluck just one feather from the bird that you have so wantonly slain,” she commanded.
Like a man in a dream the slave removed a feather from the dead raven.
“It will be upon each Lithasblot-eve, for centuries to come, that you will return to this place and pluck one feather from the raven that you will find here. Not until you have enough feathers to fashion yourself a raven-feather shroud in which to wrap your corpse, may you die. And the oldest man of your line who lives when your task is done, then it will become his burden, and so on, until your descendants are wiped from the face of the earth. Until that distant day you will walk in the shadows, hidden from the sight of men.”
Cadman felt himself slipping away, dragged by unseen hands into an eerie half-life, a shadowy, liminal dimension beyond all mortal understanding.
The island seemed to tremble at its very roots as a cold fog rolled in from the sea. Deep in its darkest caverns, nameless creatures began to stir from their long slumbers.
This, of course is only a legend. There may be no truth in it at all. But how many feathers does it take to make a shroud? Five hundred? Eight hundred? A thousand? If these events occurred at all then almost nine hundred mid-summer eves have passed since the curse was placed upon Cadman Negelsleag. For centuries his descendants have wondered if the legend has any truth and if it has, when might the shroud be complete and the curse passed on? Two hundred years ago the Negelsleag family, along with others, updated their names to something more pronounceable for the newcomers to the island. A curse, however, cannot be cheated; although names may change, blood remains the same. Our current Night Soil Man, the last of his line, knows that Negelsleag became Nailsworthy. Nine hundred years and nine hundred feathers ago it is said that his ancestor killed a raven. Shenandoah is a frightened man; he always stays at home on midsummer-eve and wonders if it will be his last in the mortal realm.
I really hope that this is just another tale, just another island myth – but who is to say? After all, anything can happen on Hopeless, Maine.
Art- Tom Brown
We are profoundly excited and a bit giddy to have brought Druid, author, and knitter- Cat Treadwell to the Hopeless, Maine creative fold. This story gave me goosebumps (in a good way, if there is any other) on first reading and I have discovered that it still does so. Without further ado, I give you- Threads
The needles moved almost automatically through her fingers, cloth coming together from fragile strands into something solid and…
Well, not exactly warm. But it would provide cover. Protection. Solace.
Wen’s thoughts drifted as she worked the thread in and out. She had no pattern and wasn’t entirely sure what she was making, but just seemed to know what stitches went where.
The sound was hypnotic, though. Therapeutic, she’d heard folks say. She tried not to think too much about it. If she did, the image always rose up in her mind, of a spidery creature with metal-tipped claws, skittering across the room just out of sight. So many things went unseen here in Hopeless.
But she could hear them, sense them. Sometimes their rank smell betrayed them, but she did her special best to ignore those creatures. Let them go about their business.
< Dark, wet, slithering, glistening>
Enough. Focus. Things to do.
She wasn’t even sure where the thread had come from – it was just there, in her basket. Was it a gift, slipped into her belongings by a kind visitor? Unlikely. Folk round here didn’t do that.
She paused for a moment, letting the cord slide across her fingers. Thicker than gossamer, more solid than silk. It seemed to be organic, woven from something living, but definitely not fleece. No sheep, rabbit or goat grew this. Plant, perhaps? Almost fibrous… maybe.
It glistened as well. The skein wasn’t sparkly, but it held the slickness of something damp. Yet it was smooth, dry. Not quite soft, but pleasant to the touch.
Back to it. Must get on.
No – wait. The noise again. At the door?
She placed the work down carefully, safe on her side table away from the cats (where had they gone too, anyway? She hadn’t seen them in days), and moved to peep through the window.
The evening was grey, sunset holding on with a last glimmer on the horizon, but clouds moving in. The boats should all be in by now – looks like a storm’s coming.
No sign of anyone there, man or beast.
Suddenly a bird shrieked, frightened by something. Wen jumped, ducking behind the curtain.
Silly, silly. Just a bird. Probably been jumped by one of those cats.
Smiling to herself, she stood and took one last look outside, before pulling the curtains firmly, locking the world away. She had things to do, after all. Anyone out there could wait until morning.
The lantern flickered, casting shadows around the small room. It had seemed so cosy earlier, just her and her work. Cushions and firelight, the pleasure of creating something new. Chillier now. Maybe she should light the fire.
She pulled her shawl close around her shoulders, fingers lingering on these old threads. One of the first things she’d made, this. It had been green once, but the colour had faded over the years, the handspun wool becoming a little frayed at the edges, worn in places where it had been pinned.
She smiled. Yes, like me. But she enjoyed making treasures to comfort folk here. Hopeless had little enough of that, Lord knows. She’d never lacked for interest, and her neighbours looked out for her when they could.
She glanced around again, annoyed at the interruptions. Must get on.
The needles seemed warm as she picked them up, firm and eager.
Eager? Where had that come from? She chuckled quietly. This was going to be something, she could tell.
The completed fabric began to spread out across her lap, flowing smoothly, reaching out to cover her, row by patient row.
So many things around here seemed to move like this, Wen thought. The tides, of course, bringing folk to and from the town. The tendrils of relationships between us all, old-timers and newcomers. You could always tell those who were meant to be here. They came and stayed. Others didn’t last one night, but she knew. On her occasional trips to the market, she saw the look in their eyes, those that didn’t belong. Well, good luck to them.
This was her home, had been since she was a girl. She couldn’t remember anywhere else. Mother weaving to make ends meet, Father…
No. No Father. That’s why they were here.
The needles clicked. The fabric shimmered. Wen’s eyes began to drift close, but her fingers never missed a stitch.
Hopeless was its own creation, wasn’t it. A web, added to by everyone here. A bit tangled in places, perhaps, but with a definite pattern. An ‘evil-lution’, she thought it was called.
Some spun it with stories, inks and paint. Others with words in song. Even the fishermen used their nets to bring new life in, to keep us all going.
Webs didn’t work in water, did they? Wen imagined it – great layers of cobweb connecting the waves. But she didn’t think there were such things as sea-spiders. If anyone’d see that sort of thing, it’s be the folks here, and she’d never heard tell of anything like that, not in any of the mad fireside tales.
It was finished.
Wen held it up to the light, assessing the multitude of tiny turns, fractals, wheels and cogs, all held together with this fragile thread.
How long had this taken? She’d quite lost track of time. It still seemed dark outside – had she done all this in one night?
She blinked, gazing at the pattern again. So familiar…
She knew it. She had seen it before. No wonder her fingers had known what they were doing.
The web that held Hopeless, Maine together was clear before her. It didn’t cover the town across the rooftops, oh no. It grew beneath the cobbled streets, the fields and yes, even the waves. It holds us all, keeps us together. Tied together.
There – and there. She recognised the patterns of her neighbours. And… back at the start, the first few stitches clustered together.
There she was. Holding it all.
Art- Tom and Nimue Brown
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
In anticipation with the misty aura precipitation falling on the wet cobbled streets,
footsteps echo, echo.
The blind poet’s back straightens; shoulders awkwardly flex, fingers and fist clench with intense momentary anxiety around the long black cane. Will it ever be the same?
Ten years is a long time to wait, sit, think and debate with fading colours of her midnight black hair.
From the homeland he remembers too painfully a saying –
No man is an island
Except for the Isle of Man.
Will he know how to talk to her?
Can smiles run together?
A grin starts to fill his wet stubble skin, and then within seconds the echoes vanish.
No trace, no return, no smiles.
Damp, cold, empty, nothing.
She could light up a room on arrival,
turn a glance to a gaze, thousand yards of staring bearing all beauty can behold
with confidence many never possess.
He was hooked, drawn in and now many full moons later gutted,
sitting alone in the mist and rain on the harbour side of Hopeless Maine.
Words by Gary Death
Art by Tom and Nimue Brown.
You will recall that the Necromancer, T’Abram Spitch, had conjured the ghost of Lars Pedersen, in the mistaken belief that, during his lifetime, The Woeful Dane had hidden a horde of silver somewhere upon the island. Although the wraith was helpless to resist T’Abram’s commands, the fact that no such treasure existed gave him the freedom to lead the necromancer to a place where something entirely different had been buried; something that had been there for many centuries and was never meant to be released again.
T’Abram Spitch was tired beyond belief. For more than a week he had toiled, moving rocks and boulders in an attempt to find the Viking treasure. The ground was hard and unforgiving, reluctant to yield to the simple tools that he had stolen from the people who lived in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. At last, after much toil, many blisters and the occasional profanity, the necromancer had unearthed his prize. Standing in a crater of his own making, deeper than he was tall, T’Abram surveyed the fruit of his labour. It was a medium-sized chest of bog oak, bound with bands of brass.
If T’Abram had thought that his work was over, he was very much mistaken. The apparently easy task of cracking open the chest proved to be a greater problem than he had anticipated. Despite attacking the box with every pilfered tool at his disposal, it remained stubbornly sealed. A succession of blows with a hammer, a pick-axe and, in frustrated desperation, his boot, left no mark upon the wood or brass. Despondent at the end of a disappointing day, he covered the hole with foliage and returned to his lodgings, at the strangely named inn, ‘The Swætan Tæppere’ (‘The Sweaty Tapster’).
The necromancer lay in his bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, troubled by thoughts of failure. It must have been a very precious treasure indeed for the Viking to have gone to such lengths to secure it. He racked his brain to think of ways of opening the chest. Being a man who had studied widely, T’Abram was aware that gunpowder might do the trick. As a student he had been required to read Friar Roger Bacon’s ‘Opus Maius’ and although written some three centuries earlier, the book was precise in its instructions as to how the explosive might be made.
“What was it that Bacon had written about the composition of gunpowder?” T’Abram asked himself, out loud.
“Ah yes… I remember. Willow charcoal, sulphur and… something else… saltpeter! That was it. That is the answer.”
He sat up in bed, elated. Gunpowder will definitely blast the box open. Then his mood changed abruptly when the realisation dawned upon him that he had no means of procuring any of these ingredients. He flopped back down and buried his face in the hard pillow, totally defeated. At last, just before dawn, sleep overcame him and with sleep came clarity.
The answer had to be magic!
Only magic could have sealed the chest so securely and only magic could open it.
What a fool he had been.
Suddenly his eye was drawn to the staff, resting against the wall in the corner of the room. The sigils carved along its length had once more started to glow, as they did when he conjured the wraith of Lars Pedersen.
So, magic it was to be, then. It was time to finish the work that he had started.
The brass-bound chest lay where he had left it. It looked innocent enough but T’Abram knew that it must contain something more than mere silver: he dare not imagine the vast wealth that lay within those dark, wooden walls.
Although a chilly, freshening wind blew from the sea, T’Abram was sweating profusely. It had been no easy task to drag the chest out of the crater; the effort of will and concentration needed to precisely incant the spells required to open it left him weak.
An audible groan emanated from the box as each uttered cantrip gradually loosened the tightly bound bonds that had served to constrict it for countless centuries. The sigils on his staff burned now with a new intensity.
He hoped it was his tired eyes playing tricks but T’Abram was convinced that the rock-hard bog-oak heaved and shifted like mere cloth as the spells gradually took effect. Suddenly, with a great sigh, the chest gave a final shudder and the bands of brass burst with a huge bang. They spun off in all directions, one narrowly missing the necromancer’s head and burying itself in a nearby tree. Filled now with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, T’Abram peered into the depths of the newly-opened chest to see what manner of treasure – if treasure it was – he had unlocked.
There appeared to be something wrapped in a fleece of some description. Or maybe the fleece was the treasure? From the dimmest recesses of his mind T’Abram dredged up the memory of an ancient tale that he had heard as a child. It told of a hero who set out to find a fleece made of pure gold. Could this be it? Had he discovered the legendary Golden Fleece? His heart raced. Gingerly he reached into the chest.
Having spent much of his adult life consorting with the spirits of the dead, T’Abram Spitch was confident that there was nothing left in the world that could surprise him. It just shows how wrong you can be. Life is nothing, if not full of surprises, even for a magician.
The moment his fingers brushed, what he fondly imagined to be, the fleece, it suddenly acquired a pair of lurid, glowing eyes that glared at T’Abram with something that fell far short of affection. He recoiled with horror and with a whimper jumped back a full and athletic six feet.
With a series of guttral groans the ‘fleece’ began to move, to expand and blink in the daylight. Through a tangle of hair a face appeared, not quite human but not quite bestial either. It looked somewhat bemused. The glowing orbs of eyes regarded the necromancer fiercely. To T’Abram’s horror a pair of hairy legs appeared over the side of the chest and gaining leverage, eased the creature out to freedom. T’Abram remembered his own legs and retreated to what he hoped was a place of safety.
Discovering that his treasure was an, apparently, living creature of some description had come as a shock. This, however, was as nothing compared to the revelation that followed. The beast that stood before the startled necromancer was terrifying… and weird, to say the very least.
Imagine, if you will, a lion. That was easy, wasn’t it? It gets a bit trickier now, though. Imagine that the lion has some almost human characteristics to its face. And that it has five – yes FIVE – totally leonine legs, except that these legs did not end in paws but in hooves. Cloven hooves. Oh, and there was one other thing… this lion-like creature – which for ease of description I will call a demon – has no body, just a head from which its five legs radiate like the spokes of a wheel. You can surely see why T’Abram was feeling somewhat unsettled by all of this. Things are to get even stranger, however. The demon was at least a dozen feet tall, dwarfing both the necromancer and the bog-oak chest in which it had been impossibly imprisoned. T’Abram stood stock still, processing the details of the figure that stood before him, by now on the opposite side of the crater. The necromancer was forcing his brain to accept its strangeness as something perfectly normal. Then the demon moved and T’Abram Spitch screamed.
It advanced towards him, propelling itself like a wheel but as its legs went round the head was a hub that stayed perfectly still, never taking its eyes off the hapless magician.
With less than a second to spare before the demon was upon him, T’Abram had the presence of mind to raise his staff. It crackled and hissed as a bolt of magical energy pulsed through it and caught the demon full in the face. The force of the bolt not only stopped the creature in its tracks but also sent T’Abram sprawling back into the crater. It took but seconds for the demon to recover and before the necromancer could do anything, he found himself caught beneath a single cloven-hoof that threatened to crush his ribcage. The demon glared down at him, a cold fire in its eyes. T’Abram felt his mind becoming blurred and his body numb. Feebly he reached for his staff and aimed it once more at his attacker. It spat no fire this time but just emitted a lacklustre glow. The demon smiled at him. This was not a pleasant smile but a horrible, drooling, leer that wordlessly indicated that the game was up and all resistance would be futile. The demon reached down and caught the staff in its grinning maw and effortlessly chewed it up completely. The necromancer could only watch, aghast, as it raised a hoof, ready to deliver the death blow. Then something strange happened. The whole of its grotesque body began to glow. The five legs began to spin, slowly at first, then speeding to a fiery blur like a Catherine Wheel, spitting sparks of every colour. Meanwhile the ghastly head in their centre had become an incandescent core and no longer recognisable as a face.
The landlord of The Swætan Tæppere was standing at his back door when the explosion struck. Although it came from the far west of the island the reverberations shook the inn to its foundations, rattling the windows and sending tiles skidding from the roof. A plume of brightly coloured flame could be seen, bursting a hundred feet or more into the air.
“Magicians!” he exclaimed in disgust.
“I knew he’d be trouble.”
The explosion had shaken the whole of the island. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the initial panic was over, people started to drift towards the area. They were surprised to find that, while the flames had been worryingly high, the hole that was left behind was more than impressive. Bottomless would be an understatement, for one could reasonably expect a bottomless hole on an island to have water where the absent bottom should be; this one did not. It was an abyss, dark and uninviting. There was, in its unfathomable depths, a suggestion of something of an iridescent nature, a mere pinpoint that swirled and churned; something more to be experienced via the hairs on the back of the neck rather than being seen. No one spoke a word or made a sound but as one, retreated back to their homes. Frightened parents told their children that child-eating monsters lurked by that hole. These were stories designed to keep them away; to keep them safe. It is ironic that the truth was far scarier than any nursery tale.
It was a full two hundred and fifty years, following the demise of T’Abram Spitch, that the founding families arrived. By then The Swætan Tæppere had become The Squid and Teapot and within a generation the island’s first Night-Soil Man, Killigrew O’Stoat, had set up in business. The job suited a young man who was as painfully introverted as Killigrew. When he discovered the abyss, which he assumed was a sinkhole, he was delighted. Here was somewhere to safely dispose of the night-soil.With the addition of a simple cottage this would be the perfect base for his trade. And so, that is how Killigrew and the generations of Night-Soil Men who followed after, became custodians of the mysterious and unfathomable abyss, the grave of T’Abram Spitch.
I don’t think that I have ever told you the tale of how my late friend, the celebrated actor-manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, first came to Hopeless, Maine.
Regular readers will recall that, before he arrived on the island, he was – at least, according to his own account – the toast of the London stage.
Being a born raconteur, Sir Fromebridge would never let the truth interfere with a good story, especially when it concerned himself. In the light of this, I give fair warning that some of the details given in following tale may be less than accurate. Only one person was on hand to witness the great man’s appearance on these shores and that was Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man at the time. He is in no position to contradict Sir Fromebridge’s version of events, as Jarvis shuffled off his mortal coil at a relatively early age, presumably having been celestially promoted to emptying the great cesspit in the sky. Luckily, Jarvis’s successor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, has been able to fill in a few missing pieces, based upon what his late master told him. It is from these accounts I have cobbled together the following tale.
Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man, was taking a well deserved rest. Although generally known as being a somewhat surly man, tonight Jarvis was unusually happy. He had recently taken on an apprentice, young Shenandoah Nailsworthy, who, at that moment, was on the far side of the island, emptying the bountiful privy that catered for the needs of the patrons of “The Crow”. The other inn on Hopeless, “The Squid and Teapot”, was on Jarvis’s round. Thanks to one of the previous landlords, Sebastian Lypiatt, the hostelry enjoyed the modern luxury of a flushing privy that deposited its effluent far out into the ocean, therefore needing no attention from the collectors of the euphemistically named night-soil.
At this hour most of the drinkers had gone home to their beds and only a few lights still lit the building. Jarvis settled himself down on the rocks overlooking the inn; this was always a good place to stop, mid-round, for a bite to eat.
It was an unusually clear night, the moon was full and riding high in the sky and the sea was fairly calm. Jarvis, who was usually fazed by very little, was suddenly taken aback to see a figure emerge from the dark water. It looked faintly human in shape but was, as far as the Night Soil Man could ascertain in the moonlight, covered in some kind of black shiny skin. Sticking vertically out of its head was a short pipe-like appendage and instead of feet, it sported a pair of large, ungainly flippers. Jarvis wondered what manner of beast he was looking at. He gripped the edges of his bucket, ready to run if needs be, as the creature began to change before his very eyes.
“A shape-shifter,” Jarvis muttered to himself, uneasily.
The creature puffed and grunted as it sloughed off the skin and flippers. The process of metamorphosis seemed to be a long and painful affair, the outer layer being peeled away to a series of ejaculations which sounded uncannily like “Damn!”, “Blast!” and occasionally, “Bugger!”
Finally, after much effort and profanity, standing on the beach – or what passes for a beach on Hopeless – seemed to be a man in late middle-age, incongruously dressed in a white dinner-jacket, dark trousers and a bow-tie. He sneezed violently several times as he made his way inland. Then he spotted Jarvis.
“What-ho,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.
Jarvis had never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and therefore had no idea that this was a common salutation employed by some of the stranger sections of British society.
The newcomer walked up to Jarvis and introduced himself. This was a new experience for the Night Soil Man. Obviously the combination of a heavy cold and the wind blowing from the sea rendered the stranger impervious to the ever-present effluvia that surrounded his new companion.
“The name is Whitminster.
Fromebridge Whitminster,” he said, dramatically, then sneezed again.
“Sir Fromebridge, in actual fact.”
This meant nothing to the Night Soil Man.
Rummaging in the inside-pocket of his jacket Sir Fromebridge retrieved a cigarette case. Flicking a black-oxidised and somewhat battered Ronson lighter, he lit a cigarette that was, I have been reliably informed, of Balkan-Turkish make. He inhaled deeply, tried to look suave, then totally ruined the effect by being gripped by a sudden, violent and uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing.
“Damned things,” he complained, as soon as he was able to speak again.
“Still, must persevere, if the part calls for it.”
“What were you doing out there?” asked Jarvis, incredulous that anyone could be so foolish as to be floundering around in the sea around Hopeless, especially at night.
“Well… It’s all very exciting. The whole thing is being kept very hush-hush, for some reason, though. The fact is, I’ve never been in a film before. It’s called Spoonraker, or some such.” said Sir Fromebridge.
To Jarvis much of this was little more than gibberish, although he recalled, from some dim recess of his mind, that the word ‘film’ referred to a thin covering of some description. Sir Fromebridge was obviously talking about the shiny black skin that he had been wearing.
“I was dropped into the sea, oh, ages ago now and told to swim to the island where some fairly important film people would be waiting. If this obviously fake Rolex that I was given actually worked it would tell me that I’ve been stuck for about four hours in freezing water. No wonder I’ve got this dratted cold.”
The actor paused, blew his nose, then added,
“You’re not tied-up with the film, I take it?”
Randall shook head emphatically, confident in the knowledge that he had never been wrapped in black, shiny material at any point in his life.
Just then the actor’s attention was drawn to a large, box-like contraption that had just been washed in on the tide.
“I do believe that’s my sea-trunk,” he exclaimed.
“How odd. That was safely stored in my cabin on the ship. One could almost believe they weren’t expecting me to return…”
Sir Fromebridge laughed to himself nervously.
“Ah well, maybe the film unit will arrive tomorrow.”
“In my experience, tomorrow never comes,” observed the Night Soil Man dryly, then, being uncharacteristically helpful, added
“How about I take you down to the Squid before Isaac locks up for the night? I’ll help you take your luggage with you.”
The two men made their way to the inn, dragging the large sea-trunk behind them.
For much of his life Jarvis had been deprived of the pleasures of conversation and was finding that he quite enjoyed it.
“So… what was that thing you were in called again?”
“Thing…? Oh, you mean Spoonraker.”
The Night Soil Man pondered the word a while before he spoke again. It was a strange name to give a second skin but, as Sir Fromebridge was the most amiable shape-shifter that he had ever encountered, he decided to let it go.
“And you’re definitely one of the good guys?”
“Oh, assuredly,” replied the actor. “In fact, I’m more than good. I’ve been led to believe that nobody does it better.”
The peace of the evening was suddenly interrupted by a series of metallic scraping noises as a troop of small, odd-looking thieves artfully lowered a cache of stolen cutlery from an open window of The Squid and Teapot.
“So you’re a Spoonraker, eh?” said Jarvis. “I’ve no idea what that means but something tells me that you’ll fit in well on Hopeless.”
Art by Tom Brown
From the writings of Salacia Went, Hopeless, Maine.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. The accuracy of Darwin’s words becomes more evident by the day. Since the ship bearing me to the new world was slain by a fateful storm and I woke on boards briny and broken, spitting the sand of this place from my mouth, I have seen adaption and I have seen failure lead to death. For the mist-wrapped isle of Hopeless, Maine is magnificent in its cruelty.
Another quote springs to my mind, as fragments of the world outside of this one often do.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Although I am certain that even the formidable mind of Madame Curie would have found Hopeless confounding, I take her words and hold them close and make them my mantra. For there is much to be feared here. Much to be understood.
Many others strive to understand the island and its ecosystem. The local botanist, Miss Nightshade, has already catalogued the local flora, how the heads of flowers and grasping fronds turn to follow you as you pass by, their shapes and scents and their uses if they can be subdued. Reverend Davies is known to have taken copious notes on the fleetingly corporeal fauna of the island, their indistinct forms and devious intentions. Frampton Jones records images of whatever spectacles he can with the infernal photographic contraption that he constantly hauls around like some journalistic Sisyphus. It seems only right that I turn my own hand to recording some aspect of Hopeless’ singular ecology.
And so, I turn my gaze skyward. To the astronomy of this place. A study that could take several lifetimes, I am certain, as there seems little to compare between these skies and those of my long-lost home. What was once a hobby has become my contribution to the island. For the skies of Hopeless are as perplexing and dangerous as everything beneath them.
The first observation of note: There is no sun here. Daytime is defined by a dim glow which passes overhead, filtered through dense cloud cover of some strange composition which taints the light, creating a diffuse sepia tone to the clouds, the air, the wan faces of my companions.
And yet, the nights are so clear. The clouds draw back as a great iris might open and the stars are revealed.
When first I began my study of these skies, I made new drawings each night, filling books and books with notable celestial markers, waiting for an inevitable cycle to show itself, a pattern to emerge.
It never did.
By my reckoning, I have lived on Hopeless for three years now and what nightly performance appears above our heads when the light fades bears no resemblance to any sane celestial calendar. One might describe the study of astronomy here more as drawing from a vast deck of cards.
However, there are observable relations between what happens above and below. Effects that my scientific mind shudders to describe as astrological. And so, I have done as Mr Darwin suggests. I have adapted. My telescope is a tool of divination. My notes have become the scribbled ramblings of occultists. My observations feverish and predictions far too accurate for the comfort of my old self.
Perhaps the most prominent of these, as the phenomenon is hard to miss, is the frequency of eclipses. While a rare enough occurrence in the old world, in Hopeless total solar and lunar eclipses happen several times a year although the former remain only vaguely observable through heavy clouds. As I have come to expect, there is no calculable design to their frequency, unless you consider that the moon simply makes up its mind to visit the sun as it pleases.
The effect on the populace is akin to mild annoyance, but for newer arrivals the phenomenon can be disconcerting if only for the fact that they plunge the island into complete darkness at seemingly random intervals.
An occurrence of particular note comes from the attendees of the birthday party of Hilde Parks, orphan of the Pallid Rock Orphanage. The locals report that, upon blowing out her candles, Hilde made a wish. A series of eclipses proceeded to occur in time with the pointed opening and closing of Hilde’s eyes, much to her amusement and the maniacal screams of the other Hopeless residents. However, once Hilde told everyone what her wish had been, the phenomenon ceased. This event set the record for daily eclipses at fourteen.
Although I could happily list hundreds of similar and entirely different spectacles, the Firefly Constellation is the next most obvious to discuss. Known only as a constellation by the loosest association, several times over the last few years, this swarm of lights has passed over Hopeless. Characterised by twenty or more softly glowing motes which are far too high for it to simply be its namesake. Notes of this phenomenon’s direction do not align with the observed behaviours associated with migration patterns of even Hopeless’ strange fauna.
The effect on the populace is a rare sense of wellbeing among observers, if only as it stands as a sign that there still remains somewhere outside of Hopeless for such things (whatever they may be) to travel to and from.
A particularly perplexing celestial feature is the occurrence of the Myriad Constellation. If this is indeed one constellation or many with similar traits remains to be seen, as the myriad constellation shifts when observed. When viewed from the corner of the eye, the constellation appears as a cluster of nine high-to-medium intensity stars. However, upon closer observation through a telescope, the myriad shifts, defying close observation or notation as to the true positions of the stars.
While the Myriad remains above, the locals have been observed to exhibit oddly transient behaviours. These nights have the streets of Hopeless somewhat busy no matter the hour. People move back and forth between each other’s homes, and some wander off into the woods. Of course, with what we know of the dangers of the wild places on the island, very few return.
Finally, I think it imperative to mention what I maintain to be the most dangerous of Hopeless’ celestial events. Although it manifests rarely, it is one which fills me with dread. For, on those rare nights when the light dies over our island and the clouds withdraw to reveal the Cuttlefish Constellation, the island becomes even more mysterious.
Beginning as a rift of shadow even darker than the void of space around it, at first the Cuttlefish Constellation appears to have scared away any other stars. Then, they begin to appear. Within that fissure of darkness, points of multicoloured light manifest. Truly a spectacle of petrifying beauty, the stars seem to pulse through spectrum after spectrum, often drawing the eye toward terrible colours which the human eye should never behold. And still, they move. They multiply as they undulate in waves of hypnotic beauty. And every eye on the island, although they might try everything in their power not to do so, turns upward.
I cannot describe, illustrate or begin to comprehend what happens next, for no one knows. We all awake in our beds, aching as if from a night of long toil, heads pounding as if we’ve all drank the Squid and Teapot dry.
It is on those occasions when I scoff at Madame Curie’s beloved words. For some things are beyond the understanding by mortal minds, and any sane person should fear them.–
Art by Tom Brown
We have been waiting to welcome Craig Hallam to our dark shores for some years now, as we are great fans of his work. (and we hope this will not be his last visit) We can recommend *all* of his fiction. His Alan Shaw series is worthy of special mention (and he is working on the final book in that sequence now) Go here to find out more.