Tag Archives: Hopeless Maine

Of Jason Eckhardt and The Gathering

Hello people! (and others)

I shall tell you a brief story and then we will move on to other things if you are willing. (Your unwillingness would be expressed by not reading any further, I suppose, but you will be rewarded by sticking with me for a bit) I met the esteemed Mr. Eckhardt many years ago when I still lived in Maine. He and I were both (as it turns out) illustrators for the same Lovecraftian publications and I had been an admirer of his work for ages. We met (on a Thanksgiving, as I recall, many years ago) and became fast friends. He is one of the best pen and ink illustrators I have ever encountered, and his work suits the eerie and weird to an uncanny degree. When it came time to have a new masthead for Hopeless, Maine, I knew the chap I wanted to do the job, and, bless him, he said “yes”. Here is Jason’s design for the masthead for Hopeless, Maine in all its glory.

As you can see, it’s perfect and better even than we had hoped.

As Jason had designed this, we thought we had better send him a copy. (the very least we could do) and the following is his response and review of Hopeless, Maine- The Gathering. To my delight, all of the things I was hoping were there to find, he did find. His review follows.

“I’m prejudiced—I admit it.  I have been an admirer of the artwork of Tom Brown for many years now, and I don’t care who knows it.  But even that fore-knowledge didn’t prepare me for the depth and weird beauty of “Hopeless, Maine—The Gathering”, the graphic novel/ saga Brown co-created with wife Nimue Brown.  “Hopeless, Maine” is really an omnibus of three volumes following the adventures of the girl Salamandra in the fog-shrouded town of the title.  But this is no town you will find in the Maine Atlas, nossuh.  Rather it is as if some characters escaped from the manga universe took a wrong turn on US Route 1 and ended up in Edward Gorey’s backyard.  There is a perennial fog covering the town of Hopeless (on an island?  Or one of the many scrawny peninsulas of the Maine coast?), and it seems to hold the inhabitants there in a perpetual state of dusk and gloom.  In a word, hopeless.

    But there is a spark in young Salamandra that won’t be extinguished.  She begins as an orphan in a large, empty house littered with dismembered toys, cobwebs, and unfinished magical experiments left by her absent parents.  A kindly local witch, Miss Nightshade, takes Salamandra to the local orphanage.  There she befriends a crow and a boy, Owen, and acquires what is possibly the worst “invisible friend” in literature (who, through the brilliant irony of Tom and Nimue, is made the most doe-eyed and manga-esque waif of them all).  Meanwhile, things—some like bits of seaweed, some like jumbles of bones or brass fittings—float by in the thick, yellow-grey murk, sprouting eyes that regard both the characters and the reader alike with a terrible blandness.  There is also a tree of bottles.  None of these things is explained—they simply are—which is much of their outré charm.

    There is more, much more to this book than this, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.  Reading the Hopeless saga is a continuous revelation of beauty and strangeness.  It is a story that requires constant attention, but rewards that attention a hundred-fold.  Clearly, Tom and Nimue had a clear vision of their story and its heroine, and remained faithful to that vision throughout.  If I have any criticism of “Hopeless, Maine—The Gathering”, it is with some of the type.  The text in the “Prelude” is rather small for my old eyes, and title-headings are similarly insignificant.  This makes the jump from chapter to chapter a little disorienting at times.

    But these are quibbles.  “Hopeless, Maine—The Gathering” is your ticket to become wonderfully lost in the weird world of this most unusual of Downeast towns, all in one volume.  Don’t pass it by.”

 

There you have it! We mostly use the Vendetta as a source of entertainment, and not to (directly) promote the books, but we thought this was well worth sharing.

I hope this finds you well, inspired, and thriving.

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People from the sea

In the early hours of May 8th, 1884 the passenger ship ‘The City of Portland’, bound from Boston to St.John, New Brunswick, came to grief on North West Ledge, by Owl’s Head, off the coast of Maine. Happily, thanks to the cool-headedness of the captain and crew, there was no loss of life. In worsening weather conditions most of the passengers were safely ferried to the steamer, Rockland, but in the confusion the ship’s carpenter, Amos Gannicox, found himself adrift upon the open ocean, along with five very different companions. Sitting in the bows of the lifeboat was the recently ordained missionary, the Reverend Malachi Crackstone. Next to him was Tobias Thrupp, a solicitor’s clerk from England, a man given to long spells of moody silence, while huddled in the rear of the little craft  were Jethro and Maybelle Bussage and their eight year old son, Elmer.

A small life-raft is not the most comfortable place in an angry sea. The six bedraggled survivors were relieved, therefore, when, through the mist, they spotted land. Although the dark rocks looked forbidding they were as welcome a sight as any golden beach or tropical paradise.

There had been little time to grab any personal belongings before ‘The City of Portland” capsized but Amos had managed to salvage his beloved tool chest. The assortment of saws, planes, chisels, files and numerous, esoteric-looking gadgets of the carpenter’s trade contained therein were his pride and joy. On reaching land, however, the chest became an encumbrance and it was only with the aid of the young parson was he able to carry it over the rocky terrain. The Bussage child, Elmer, walked with them while his parents and Thrupp went on ahead, scanning the horizon for any sign of human habitation.

It was not long before they came upon a small stone cottage. A girl, no more than two years old, was playing outside. As the party drew near, a pale, worried looking woman came out of the doorway and gathered the child up, into her arms.

“Amelia, you need to come in now… ,” she eyed the strangers warily.

“My dear madam, you have nothing to fear from us,” Reverend Crackstone’s tone was one of reassurance. “We are castaways, looking for shelter. We mean no harm.”

The woman was obviously agitated and reluctant to let them in but seeing that Crackstone was a man of the cloth, she felt somewhat happier and relented, all the time apologising for the poor state of her home.

The inside of the cottage was clean but in dire need of repair and sparsely furnished. The castaways, however, were only too glad to find somewhere dry and warm in which to rest. Amos found a pack of coffee that he had managed to rescue and soon the inviting aroma of strong coffee filled the air in the tiny room for the first time in many a long year.

The woman, who introduced herself as Harriet Butterow, told them of a nearby inn, The Squid and Teapot, which habitually welcomed strangers. It appeared that until such times as they could support themselves, the landlord, one Bartholomew Middlestreet, a kind and generous man, offered board and lodgings in exchange for any skills their customers might offer in return.

This was music to their ears and the little band wasted no time in making their way to the shelter of the curiously named Squid and Teapot and into the care of the kindly Mr Middlestreet.


A few days later Amos decided to pay a call on Harriet to thank her for her hospitality. He sensed that there was no Mr Butterow in evidence. The least he could do to repay the lady’s kindness would be to offer some help in repairing the cottage. It was an offer that Harriet was quick to agree to but if Amos had entertained any hopes of something of a more romantic relationship evolving from their arrangement, he was to be sadly disappointed.

Over the coming days Harriet unfolded her strange history to the ever-attentive carpenter.

Until five years ago she had been living with her maternal grandmother, Colleen O’Stoat, a fierce old lady with a dark reputation. When Colleen died there was no real funeral, for even her own family had disowned her. It had been Colleen’s wish that, upon her death, her body be put into a small open boat and given to the wild ocean. In the absence of other mourners, Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, carried the corpse to the shore and gently laid the old lady to rest in a rickety and somewhat decrepit rowing boat that had been lying, half submerged for years, in the inky waters that filled the inlet beneath Tragedy Ridge. This is how, early on one spring morning, Harriet was left to cast her grandmother out to sea, back towards the land of her birth.


Despite its apparent unseaworthiness, the tiny craft was borne easily upon the waves, drifting eastwards, unharmed, until it became but a speck upon the pale sun that was beginning to rise out of the ocean. As a tearful Harriet turned to leave, a movement in the nearby rocks made her freeze in her tracks. She held her breath; strange and perilous terrors were known to inhabit these waters.

Of all the creatures that might emerge from the waves, the last thing Harriet expected to see was a man. This particular specimen, though lean and muscular, looked totally exhausted. He was also completely naked. Harriet blushed and lowered her eyes to the ground. The naked newcomer staggered unsteadily towards her, arms outstretched, then, with a groan collapsed at her feet.

Putting her embarrassment to one side, the young woman persuaded the stranger to get up and with a great effort of will from both of them, managed to stagger back to her cottage.

With rest and recuperation, plus some dutiful nursing from Harriet Butterow, the man from the sea soon recovered. His modesty was not fully retrieved, however, until the landlord of The Squid and Teapot kindly contributed some odds and ends of clothing and a fine pair of boots.

Within a very short space the two inevitably, became lovers. Strangely, in all their time together, he uttered not a single word. She never learned his name or heard him speak her own. That was her great sorrow.

For two years they lived this way. Sometimes he would disappear for days, only to return home laden down with mussels and lobsters and enough fish to feed them for a week. Their life together was simple and contented, though Harriet, in the back of her mind, was only too aware that this happiness would soon end.

In the winter of 1881 there was a great storm that blasted the island for days. As it raged, the man from the sea seemed to become more restless, like the ocean itself. He would sit upon the rocks, seemingly unaffected by the the howling winds and lashing rain, and gaze, with melancholic eyes, out into the tempest. Harriet knew that she was losing him and felt helpless to stop it.

A few nights after the storm had passed Harriet was awoken by an eerie, almost unearthly sound. Recognising the cries as being the call of harbor seals, she lay in the darkness, a sense of dread clutching at her heart. She could tell by his breathing that her lover was awake too. His body was as tense as a coiled spring. The mournful barking of the seals filled the air again, plaintive and urgent. With tears in her eyes, Harriet felt him arise from their bed. Moonlight poured through the open door of the cottage as he slipped silently out of her life and into the night.

Quickly throwing on some clothing Harriet followed from a distance, stumbling over the uneven ground.

He seemed to have no idea she was there and continued, like one in a trance, towards the shoreline, his naked flesh ivory in the moonlight. Without looking back he paused by the edge of the ocean and searching among the rocks, retrieved a package which he carefully unfurled and slung over his shoulders. Only then did he turn; he must have seen her for he faltered, as if his intention was to go back. Suddenly, the siren-song of the harbor seals rent the air once more and the spell was broken. The last Harriet saw of her silent lover was a flash of white as he dived beneath the waves. A second or two later the unmistakable head of a seal bobbed to the surface, stopped for an instant to look at her, then disappeared forever.

“It wasn’t until then did I know what he truly was, Mr Gannicox,” said Harriet. “Granny O’Stoat had told me tales of the seal people but I never really believed her. But I do now. He was a Selkie, to be sure.”

Amos said nothing. It sounded all very improbable. After all was said and done, they were within sight of a new century, a modern age where such fairy-tales had little place. The woman was obviously deranged. That was still no reason for her lover to desert her, he reflected.

“It was only after he left I found I was pregnant,” Harriet confided, unaware of the carpenter’s scepticism. “Do you think Amelia is similarly cursed? When she’s older I’ll forbid her to go anywhere near the ocean. It scares me, sir. I’m terrified she’ll go and never come back”

Amos made some soothing comments and wondered why a grown woman should believe in such things.


Night was falling as he made his way back to the Squid and Teapot. Somewhere, far away in the vast Atlantic ocean, a seal called to its mate.

Amos smiled to himself.

‘’Selkies indeed!’’

Art by Tom Brown

A Marriage on the Rocks

I owe my readers something of an apology. Without any explanation, I have, in recent tales, referred to Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs as being the husband of Betty Butterow, the barmaid of The Squid and Teapot.

“When did that happen?” you might well ask. Regular visitors will know that a great affection grew between the two and romance blossomed. My grandmother might have said that they were ‘courting’, however, given the intensity of their relationship, she would more likely have tutted and said that they were ‘carrying-on.’ I remember ‘carrying on’ as being a disapproving and euphemistic verdict passed on those conducting any liaison not compatible with her own rigid moral compass. In granny’s view Joseph and Betty’s moral compass would have been spinning around madly with no hope of ever finding north, either true or magnetic. Happily unaware of this, the couple joyously carried on ‘carrying-on’ with great gusto and enthusiasm at every opportunity until, at last, the day dawned when they both decided that it seemed only sensible to make their carrying-on respectable and official with the exchange of marriage vows.

The word ‘wedding’ conjures up visions of flouncy dresses that resemble fluffy white confections; blizzards of confetti and lucky horseshoes made of cardboard; giggling bridesmaids and awkward pageboys; a best man delivering an embarrassing speech and the wrong person catching a tossed bouquet.

Well, you can forget all of that. This is Hopeless, Maine and none of these things have any place in this tale. Remember also, Betty was a Selkie, a seal-woman and Selkies have their own ways of getting wed.

Every wedding needs a celebrant. This one was no exception. Neither Betty nor Joseph would have tolerated having their vows sanctified by a beaming minister or one of the stern, hard-faced Jesuits that Joseph had encountered in his youth. Instead, both decided that the one person who would understand them best (and not bat an eyelid at Betty’s shape-shifting predilection) would be a shaman from Joseph’s tribe, the Passamaquoddy. And so it was that the two lovers found themselves crossing the choppy channel to the mainland (he paddled, she swam) to exchange their vows on a windy outcrop overlooking the ocean on the rocky coast of Maine. The shaman had made it clear to Joseph that he was disinclined to travel. Perilous expeditions into the spirit world were one thing; going to Hopeless was a completely different teapot of squid that the elderly medicine-man had absolutely no intention of experiencing.

There are many legends surrounding selkies. Some say that the man who steals her skin possesses her. I have no idea if this is true. Even if it were, Joseph had no wish to possess Betty and, frankly, I would be amazed if any man ever could. Having said this, when a Selkie woman chooses to marry a landsman, it is customary for her to entrust her husband with her sealskin. This, you must understand, is purely symbolic, for without her skin she is unable to become a seal, something neither of them would have wished. So, having ceremoniously handed the still wet pelt to Joseph, Betty immediately took it back. After all, she needed to return home that evening and swimming was vastly more exhilarating and comfortable than riding in a cramped canoe that was loaded down with Passamaquoddy wedding gifts.

Joseph had regarded himself to be part of the Hopeless community for some time and the island was the only home Betty had ever known, so there was never any question that they might live anywhere else. They set up house in a cabin in Creepy Hollow, just a short distance and generally upwind of the Night-Soil Man’s cottage. It was a place close to Joseph’s heart, for it was there, some fifteen years earlier, that he and the apprentice, Randall Middlestreet, had disposed of the Wendigo, the creature that had killed Josephs’s mother and also his first wife. Randall not only took on the mantle of the Night-Soil Man that day but also became Joseph’s blood-brother.

Beneath the bar in The Squid and Teapot sits a battered leather journal. Within its covers are the histories and genealogies of many of the island’s dwellers. It is also the book in which many of these tales are recorded. If you could only look through its yellowing pages you would see that the story of Betty and Joseph is far from over.

Art by Tom Brown

Spoonwalker Blues

Pinned up behind the bar of the Squid and Teapot is a yellowing scrap of paper upon which are the written a few verses of a song. There would be nothing remarkable about this other than the fact that the lyrics are specifically about Spoonwalkers. That in itself is, as far as I am aware, almost unique (you may recall that, although he had no idea of their identity, W.S. Gilbert referred to them in his song ‘Why is the cutlery moving?’).

What makes these verses especially interesting, however, is not the subject matter but just three letters and a date written carelessly at the bottom of the sheet: RLJ 1936.

Looking through the guest-book of The Squid and Teapot (which is not a particularly time-consuming activity) it seems that no one with those initials appears to have stayed at the inn during the year in question. One entry that does stand out, however, is that of ‘J Shines and friend’.

Could ‘J. Shines’ be Johnny Shines, a musician and travelling companion of the blues singer, Robert Leroy Johnson? Although usually associated with the southern states of America, it is well documented that Johnson and Shines performed as far north as New York, Chicago and even Canada. Excitingly, if ‘RLJ’ is  Robert Johnson it is proof that he came to Hopeless in the last couple of years of his short life. Sadly, however, the why and how of his visit may never be known but it would be safe to assume that the two men would have shared a room to save money.

Now for a leap of faith; if Johnson was on the island could it not be that his famous ‘Crossroads’ was actually penned here on Hopeless? There is a school of thought that the blues singer sold his soul to the devil on a crossroads in Mississippi – but Hopeless is a far better candidate for diabolic dealings, surely. if Johnson was here in 1936 and stood on the crossroads that lead to the caverns just as the sun was setting, who knows what he might have experienced? There are demonic forms enough on this island to make him think that the devil was after him. All this is speculation of course; the blues song pinned up behind the bar may be nothing to do with Robert Johnson at all. What do you think?

 

Spoonwalker Blues

 

Woke up this mornin’

Got them Spoonwalkers on my mind.

Woke up this mornin’ baby,

Had them Spoonwalkers on my mind.

They been in my kitchen

Takin’ all that they can find.

 

Soup and puddin’s off the menu.

Stir my coffee with my thumb.

Soup and puddin’s off the menu.

I’m stirring coffee with my thumb.

Since them Spoonwalkers been here

I been living like a bum.

 

Got no eggs for breakfast,

Got no butter on my bread.

No, I got no eggs for breakfast,

Got no butter on my bread.

How I hate them ol’ Spoonwalkers

And now they gotten in my head.

 

So I went down to the doctor

He say “Get some walkin’ shoes.”

Yeah, I went down to the doctor,

Told me “Get some walkin’ shoes.”

He say “Walk away from Hopeless, boy,

You gotta lose them Spoonwalker blues.”

 

RLJ  1936

Art by Tom Brown

Blue Funk

By Jim Snee

 

Wardel Prism walked away from the Squid and Teapot in what can only be described as a blue funk. That is to say that the usual clammy Hopeless fog had, in these small hours of the morning, thickened into a proper clinging wet funk, and Wardel was busily and loudly cursing the air blue.

In truth, he was not usually a happy individual, his sullen moods seemingly well fitted to the twisted frame that had earned him the name “Wonky Popeye” amongst his peers. But at that particular moment he was as far from happy as he had ever felt. At seventeen he was used to a rollercoaster of hormones, but now they were overflowing into disappointment, frustration, anger and self-loathing.

It had been going so well. Bumpa Sallow was everything Wardel had ever dreamed of in a woman; three foot tall, beautiful and old enough to be his mother. And she had been enjoying the evening. They had smiled and laughed over their drinks. They had gone back to her hovel and kissed in the doorway. They had even got on the bed and Wardel had started trying to unlock the mystery of dress fastenings.

And then it had changed.

What had he done wrong?

She said it wasn’t him, but in his mind he knew he’d done something wrong. And so he had apologised and left. All the excitement, joy and (dare he say it) love, had come crashing down in a horrible cold silence.

He swore as he walked out of her weed infested garden.

He swore as he headed down the road in a direction that he could only think of as ‘away’.

He swore at the funk and the twittering, whispering voices within it. To him it seemed like the taunting of the other boys, who already claimed his excessively muscular right arm was proof of a solitary love life. They would tell him he wasn’t a real man and that a real man would have gone through with it, would have ‘persuaded her’. Now Wardel knew what they meant by persuaded, and it made him even more angry.

“Has it ever occurred to anyone that I don’t want to do that?” he shouted to night. “Why does everyone think we men have to force ourselves on women? What kind of lunatic would enjoy that?”

The twittering voices fell silent.

Something formless shambled out of the funk and carefully placed a small silver object in Wardel’s hand.

It was a spoon.

Then, it shambled silently away.

“Oh.” said Wardel. “Thank you… so it’s not just me then…”

Art by Tom Brown

The Second Stroud Vendetta

Further classified ads created during the Strange Soiree – part of 2017’s Stroud Book Festival

Lost

A Myrtle Turdle was mislaid over 100 years ago but sadly missed by nobody. It has been researched (sometimes) and Fossils of its sweat have been documented in the museum!!! If found, well…. Arc-The-Ologist

Wiped tears accompanied by distant guilt. Must be genuine find.

Lindreygood demon child is missing. Has skin of grey, its eyes seem shut for reasons that shall remain unknown for the safety of the island. If found, give it a shiny object and report where it is to Scarlet Mandle in Mandle’s Home for Strange Creatures.

Pot of colours containing a sparkling rainbow that erupts when caught by a smile. Must not be opened after dusk. Otherwise will be leapt up by darkness forever.

All of my dustcats have escaped before I had a chance to sell them. If someone could return them to me, I would be most grateful. Walden Pond Frog.

One Diaphanous Eagle (rare) answers to the name of ‘Shadow’ ironically.

Lost – spleen. Great sentimental (and physiological) value. Greatly missed.

Lost: My purple, four legged baby. Last seen catching flies outside the cafeteria. I was inside, imbibing a fairy. Bebagoozing was wearing a hideous pink jumpsuit, his choice. He was rather wonderful bat-like ears and a tongue of extraordinary retractable length. Contact Flozmiz.

Lost: The end of my knitting.

 

Found

A shrieking armchair with a smell of ghostly camembert cheese.

3 bad jokes, 6 farts in a jar, 10 sneezes and a feather.

Found – a spleen – recently vented. If you have lost yours please enquire at The Squid and Teapot.

One portion of tentacle – slightly singed – prone to twitching on Wednesdays. Musty colour, please re-unite.

A sack of pot holes. Very nearly new, I would guess.

Foundered Hopes. (All is lost)

Found: A small clump of demon weed, each stem contains wispy mouths requesting that it be smoked. Bring paper, glue, thick gloves, scissors and a sense of humour to The Squid and Teapot tomorrow at 8pm.

Found: Part of a shadowcat – still alive, shaped like part of a shadowcat. Please take it from me!!!

 

Wanted

Amalgam fillings: 10yrs old at least please.

Swindling sticks – extendable preferred.

A bozo for the scuttle. Consider it as a gift. JK

A goat, or goatlike creature. Must respond to verbal commands.

People will to join a ‘hive’ and embark on a community capable of collective intelligence. All food and lodgings are supplied. No money is involved, buy you will enjoy the part you will play in the hive mind which will be capable of the most amazing acts of human achievement and selflessness.

Final line to a limerick – must rhyme with Alan.

Lift wanted to The Pebble, 13 past Tuesday. No wheels or slow coaches please. If return trip likely please turn around. Box No J.

A woman/man/being that has: crazy ideas that perplex me. Humour that’s not fudged but has an edge of ice. Eyes that sparkle and glow in the night. Extra toes on both feet. A heat carton of strawberry macaroon. A desire to dress colourfully inside out.

Pamola

Hopeless Maine’s very first and much-anticipated Hallowe’en party had been a disaster. The ancient cauldron in which the stew was cooking had exploded into a thousand pieces and, as if by magic, a huge and slightly comical bird had risen, squawking from its ruins. More worrying, by far, were the actions of Daniel Rooksmoor, the orphan who had been given the task of feeding the fire beneath the cauldron. Daniel had ingested three drops of the ill-fated stew (the remainder having seeped into the ground) and a profound change had come over him. Looking suddenly older and with a wild light in his eyes, the orphan had followed the Cauldron Bird’s flight and like one in a trance, wandered out towards the mysterious Gydynap Hills.

Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was wracked by guilt. He had inspired the islanders to hold the event and now felt responsible for Daniel’s disappearance. He quickly resolved that he should go into the hills himself in the hopes of persuading the boy to return to the orphanage.

 

Hallowe’en is not an ideal night to begin such a quest, especially on Hopeless, but Joseph, wary of the dangers, felt that he had no choice.

He was not a little surprised, therefore, when he reached the highest point of the hills without a single problem; dawn, however, was still some hours away and there was plenty of time for trouble to manifest. He had expected it earlier when, on several occasions, he thought that he had spotted someone – or more likely something – following him from a distance. In the event nothing too awful had happened so maybe, he reasoned, it was his own uneasiness making him see things that were not there.

 

Besides his beloved Betty Butterow, only one other person had watched Joseph head for the hills. This was Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil man. He was half-way through his rounds when he caught sight the Passamaquoddy trader. Randall could not but help wonder what was going on; the hills were no place for a lone walker at night.

It is both the gift and the curse of the Night-Soil Man to repel most creatures, human or otherwise, and it took but an instant for him to make the decision to abandon the rest of his shift, follow Joseph and try to keep him safe. A Night-Soil man has few friends but Joseph, Betty and the Lypiatt family had always been kind to him. Randall would die before allowing harm to befall any of them.

While he had taken care to keep well downwind of Joseph, the reek of the Night-Soil Man had kept all but the most olfactory-challenged beasts at bay. There had been few incidents for Randall to attend to; happily the creatures showing any interest in pursuing Joseph tended to be small and could be efficiently  despatched with a well-aimed boot. It was fortunate that the nastier predators, the night-stalkers, would not be up here on the empty hills but busy hunting their prey in the dark streets below, where flesh and blood was in plentiful supply.

 

Joseph had run out of ideas. He had walked for hours and found no trace of Daniel. His best plan now was to find somewhere to rest, light a fire and wait until sunrise. A dozen or so yards to his rear, Randall did the same, minus the fire.

 

It was just before dawn when the wind changed direction. Joseph had been dozing fitfully for a hour or more. He was jerked awake when his nostrils twitched involuntarily at the intrusion of a sudden and decidedly unpleasant aroma. Joseph smiled; there was only one person, as far as he was aware, who could announce their presence in such a way.

“Randall…?” he called, not looking back.

He heard the Night-Soil man stir, then begin to wander over.  The stench became stronger. Joseph tried not to gag; he knew that after a minute or two the smell would become tolerable.

“Hi Joe. I was just passin’. What’s going on?”

Joseph smiled to himself again upon hearing Randall’s white lie. He immediately guessed the real reason for the Night-Soil Man being there. In truth, Joseph was glad of the company and soon found himself telling Randall the whole sorry tale of the Hallowe’en party and how Daniel followed the Cauldron Bird to the hills.

“I’ll happily help, as long as you can bear my company,” Randall offered.

Joseph assured the Night-Soil Man that he was very welcome to join him. Indeed, the combination of familiarity and fresh breeze had diluted Randall’s smell considerably.

As a watery sun battled through the ever-present mist, the pair made their way deeper into the hills. Neither mentioned the several disembodied eyes, watching from the sky above them. They had both witnessed these before, of course. Everyone on Hopeless had, but there was an almost superstitious tendency to pretend they were not there. Here, however, high above the rest of the island, they were hard to ignore.

It was Randall who spotted Daniel first. He was about fifty yards away, kneeling before a large boulder. The boy was gently rocking back and forth, his arms outstretched; they could hear him chanting.

“Pamola, O Great One, come to me… Pamola, O Great One, come to me…”

 

Joseph stiffened, scarcely believing what he was hearing. This was unexpected.

He put his hand on Randall’s shoulder, a wordless command to remain still.

The two men watched for some minutes as Daniel continued to rock and chant. The chanting became more and more intense, gradually mingling with what seemed to be the roar of distant thunder. Little by little the noise grew louder, as if something was drawing near, responding to the boy’s call. Although Joseph knew the name of Pamola, even he was unprepared for what happened next. A huge bird of prey alighted upon the boulder in front of Daniel. There was some resemblance to the Cauldron Bird but the strange creature had metamorphosed into something very much bigger and far more terrible. If once it had appeared comical, that aspect was no more. There were no signs of vegetable talons or cabbage-leaf wings. This creature was wrought as if out of brass and leather; it was god-like and not in a sweet and gentle messianic way. It was quite obvious that this was something from a savage and distant past that would have little time for changing water into wine, healing the sick and suchlike.

Daniel leaned back and spread his arms wide, as though in welcome.

The bird screeched, making both men cover their ears. It hopped clumsily on to the ground and flapped its mighty wings, raising a dust storm. Joseph and Randall could only watch, helpless, as Pamola mantled Daniel with its wings, as a hawk would do when devouring its prey. They could only guess at what was happening. Suddenly, with some more dust-storm inducing flaps, the great bird rose into the misty air, leaving no trace of the boy behind.

The two observers remained in silence for some minutes, watching as Pamola gradually disappeared from sight, heading across the channel to the mainland.

It was only when he was certain that the bird was many miles away did Joseph dare to speak its name and give Randall an explanation.

“ A neighbouring tribe, the Penobscot, has a legend,” Joseph said. “Pamola – it means ‘he curses on the mountain’ – is an evil spirit who is said to reside on Mount Katahdin. It is called The Greatest of Mountains, yet it is feared by all of the Indians of Maine, even today. Pamola will kill and injure unless he is appeased by a sacrifice every now and then. He can be capricious, though. There are tales of him giving favour by taking a hunter to his own lands and lavishing upon him all that he might desire. I’d like to think that such a thing has happened to Daniel, but I fear that is unlikely. Daniel Rooksmoor is gone, Randall and we have been cursed – or maybe privileged – to have witnessed all of this.”

The Night-Soil man said little as they walked down from the hills. He had much to think about. Ancient Welsh cauldrons and Native American demons were strange bedfellows. But this was Hopeless, Maine, where strange was all too commonplace. Randall yawned and suddenly realised how tired he was feeling. He needed to sleep. Somehow, though, he did not imagine he would find sleep particularly easy to come by for some time.

Art by Cliff Cumber

The Stroud Vendetta

Hopeless Maine Classifieds from the Stroud Book Festival….

For Sale!

186 spoons for sale. All conditions, many showing fine traceries of dried slime. $5 the lot. Please collect soon. Bring weapons to allow access to the door. Address as foll…

Old “sale” signs (business gone bust).

32 vials of the cure for all known diseases. Each vial will treat approx 10 people. £100 per vial, but for all 31 vials I would be happy to accept $2000 as, if one thinks about it, there are fundamental problems with only treating part of one’s Community. Sven Flowermountain 134 Elderberry Road.

Bloodthirsty socks.

Magnanimous vitriol. Would suit most homes.

Last night’s conversation with my Dad. 3 footprints. My book about dots. Job lot £8.50

Copious amount of luscious hairy coffee strands. Perfect for the balding gentleman, or pre-pubescent boy looking to visit the Squid and Teapot. Self adhesive, pungent and durable. Also could be used to fix minor structural cracks.

Irritating younger sibling.

A fish-headed kitchen wench.

 

 

Lonely Hearts!

Bubbly obesity sucking gob-stoppers 6 at a time until we POP into a lurve bubble to bounce into perennial Happy Ever After sunsets over frothy coffee seas – Antigani will squeeze forever the night potato of your heart.

Will mate with anything creature so the progeny of my horrible species can continue. GSOH optional.

Desperately seeking a Gloopy Maloopy to gimble and gyre with. And share hairy coffee (before we die) if after… Henrietta Gerbil.

Desperately seeking spoons! Spoonwalker would like to meet spoons. Lots of spoons. Must like long walks and… er… just long walks.

Small furry eyeball seeks monosyllabic wisdom tooth for occasional outings.

AH, YES! Looking for landscapes I can write filthy poetry about. Ah YES! Must have voluptuous features and curves made of innuendo and lust.

Parish Notices

The shrunken head craft workshop will begin four days hence at the ungodly hour. You are encouraged to bring along a head to shrink. Makes an ideal Christmas present! (Hang from the mantelpiece).

Fully qualified Spoon-o-mancer offers spoon readings. Unlock the secrets of your future. The answer lies in your cutlery drawer.

I have been observing you creatures for some time now – it’s all about the journey, right? I mean, you have to be careful around here – direction wise. You could run into the caretakers – Ruby Mace with her doggerel. You don’t want that, not for anything. It comes up right being you before you know it’s there…

Wanted – dead body to fill Parish council vacancy.

The community hedge between mucky meadow and the recreation pound has become uncooperative. Volunteers needed on Wednesday for 12 hours (free biscuits).

(The second half of this happy madness will go up next week…)

Dr Cornelius Porridge arrives on Hopeless, Maine

He knew he couldn’t run much further. His lungs burned with the effort and his teeth ached as he inhaled the dense, wet fog that seemingly blanketed every square inch of the island of Hopeless Maine. His legs felt like bags of wet sand as they carried him out of the thick woodland and to the edge of the granite cliffs that held back the Atlantic Ocean.

Realising he had nowhere to go he fell to his knees and looked down over the edge, towards the clamour of the water crashing against the rocks below. He couldn’t remember when he had started running or even how he had come to be on this cursed island. He just knew he had to get away.

The sound of branches being ripped from a tree focused his mind. He looked round to see the creature that was pursuing him. It was nearly eight feet tall, covered in furry, dark green and brown scales. Yellow eyes blazed at him hungrily as a blue, forked tongue licked saliva from its sharpened teeth.

“What do you want?” He shouted breathlessly at the beast. “Why do you constantly haunt my dreams?”

The beast’s eyes widened as it began to charge. He tried to get up and run, but it was no use. His legs refused to push against the ground. It was only when he looked down that he realised the ground was breaking away from the edge of the cliff. He scrambled forward, but it was too late. He instinctively reached out, succeeding only in grabbing a handful of dust, before falling towards the rocks below.

 

Doctor Cornelius Porridge woke with a start and stared, out of breath, at the ceiling. Blinking as sweat rolled from his forehead and into his eyes, he pushed the blanket down to the bottom of the bed and sat up. Despite it being the middle of January and no fire being lit, the sweat made his nightshirt cling to him as if it were a second skin. He looked around the room and realised he had been dreaming again.

He washed and dressed and as he was waxing his red moustache he looked at himself in the mirror and said, “How did you know it was a dream?” He stared at his unanswering reflection for several moments before putting on his greatcoat and top hat and letting himself out of the house.

 

When the steel tipped arrow thudded into his front door, missing his head by less than an inch, Porridge began to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him. In the six months since his return from a two year expedition in the Arctic and Northern Canada, there had been several attempts on his life. At first he thought the falling plant pot that had shattered by his feet had been blown off the high wall by the wind. Then there had been the horse drawn carriage that had lost control coming down Steep Hill in Lincoln. It was perfectly understandable that the driver had lost control. It was reckless of him to even attempt such a descent. It was strange however, that there was no sign of him when the horses had been steered away from him at the last moment.

It was only when he woke one morning face to face with the frothing mouth of a rabid llama that Porridge began to suspect foul play was afoot. Fortunately he was in the habit of keeping a loaded blunderbuss under his pillow for just such emergencies. It was as the beast began to chew the cud, getting ready no doubt for the first projectile of spittle, that Porridge grabbed his trusty weapon and let fly. The result had left a nasty mess on the curtains, but it was for the best he told Gertrude, his horrified maid.

Porridge pulled out the still quivering arrow and inspected the hole that it had made in his front door. “I wonder if his Lordship will lend me a fiver to get that fixed?” he mused. He turned around to look for the failed archer and noticed a group of people standing near the house. I wonder if they saw anything, Porridge wondered as he slowly walked over to the small crowd. As he drew near he could see that everyone had gathered around a woman prostrate on the floor.

“It was horrible,” cried the woman. “It was covered in green and brown scales and had yellow eyes like the devil himself.”

“Impossible,” said Porridge to himself. Shaking himself out of his reverie he stalked towards the prone woman. Kneeling down, he put his hand on her shoulder, “Did you say Green and brown scales?” asked Porridge. The woman looked at him and weakly nodded. “Yellow eyes?” the woman nodded again. “About eight feet tall?”

“You saw it too?” the woman asked. “It was horrible,” she re-affirmed.

“Impossible,” Porridge repeated as he released the woman and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was then, as he looked up towards his house, that he noticed the front door was open. He was certain he had closed it. He looked at the arrow in his hand. He had just locked the door when it had struck, narrowly missing his right ear. The door had definitely been closed. Also, it was a Tuesday. A fact in itself quite unremarkable, but Tuesday was Gertrude’s day off and she never came near the place if she didn’t have to. When he had left the house it had been empty, which could only mean one thing. Someone, or something, had gone in.

Porridge looked around in vain for a constable. “Typical,” he muttered. “Never one close by when you need one.”

He threw the arrow onto the floor and pulled a navy flintlock from inside his greatcoat. Gently pushing the front door open, Porridge stepped over the threshold and into the hallway.

“Who’s there?” he called, his voice croaking rather more than he would have liked. If it was a man he could dispatch him without any hesitation, but the thought of finally coming face to face with the beast that had been haunting him for the past six months had set his nerves on edge.

“I have a pistol,” he shouted. The affirmation engendering a firmness to his voice.

Porridge drew level with the door to the sitting room, it was ajar. He never left the doors inside open for fear of fire spreading. His mouth was dry and he could hear his heart pounding. Porridge had no doubt the creature was inside.

He drew breath and kicked the sitting room door open with a violence he hadn’t realised he could muster. The door crashed against a wooden bookcase. Porridge was showered with books as the bookcase wobbled in a most precarious way. A shadow darted from the window. Porridge instinctively threw out the hand containing the pistol towards the window and pulled the trigger.

A small hole appeared in the window as the small, lead ball flew into the street and shattered the glass of a nearby street lamp. Porridge’s attention was diverted from the window by a dull thud followed by a loud creak. He turned to look at the book case as he realised the massive oak structure and the several hundred volumes it contained was falling towards him.

His face paled as the realisation dawned on him that this was the end. Before he could draw breath the shadow fired towards him, hitting him like a cannonball in the midriff. Porridge slid into the hallway gasping for breath. As he managed to draw oxygen into his body he heard books falling, like leather raindrops, onto the floor. The books were followed by the crash of oak shelves as the bookcase shattered.

The sound in the sitting room faded into irrelevance compared to the sight unveiling itself in the hallway. A huge creature, a cross between a bear and a dragon, stood before him. Its yellow eyes glared at Porridge with complete puzzlement.

“I say old boy, what on earth do you think you’re playing at?” asked the creature, pushing the words through a gap between its two front fangs.

“W…what?” stammered Porridge.

“That firearm,” the creature pointed at the pistol. “You could have hurt someone.”

Porridge blinked as the creature flicked a thin, blue forked tongue at him.

“My pistol, I still have it,” said Porridge as he pointed it at the creature.

“It’s a single fire flintlock, so it won’t do any further harm unless you throw it.”

“What do you want?” gasped Porridge as he let the pistol fall to the floor.

“Well, a thank you would be nice.”

“Thank you?”

“You’re welcome. After all, I did just save your life in there,” the creature gestured in the direction of the sitting room.

“Save me? You’ve been trying to kill me for the last six months,” exclaimed Porridge as he struggled to sit up.

“Kill you? Nonsense. If it wasn’t for me you would have been dead six months ago.”

“What about the bookcase?” asked Porridge.

“You had far too many books on the top shelves,” said the creature. “When you kicked the door open with such force into the bookcase, even I wouldn’t have been able to stop it crashing over. Quite unnecessary if I may say so ”

“What about the arrow? That only just missed me.”

“Yes, it did, but it didn’t miss the Loxosceles reclusa on the door,”

“The what?”

“Loxosceles reclusa,” repeated the creature. “A brown recluse spider. Quite deadly and about to bite you. I don’t know how you didn’t see it. One bite and your bowels would become an unstoppable force of nature.”

“Oh,” said Porridge, not entirely convinced.

“What about the llama?”

“Alouitious?”

“Who?”

“Alouitious, the llama. I sent him to watch over you. Why did you shoot him?”

“He was rabid.”

“Rabid?”

“He was frothing at the mouth.”

“He wasn’t rabid, he was just a messy eater.”

“He had red eyes,” added Porridge.

“Yes, he’d been crying. His girlfriend had just left him. I asked him to do me a favour, I thought it would take his mind off things and you shot him. Talk about having a bad day,” the creature shook its head and looked at Porridge. “He was very upset and he’s not too keen on coming back either. After everything that’s happened I can’t say I blame him to be honest.”

Porridge studied the creature for several seconds. “What about the plant pot?”

“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I did whistle though. Stopped you in your tracks.”

“So you didn’t push it?”

“No, why would I push it? It was the wind.”

Porridge looked slightly crestfallen, but rallied when he remembered the runaway carriage.

“Well, what about the runaway carriage? There was no driver and you were nowhere to be seen.”

“Ah yes. The driver had lost control. I managed to throw him off and steer the carriage away from you at the last moment. The horses seemed quite spooked, I can’t imagine why.”

Porridge raised an eyebrow. “There was no one driving,” he insisted.

“I didn’t want you to see me so…I hid.”

“Where could you hide on an open carriage?”

“It was my defence instinct kicking in. When I want to hide I become…invisible.”

“This is ridiculous,” snorted Porridge.

“How else do you explain the horses turning at the last moment?”

Porridge considered the question as he stared at the creature.

“Do it now. Become invisible.”

“I can’t,” said the creature with an indignant tone. “I can only do it when I’m startled or under stress,” the creature could tell Porridge was still having trouble believing him and decided to push on. “Anyway, the driver was an idiot. He should never have been allowed to drive a carriage down such a steep hill.”

“He wasn’t allowed. The City Magistrates banned all carriages from using that street because of the sharp incline.”

“The City Magistrates you say,” the creature looked out of the window before settling his unnerving gaze straight at Porridge. “Tell me Doctor Porridge, do you know where you are right now?”

“I’m in the City of Lincoln. In my house. In the hallway to be precise.”

“Are you certain?”

“Quite certain. Where do you think we are?

“Well, I’m afraid we’re not in the City of Lincoln and we’re certainly not in your hallway.”

“Of course we’re in my hallway,” said Porridge, unaware he was angrier at the creature’s geographical repudiation than he was in fear of its physical presence or intent. “Where else do you think you are?”

The creature studied the prone figure for several seconds before reaching out a muscular, scaly paw. Porridge shuffled back, but the creature grabbed hold of his arm and hauled him to his feet as easily as if he were a kitten and walked into the sitting room. Porridge followed the creature as it cleared a path through the fallen books to the drinks cabinet. The creature poured brandy into two glasses and offered one to Porridge. He hesitated.

“Take it,” the creature said. “You may need it with what I’m about to tell you.”

Porridge took the glass and sat in a large leather chair, satisfied that if the creature had wanted him dead they wouldn’t be drinking brandy together.

“How did you get back?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” said Porridge, the question taking him by surprise.

“The island of Hopeless Maine. How did you get from there to here?”

Porridge shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. In the six months since his escape from that dark, mist shrouded island he had often wondered exactly how he had returned. He had spent two years surveying Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in a small, hydrogen filled dirigible. During his last flight he had been caught up in a huge storm which had caused considerable damage. He was already losing height when the gondola was hit by lightning and caught fire. It was only by luck, or so he had thought, that he found land. The island of Hopeless, Maine.

“I can’t remember,” he said after a short pause.

“Let me see if I can help restore your memory,” said the creature. “You were undoubtedly drawn to the island by the lighthouse on the North shore. You actually crashed by a small lake on the South side of the island. I was being held captive in that lake,” the creature’s face altered. Porridge wasn’t sure if it was a smile or indigestion.

“There are squid in that lake,” continued the creature, “Who now think you’re a deity.”

“I’m worshipped by a cephalopod?”

“Not just one, there’s a whole village down there. We all saw you come down in a ball of flame and they thought you were going to liberate them onto dry land. Whilst they were distracted I made my escape. If it hadn’t been for your, very timely, arrival I may have been next on the menu. I knew I owed you my life so, when I saw your balloon…”

“Dirigible.”

“…Dirigible burning on the shoreline, I had to help.”

“So it was you who dragged me from the shore line and into the woodland?”

“Yes, it was,” said the creature. “The squid were about to come ashore and they would have undoubtedly dragged you back in. They do come out of the water occasionally, usually to hunt, but tend not to venture too far. As soon as you were safe I had to leave as they were rather upset at my disappearance and may have tried something stupid. ”

Porridge realised he hadn’t touched the brandy and took a large gulp. “This is all very interesting,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, “and I’m very grateful, but how do you get into my dreams?”

It was the creatures turn to take a swig of brandy.

“I have the ability to project myself into people’s dreams.”

“Why would you want to?”

“As I said, after your fortuitous arrival helped me escape, I felt I owed you a debt. But every time I tried to say hello, you ran screaming. So I decided to project into your dreams. It was only when there that I realised you are as clumsy when dreaming as you are when you’re awake.”

The furrow on Porridge’s brow deepened.

“They say,” continued the creature, “that if you die in your dreams you will die in reality. I think I’ve saved your life seven times in all. You’re a full time occupation Doctor Porridge.”

“So…” said Porridge, trying to collect his thoughts, “when I was last asleep, you were there. When I fell off the cliff you saved me?”

“Sort of,” said the creature, putting his empty glass next to the decanter. “Except, you weren’t asleep. I caught you just before you hit the rocks and you fainted.”

“But I awoke with a start. My heart was pumping,” said Porridge, the words coming out slowly as the truth sank in.

“No,” said the creature. “As you fainted you re-entered a dream state. I projected myself in and that’s when I saw the spider. Unfortunately, when I fired my crossbow I became visible and a woman saw me. I managed to take the key from your greatcoat and hide in your sitting room,” the creature looked at the fallen bookcase. His attention turned to Porridge at the sound of glass shattering on the floor.

Porridge was slumped in the chair, his shoulders rounded and his face as white as the morning frost.

“So…” he leaned forward in the chair, “…what you’re saying is…I’m still on Hopeless Maine. That this is just a dream?”

“I’m afraid so.”

The remaining blood drained from Porridge’s face and he fainted.

 

Doctor Cornelius Porridge opened his eyes and looked around. He was in a log cabin which was dimly lit by a small oil lamp resting on a table in the corner of the room. The door opened and the creature from his nightmares walked in. Porridge felt no fear.

“Ah, I see you’re awake. No ill effects I presume?”

Porridge shook his head. His body ached as though he had fallen off a cliff. He smiled at the thought and looked at the creature.

“So, this is real then? I’m still on this cursed island?”

“I’m afraid so. Many have tried to leave. All have failed.

Porridge sat up on the edge of the bed and extended his hand.

“Doctor Cornelius Porridge,” he said. “At your service.”

The creature extended its huge arm and its paw engulfed Porridge’s hand.

“Barnaby,” said the creature. “Pleased to meet you at last.”

“Tell me,” said Porridge, “why were the squid holding you prisoner?”

Something akin to a smile spread across Barnaby’s face. “Well,” he said, “that’s a long story.”

 

Written by S. A. Sanderson- author of Out of Time

Based on the Fictional person Dr Cornelius Porridge

Art by Tom Brown

The Burn

A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the vertebrae. I turn back towards the cliff-face.
Again, there is someone watching.
I washed up on this shore. I awoke to something slithering across my hand. It had burrowed away before I saw it.
I was cold. Naked. The clothes had burned from my back like they always did. I turned over and shivered on the sand, remembering the night. Hoping they had survived, the stupid mischievous lot of them.
The mast had been burning. The crew were running about. Someone screaming. And I was overboard.
I scrunched sand in my fist.
Stupid.
They tried to turf me out, once. The inhabitants here. I hesitate to say native, as I’m not sure anyone is. Gathered on the shore, tools and shovels, pointless anger. Or fear. Who knows the difference? They had their reasons.
Some of the mob waved at me with their implements and said “Begone or we’ll force you!”
I turned, opened my lipless mouth, and flame-tongued said, “Try.”
They haven’t come back.
It’s fortunate they don’t know where I sleep, during the day.
I took to swimming quite quickly.
By night, for one such as I, the perils of this island’s waters bear little danger. Things like eyes watched me pass in the dark. Some tried to do more than that. Tentacles and other, more indistinguishable appendages coiled around me, not quite touching because of the warmth, even down here, but probing nonetheless.
To their surprise, I had moved closer, right up to those maws, between the grasp of those mighty claws, looking into pupils the size of my torso. They had considered me, found me unappetising, and I turned away with a skull’s grin, feeling disappointment.
I became bored of those depths with similar swiftness.
“What are you doing?”
The words startle me. An answering flare of firelight. I turn towards the beach, and she is standing there. She blinks a little at my appearance, the light, but doesn’t move otherwise. This is rare.
I ask, “What do you mean?”
“It’s a pretty clear question.”
I hesitate, clearing a throat which isn’t really there. “Nothing.”
She tilts her head, frowns a little. “Sounds boring.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
She frowns. “Why not? My beach too. Besides, you’re one to talk, standing there like yourself.”
She vexes me. I turn away, sighing out my frustration. It makes a little puff of embers that float into the night. “Are you just here to torment me, then?”
“Sorry. I’ve seen you here before is all. Just standing.”
“So you’re the one who’s been watching me.”
“Sometimes,” she says. “Hard to say whether it’s always been me of course, round here. Lots of beasties to do the watching, and some of them aren’t as polite as me.”
I turn back to her. “And you came down here anyway?”
“Yep.”
“What if I was one of the ‘impolite’ ones. What if I ate you, or something?”
She shakes her head, “Nah, could see you weren’t like that.”
“How could you tell?”
“You looked too lonely.”
Weeks on that vessel. Walking the same deck during the day, hiding myself away at night. Through sufficient palm-greasing and careful negotiations, I had secured my rather unorthodox arrangement. I was sure the sailors thought me eccentric. This suited me. They left me alone.
It was still dangerous, the safety of the crew and any fellow passengers a constant worry while I had the planned the venture. That was why I chose a smaller vessel, not a liner. I would not be culpable for disaster. In the end it was a necessary risk. I needed space to lose myself, somewhere where I could endure the burn without endangering a soul. I had a fantasy of losing myself in those great American plains.
Every dusk my cabin would glow with flickering light, lowering myself into the bathtub that had been installed within, a tried and tested method back in Islington. I endured the sniggering and raising of eyebrows with ease.
If only they had known how important it was.
I found only one marker of civilisation after I awoke. One small derelict house overlooking the bay, at the cliff-top. Things skittered from my shambling, much of what I found already damp and useless. But there had been clothing, at least.
Sure that this meant others existed here, I set out in search of sustenance. I found both. When I asked where I was, the people gave me knowing looks and grim smiles. “You’ll be from the sea then. Welcome to Hopeless.”
Somewhat fed, and no wiser about this place that had saved my life without asking, I saw the sun sinking, noticed my flesh begin to steam. I hurried away to the bay.
She comes again, often. Jessenia. Sometimes I am sat, hip-bones grating uncomfortably on rock. Sometimes I wander, footsteps searing the sand and the flotsam. Sometimes, like that night before, I wade out into the waves.
Talking is not always what we do. Just to exist with another while in my state is a painful luxury, a previously impossible thing. But this place is full of them.
She asks me. “Do you never talk to anyone?”
“No.”
“You can’t be,” she gestures, “like this all the time though.”
“No, I’m not. It’s just easier that way. People have become confusing things, best avoided.”
She snorts, “You don’t have to be on fire for that to be true.”
I smile at that, in my fashion. And somehow, she knows, and returns the favour.
The truth is, I don’t know how I feel. My intentions of isolation have borne unexpected fruit. Rather than bring me peace, it has given me time to stir things within myself. Fear of harm, the shame of being the other, and perhaps a little resentful bitterness, that they do not also burn. I could walk through their houses at night, leave them as charcoal.
I say as much.
“But you don’t,” is all she replies.
They decided to play a trick.
Returning to my cabin one night, already feeling the heat beneath my skin, I found my bathtub vanished away somewhere. I remember letting out an involuntary guttural sound, like a lost animal. And then I heard the laughter. Heads around the door, looking in.
I railed at them, but this only heightened their amusement. I felt myself grow hot, with embarrassment but also the promise of my curse. I grew desperate, pleading with them. They laughed in my face, a pampered baby.
Their expressions changed when the steam rose from my skin, when patches of it began to fry, then fall away as the flames built.
I have thought about them many times. I have changed my opinion just as many, but I still come back to the same thought.
I wish them to have lived.
“Why do you come here?” I ask of her one night. The critters wicker and rattle around us, kept away, I presume, by my light. “You must sleep, surely?”
She shrugs, “It’s not of much use to me if I’m honest.”
“Don’t you have things to do in the day? In town?”
“Nah. Never been there.”
“Why not?”
She grins, but it’s lopsided.
I found a cave. I wished not to exist somewhere obvious, or somewhere vulnerable to my nightly form. I would hide myself away. This choice proved to be shrewd, considering the locals’ views on me. I managed to fit a cot into the dankness, a small stove and some lamps, purchased from the town. I acquired some money, doing small jobs where I could, to keep my cupboards stocked.
I had no need of a clock or watch. After sleeping away most days, I would always be woken with enough time to vacate my new home. Thus I existed for weeks, only attracting unwanted attention with my strolls.
Until her.
Talking with her makes me feel human. I had convinced myself long ago that the word no longer applied. So I decided, a wavering hermit, to take another step.
“You know…” I begin, and falter. A man wreathed in his own fire. It is somewhere between senseless and farcical. “We could talk sometime… when I’m not…like this.”
She smiles gently. “That wouldn’t be very easy for me.” Even in the midst of the burn I must look downhearted. “It doesn’t bother me.”
I reach up, trace the line of my jaw, bone rasping on bone, tap fingers over my teeth in tuneless rhythm. “You’d be the first.”
“There’s always a first. If there wasn’t, there’d never be a second. That’s maths that is.” She cocks a brow.
“You’re odd.”
“Bang on lad.”
I am walking, waiting for her to appear. For once I see her first. She is standing up on the cliff, watching something. I dim myself, bringing my flames to a lull. It is a skill I learnt quickly but never usually exploit. Around the rocks of the cliff’s base I skulk.
She stands, the moon shining full on her, still watching, perhaps waiting. I’ve never noticed before, but up there on the headland she almost seems to be pierced by that lunar light. Shot through by moons-shine.
A time passes, and then she abruptly turns and disappears, obviously descending some unseen slope hidden from me. As her face turns my way, for that moment, I think I see the light reflect off her cheeks.
I return to sea and hide beneath, feeling strangely ashamed.
“That’s where you’ve been.”
I am emerging from the water, feeling like enough time had passed, that she may have gone away. I dip my skull, thankful at least for the lack of expression.
“What is it?” She asks, like some parent or teacher. She’s learned my pauses by now, the slight movements of bone and muscle remnants among the inferno. It is both strange and wonderful to be read when one is like this.
“I saw you earlier.”
She blinks, looks down. Where my stomach would be lurches. She sighs. “I was hoping to see him.”
“Who?”
Her smile is broken.
Above all, I deserve this.
People do things in a crack of time. They peel away part of themselves with an action, a dire flaw in their judgement. They clutch a certain logic which they revere as the only possible key. They destroy all else.
I have done such things. I have persecuted what I did not understand.
I hung a boy who didn’t deserve it. I was young and callous and filled with self-importance, a lack of understanding, no desire for it. I had found him poaching.
While he kicked and struggled for breath I locked eyes with someone in the crowd. A woman, staring at me with such hatred that it seemed like her eyes would boil me where I stood.
That night my home burnt as I slept.
I watch another boy now, younger than the one I put to death. He walks in file with a dozen others, all clad in the same drab colours, body and soul.
I catch the attention of a man who follows the procession. “That boy there,” I point, “What’s his history?”
The man frowns over spectacles. “A very fine way of asking such a gloomy question.”
“Please.”
He sighs, glances away to make sure someone else is still leading the children. “About, hmm, twelve years ago now, there was a shipwreck. Another shipwreck. We found a woman, washed up. Pregnant. She was barely alive when we found her, but she clung on until we were able to deliver her child, right there on the beach. And now there he walks.”
I stare at the retreating back. “Which beach?”
I am selfish, another truth. Here I stand, lamenting my grotesque and awkward existence, while others more deserving are robbed of the time they could have spent with those dearest. The reflection of my crime is not unnoticed.
Jessenia is waiting as I emerge from my cave that night. I feel myself studied. “You know, don’t you?”
I nod. “Yes.”
She nods too, says nothing more.
I say, “I’m sorry.”
She smiles weakly, turns away. “Don’t be. I’ve had twelve years to feel sorry, for myself. I don’t need anyone else’s apologies.”
There is a silence.
“I will try my best, to see he is cared for.”
She looks back at me. “You would?”
“Maybe, circumstances allowing,” I raise an en-flamed hand, “I could do it myself, one day.” Her eyes are beginning to shine in the moonlight. “Or, I can stay away-”
“No,” she shakes her head, bites her lip as one tear falls. “Thank you.”
“You should know,” I begin, unsure of myself, “I have done… terrible things. There is a reason for my curse. You may want me apart from him.”
She comes closer. “I know the person I’ve been speaking to. Whoever this man was, he must have been burnt away.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realise I had been holding. It gusts out as heat and fireflies. I start for a moment in shock, realising Jessenia is close enough to be set alight, but she is not.
She is moving towards me, fearless. I have not had someone so close to me in the night for many years. The flames move around her, through her. She does not heed them, has no need to. For the briefest moments they brush away silvery skin to show bone.
Jessenia puts her arms around my waist, her head to my chest, and again I find myself holding my breath. Carefully, as if she may break, I encircle her with my own.
Maybe, just maybe, I can find a way.
This lovely haunting tale was written by Tam Caddick, a new writer you should be keeping an eye on.  In fact, you can, right here.
Art by Tom Brown