Tag Archives: short fiction

The Lady From Baltimore

The Passamaquoddy trader, Samuel, looked pensively over the bay and wondered to himself if any other rich and elderly widow had ever taken the trouble to leave the security her well-appointed home to visit his less than salubrious reservation.

He rubbed his chin quizzically, pondering why the woman who called herself Mrs Spillman had chosen to do just this. She must be at least eighty years old, he reasoned. What had inspired her to leave an affluent area of Baltimore and travel the five hundred or more miles to this particular part of Maine?

What Samuel was to learn, a day so later, was that this recent visitor had journeyed with a purpose; a purpose that would have sounded very much like a wild goose chase to most people.

Mrs Lilac Spillman, although of very mature years, was an exceedingly determined woman who knew her own mind. There had been another trader here, many years ago, who, along with his little family, had welcomed her and her friend, Amelia, into their home. Lilac had been no more than a girl then and to her eternal shame, had walked out on them without a word of thanks. She  disappeared without even saying goodbye, slipping away like a thief in the night on the arm of a gambling man named Abner Badbrook. Badbrook eventually abandoned her in New York, leaving the hapless girl alone in a strange city, friendless, penniless and pregnant.

Lilac shuddered to think how she had betrayed the Indian family’s hospitality. She remembered that the trader had biblical name – Abraham – and that he had rescued Amelia and herself from a grim fate on the island of her birth; a place that she once vowed never to visit again. Abraham must be long dead, she thought, but maybe – just maybe – someone living on the reservation might still be visiting the island occasionally. One trip was all she wanted; just the one. She knew that her remaining months, possibly weeks, were few and despite her earlier disdain, Hopeless, Maine was calling to her.

 

When she heard that there was, indeed, a trader, Joseph, now living on Hopeless and due to arrive any day, her heart leapt. Could this be the Joseph that she remembered? Abraham’s son? He had been a boy of eight or ten at the time. That would make him seventy, at least. She thought it unlikely that it was the same person. However, when she saw Joseph standing outside the governor’s house she recognised him immediately. He was the image of his father. Although hazy about many things, Mrs Spillman’s long-term memory was as sharp as an eagle’s eye.

It took a moment or two for her to notice the burly man who was standing quietly, almost shyly, behind Joseph. Despite his very pale skin and tendency to walk with a stoop, as though he was accustomed to carrying a heavy burden upon his back, there was something about him that reminded her of someone she knew long ago. Then, when she was introduced to him, she thought her heart would break.

 

After forty years as Hopeless, Maine’s Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet had taken the unusual step of giving up his post to his apprentice. The new-found freedom of being able to associate with his fellow islanders had not lost its novelty value, even after some weeks following his abdication. Therefore, when Joseph invited Randall to join him on a trip across to the mainland, the former Night Soil Man was as apprehensive as he was excited. His life had changed greatly recently; he little suspected the new direction it was about to take.

 

You will recall that the first part of this tale concluded with Mrs Spillman sobbing into Randall’s neck and calling him her son. To say he was taken aback is an understatement. Randall had always understood that his mother had died in childbirth. To find, after fifty-five years, that she had been alive and well and living in somewhere called Baltimore was a surprise, to say the very least. The torrent of emotions that stormed through him at that moment was overwhelming. Feelings of joy and anger, love and betrayal, all mixed up with a generous helping of confusion, almost bowled him over; that, and the not insubstantial weight of the elderly lady clinging to his neck.

The elected governor of the tribe – or the  sakom, as he is known – had been entertaining Mrs Spillman in his family home for a few days prior to Joseph’s  arrival. After the necessary introductions had been made the sakom made it his business to linger and eavesdrop on their conversation. Upon seeing Mrs Spillman’s reaction to meeting Randall the sakom diplomatically ushered the three of them back into the privacy of his home, where, over coffee and biscuits, Mrs Spillman apprised her son of the details of her history and the reason why she had left him on the steps of a convent. How he had arrived on the island of Hopeless, though, was a total mystery to all. Randall had never been told the story of his rescue by Sebastian Lypiatt and the nun, Sister Mary Selsley.

 

A lifetime of being the Night Soil Man on Hopeless had made Randall something of a stoic, although this was not a word he would ever have used or even recognised. To adopt an attitude of accepting, without complaint, the ups and downs of daily existence is a necessary way of thinking on an island where unpredictability is the only predictable thing that the future holds. There was no point in regretting the lost years or blaming his mother for abandoning him. It would achieve nothing. Besides, she had had her reasons.

 

There was one other thing. Mrs Spillman had sold almost everything she possessed when she left Baltimore. Her worldly goods, including a large town house, had been converted into cash and lodged in a bank account.

“It’s all yours,” she told Randall. “I had no idea what would happen to my estate when I die. Now I know.” With that she reached into her travel-chest and retrieved a canvas bag. It was full of silver dollars.

“This will tide you over until suitable arrangements have been made,” she said.

Randall was aghast. He had little use for a lot of money. Hopeless was not the type of place where you could spend very much. He looked at Joseph for help.

“Take it and make her happy,” Joseph advised.

Randall looked about him at the spectre of poverty that stalked the reservation. Even Hopeless looked comfortable, compared with the poor living conditions many endured there. This place needed a helping hand. He knew what to do with at least some of his new-found wealth.

 

A few days passed and Joseph enlisted the help of his cousin, Samuel. Although refusing to set foot on Hopeless himself, Samuel reluctantly agreed to ferry Randall and Mrs Spillman across the treacherous channel to that strangest of islands. Joseph’s own canoe was full to bursting with furs, textiles and beaver pelts, purchased at a vastly inflated price by the suddenly wealthy Randall Middlestreet.

 

Although Randall was willing to pay Isaac Lypiatt, the landlord of The Squid and Teapot, to give his mother comfortable lodgings, Isaac refused, having inherited his parents’ generosity. He happily gave Mrs Spillman a room in which she could live out her remaining days in comfort. The Squid had been her home once and it was only fitting that it should be so again. It was the very least he could do.The Lady from Baltimore had come home to die.

The artist (Tom Brown, in this case) apologizes that there is not a new drawing this week. He is very much engaged with the final bits which will ensure that the next volume of the graphic novel series (Sinners) comes out on time and is as wonderful as we can manage.

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Fun Fair for the Common Man

Anyone who knows anything about Hopeless, Maine will be all too aware that it is no stranger to the occasional shipwreck and the rag-tag straggle of survivors who invariably accompany such disasters. Similarly, the island is equally familiar with the assortment of flotsam and jetsam which arrives upon its foggy shores in some abundance. These gifts from the sea can be practical, decorative or, indeed, both. Only rarely can they be said to be entertaining. This tale tells of one of those rare occasions.

 

In the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’ I told you of a small settlement, thought to be originally populated by descendants of the British slaves who were introduced to the island by its earliest known settlers, the Vikings. For generations they kept themselves to themselves, speaking a long extinct version of English and living peacefully in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. Their dwellings, which were small and simple, were huddled around a patch of tough, spiky grass. In the distant past livestock might have grazed there but at the time of this tale the livestock had long gone; instead it had become the place where children played, deals were brokered and lovers met in the misty moonlight. It was common ground, or simply ‘The Common’ to all who used it.

 

There was one child who could only ever watch the others at their games; his name was Griffin Mills. Griffin had been born with a malformed leg and for his first few years could only drag himself along using a rudimentary crutch. It was not until he was in his teens that a thoughtful blacksmith fashioned him a caliper which, for the first time in his life, afforded him the ability to quite literally stand upon his own two feet. There was a price to pay, however. With the casual cruelty of youth his peers immediately dubbed him ‘Iron Mills’ and the name stuck. Before long everyone seemed to forget his real name and he was known as Iron for evermore.

 

As has been mentioned elsewhere in The Vendetta, sirens are known to haunt the rocky coast of Hopeless. When these creatures sing, women rush to get their children and husbands out of earshot, for few can resist their call. Iron – as we shall now call him – was no exception. Like the crippled boy in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, however, he was able to hear the music without succumbing to its lure, for his disability would prevent him from taking pursuit. Instead, the boy would lean from his window and listen to their alluring voices until his soul ached. He lusted for music; any music, such was the glamour that the sirens had put upon him.

Although not particularly religious, Iron even prayed to St. Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Music but nothing seemed to happen. It’s fair to say that her apparent indifference to his plight was breaking his heart and shaking his confidence daily. Then one morning everything changed when into his life stepped a character who rejoiced in the name of Cosimo Washpool, recent shipwreckee, raconteur and showman.

 

Washpool had enjoyed some success in the United States, touring with his one-man fun fair, hiring whatever casual help he needed in every town he that passed through. Upon a whim, he one day generously decided to allow the populace of Canada the chance to partake of the entertainment he offered. Unfortunately this was done as cheaply as possible and neither the ship nor her crew were sufficient to the task of successfully transporting a heavy steam engine and its attendant fairground rides through the capricious waters of the North Atlantic.

The upshot was, like so many before him, the unfortunate showman found himself stranded on the island of Hopeless, Maine and his crew drowned to a man. Just a dozen yards from the coast sat the shattered remnants of his livelihood, floundering in a half-submerged ship that threatened to disappear with every wave.

 

Sebastian Lypiatt, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ rounded up some fellow islanders to help Washpool recover what he could from the wreckage. Over the years Sebastian had been involved in removing some unusual items from the sea but nothing compared with the contents of these latest crates and pallets. Brightly painted wooden ponies and ornate, rope-twisted and gilded poles were brought ashore, along with steps, canopies, garishly decorated boards and a host of other things, the like of which Hopeless had never before seen. These were as nothing, though, compared with the large and outlandish artefacts that the showman literally begged them to save before it was too late. The little party had to float a raft out to the rapidly sinking ship in order to rescue these last surviving, but decidedly awkward, items that seemed, on the face of it, to have little practical use.

The front of one contraption was painted to resemble a theatre, complete with a modestly-sized proscenium arch and artfully painted rococo flourishes. For reasons beyond the comprehension of any of its rescuers, three effete looking effigies in eighteenth century attire were placed along its length. The proscenium itself had curtains drawn tastefully back to reveal brass pipes and a bewildering assortment of gears and cogs. Accompanying this edifice was something that Sebastian recognised – or thought that he recognised. It looked like a miniature version of a ship’s boiler, mounted on wheels. While the volunteers from The Squid and Teapot manfully manoeuvred all of this ashore – not without a certain amount of sweat and profanity – Washpool was retrieving some mysterious looking tomes, all the time muttering to himself about the importance of keeping them dry.

 

To relate to you the full story of the bribes and bargaining, cajoling, shameless

pleading and extravagant promises that Washpool employed to effect the erection and siting of his beloved ‘Galloping Horses’ carousel and steam engine, would swallow up more lines than I have space for here. It’s sufficient to say that, had it not been for the experience of Sebastian Lypiatt, Bill Ebley and one or two non-natives of the island who had seen something of the wider world, none of it would have happened. They managed to transport what remained of the fun fair to the only space flat enough to accommodate it,The Common. There it sat until Washpool had gathered enough fuel to tempt the steam engine back into life.

 

Those who live on Hopeless are used to seeing odd things on a daily basis. Eyes in the sky, spoonwalkers and gnii were fairly familiar sights; as were vampires, werewolves and an assortment of night-stalkers, although, in fairness, most people only see these once. Things invariably take an unpleasant, not to say terminal, turn after that. The spectacle that adorned The Common, however, was unusual in the extreme, even by Hopeless standards. While the galloping horses cavorted around in an endless circle, the resurrected engine that drove it proclaimed its presence by belching smoke and powering the organ housed within the little theatre.  Louder than any siren-song was the stirring music emitted through a series of brass tubes that lay behind the proscenium arch. Gears turned, a flywheel spun and two bass drums were struck by hefty sticks as if by magic. One of the mysterious tomes that Washpool had tried so desperately to keep dry had been unfolded to make a wide ribbon of punch-holed cardboard that raced through the mechanism. It was the soul of the music, though few who saw it would guess as much. One or two of the onlookers were convinced that the effigies on the front of the theatre danced to the melody. My own view is that this had less to do with animatronic marvels than the efficacy of the produce of the Gannicox distillery. The smoke, the noise and a palpable air of excitement drew people from all over the island.  They came in their droves to stare, awe-struck at the spectacle and at at the front of the crowd, goggle-eyed with wonder and excitement, was young Iron Mills.

 

Iron was in love. To him the call of the fairground organ was as bewitching and potent as any melody seductively crooned by a siren. Besides that, unlike sirens, fairground  organs were unlikely to rip you to pieces and devour you, though you could get a nasty burn if you touched one in the wrong place. While the music was somewhat strident and occasionally a little off-key, it was undeniably music. Jubilation! St. Cecilia loved him and had done the business. If not for his gammy leg and a degree of dignity, Iron would probably have been tempted to fall on the floor and start laughing.

It did not take the lad long to a wheedle his way into Washpool’s favour and become an apprentice. He learned the arcane secrets of the showman’s art and the temperamental ways of a steam driven engine. The huge tomes of hole-punched card became as precious as any holy text to him and the upkeep of the carousel a sacred office. The music would play, the carousel rotated and the people would be drawn by the spell of the fun fair. Even the spoonwalkers, puddle rats and dustcats came out to see what the fuss was all about, but this was more to find what they might scavenge than for cultural reasons.

 

Time passed, as time has the curious habit of doing, but the little fun fair never lost any of its allure. The carousel would often stand still and silent for weeks on end until sufficient fuel was found to breathe life into the steam engine. The first puff of white smoke and steamy note would be a clarion call to the islanders; once more The Common would heave with excitement.

When Cosimo Washpool died, many believed that the music would die with him. They had forgotten about Iron Mills, by now a young man, who had worked at Washpool’s side, quietly mastering the idiosyncrasies of the steam engine and maintaining the carousel and organ. It took a little longer to gather fuel alone but in time-honoured tradition, the show went on. And on and on. For fifty long years Iron Mills ran his carousel, never failing to thrill generations of islanders with the marvel than was a steam-driven organ and a simple carousel of galloping horses – wooden, brightly painted creatures as fantastical and outlandish to the eyes of most Hoplessians as a spoonwalker might be to an Eskimo.

In the strange way that language and place-names evolve, The Common, over time became popularly known as Iron Mills’ Common, so closely was the man identified with the place. Eventually even the apostrophe disappeared (in the way that apostrophes often do, that is, when they are not being misplaced).

Of course, today Iron Mills himself is long dead and with his passing, so went the fun fair, for he had no apprentice or assistant. Sadly, there was no one who had been initiated into the mysteries of the mechanisms that kept it running.

If you should go to Iron Mills Common these days you can still see the sad remains of the fun fair, faded, rusted and silent. The cardboard, hole-punched, books that created the music have rotted away and anything worth salvaging from the engine and steam-organ have long ago been scavenged. Puddle rats nest in the engine’s boiler and a small colony of spoonwalkers have taken over the little theatre. The carousel is a mass of ivy; it twists up the tarnished poles and winds around the roof struts. Saddest of all are the wooden horses; they stand as if waiting to gallop once more but many are broken and all are bleached white by the weather.

Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night Soil Man, swears that on wild and moonless nights he has sometimes heard thin strains of music coming from the direction of Iron Mills Common. In all probability this is no more than the wind whistling through the few remaining organ pipes. But there again, maybe not. After all, this is Hopeless, Maine.

Art- Tom Brown