Tag Archives: short fiction

Threads

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

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Click-click

Click-click

Click-click

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.

Click-click

Click-click

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.

Click-click

Click-click

Ssssshhhh

Wen froze.

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.

Silence.

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.

Click-click

Click-click

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.

Click.

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.

Wen smiled.

Art- Tom and Nimue Brown

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Scilly Point

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Tom Brown

 

Counting Crows

For this tale we re-visit Hopeless as it was in the days when young Randall Middlestreet was the island’s Night-Soil Man…

It was almost midnight when Clarence Coaley and his younger brother, Cuthbert slipped out of the orphanage. Since Reverend Crackstone’s disappearance the place had become intolerable. Crackstone had been strict in the extreme – some would say even brutal – but with his going no one bothered preventing the bullies from having their own way any more. It had reached the point where the need to escape far outweighed the risks of wandering the island during the hours of darkness. Besides, Clarence knew of a secret cave; he was sure it would be the perfect place for them to hide.


Although Hopeless is not a particularly large island, there are plenty of places where anyone intent on staying hidden can do so with very little effort. What serves to concentrate the mind, however, is the need to avoid being eaten, maimed, driven mad or transformed into something rather disgusting. It is a safe bet that if you have found a dark and secluded place you are probably not alone. On this island, dark and secluded places are a favourite haunt of the sort of creatures someone might reasonably expect to encounter in their darkest nightmares.


A grey and sickly dawn was trying listlessly to illuminate the mouth of the cave, when Clarence heard, coming from somewhere outside, the ominous clanking of cutlery on the move. Alarm bells immediately rang in his head. Peering out, it did not overtax his powers of deduction when several pairs of ghastly green orbs appeared not more than a dozen yards away. This was a spoonwalker raiding party, returning home after a hard night of larceny.

By now both boys were wide awake and wasted no time in removing themselves out of the situation, leaving behind the few belongings they had brought from the orphanage. Unfortunately we will never know the spoonwalkers’ thoughts on discovering, on the floor of their lair, a bag containing a cold starry-grabby pie, two changes of underwear and a risque magazine.


Randall Middlestreet had almost completed his round. This was his favourite part of the day, with his work done and a chance to sit down and watch the sun, yet again, fail to fight its way through the fog. Suddenly, a movement, about a hundred yards or so to his left, grabbed the Night-Soil Man’s attention. Two figures – boys, by the look of them – emerged from a cleft in the rocks and appeared to be heading towards the Gydynaps. Randall guessed that they had run away from the orphanage. Why they would want to go clambering up the hills so early in the morning, however, was beyond him. He pondered whether or no to follow but thought better of it. At this hour the night-stalkers would be safely tucked up in their beds, so they would be no problem. The boys will be fine, Randall told himself. He yawned, hoisted up his bucket and struck out for home.


The Gydynap Hills had always been out-of-bounds for the children of the orphanage. It was not that they were any more dangerous than any other part of the island, or even forbidden because of their reputation for weirdness. If the truth is to be told, it would have been terribly inconvenient and too much trouble if the adults in charge of the orphanage had been required to traipse around the Gydynaps looking for stray orphans. This of course made the hills very attractive to absconders such as Clarence and Cuthbert.


Had it been visible, the sun would have been seen to be high in the sky when the boys spotted the cabin. The pair were tired, hungry and beginning to regret their decision to leave the relative security of the orphanage. They could hardly believe their luck; it would surely take an ice-cold heart to turn away two frightened little waifs. This is what they believed, at least but they were deluding themselves. They were, in fact, a pair of sweaty, sly-looking, lanky adolescents sprouting hair and acne who would probably have elicited about as much sympathy as a brace of diseased puddle rats.


Clarence knocked on the cabin door, timidly at first. When no response was forthcoming he banged harder. The door swung open invitingly, revealing a cosy-looking room inside.

The boys wandered in and immediately felt at home. There was a pot of coffee on the stove and a table laid for two. Despite this, no one appeared to be in.

It did not take long for the brothers to set about exploring, hoping to find something to eat.

It was with a gasp of delight that Clarence discovered small larder that contained a greater variety of food than he had ever seen. The provender supplied by the orphanage was bland and spare but here was stored all sorts of wonderful things. On a cold, stone shelf sat the most mouthwatering array of cheese, butter and cold meats. Yet another shelf held a ceramic crock filled with soft, white bread. Further investigation revealed biscuits, candy, a baking tray laden with fresh cakes and a big bottle of soda-pop. This was marvellous!

As has often been said, the island exists on that which the sea provides, by and large. These were the sort of delights that few on Hopeless would ever dream of tasting.

Meanwhile Cuthbert, who was slightly less worldly than his brother, had his interest whetted by a small desk near the window. It was strewn with paints, brushes, charcoal and various drawing implements, all tools of an artist’s trade.

‘So, this is who owns the cabin,’ said Cuthbert to himself.

On the desk was a watercolour sketchbook. Cuthbert opened it to the first page, which depicted a decrepit looking crow; it had ragged feathers and sad eyes. The caption above it said: ‘One for sorrow’.

On the following page the decrepit crow was joined by a younger, jauntier looking bird. This page was headed with the words ‘Two for joy’.

“Put that down and help me get some of this grub out,” yelled Clarence.

Cuthbert reluctantly left the book and joined his brother.

“This isn’t right,” he said.

Clarence snorted derisively.

“They’ve got plenty and we’re hungry.Seems fair to me.”

“I didn’t mean that,” said Cuthbert. “This is more than weird. People don’t eat as well as this on Hopeless. There’s something strange going on here.”

“Worry about it after we’ve eaten,” said Clarence, tucking into a large hunk of bread, thick with butter.

Cuthbert felt uneasy but told himself he was being a fool.

“Pass the butter…” he said.


Randall Middlestreet had not slept well; his conscience had been giving him a bad time. Despite reminding himself that the two boys were not his problem, a nagging voice in his head told him otherwise and gave him no rest.

“You should have stopped them – or at least followed,” it admonished.

In the end, Randall made a deal with his conscience. He would deviate from his planned route that evening and go to the Gydynaps to check on them, before he did anything else.


By the time Randall had reached the summit, the first shades of night were drawing in. He had searched every cave and hollow on the way up without success. The boys were nowhere to be found.

“Maybe they returned to the orphanage,” he thought but without much hope that this was, indeed, the case. Having once been an orphan himself, he knew that there was little incentive to return. He lit his lantern and turned to make his way back down the hill, when he noticed the cabin. It was almost hidden between the rocks, just a few yards from the track.

Randall wandered over, hoping the boys had sought shelter there. If they had it would have been cold comfort. The front door was hanging off its hinges and the windows were broken. Grass was growing through the floorboards.

Randall raised his lantern and cast his eyes around the tiny room. There was no sign of them here; only broken, rotting furniture, shattered crockery and puddle rat droppings. Then something caught his eye.  Lying on the ground, amid all of the filth and decay, was a book. It had no sign of mould or water damage and looked as though it had been placed there that very day. Randall leant down and examined a few of the pages, which seemed to be filled with paintings of crows. There was little in it to interest him. He flipped through to the last page. Seven crows stood in a line. The first was old and decrepit. Then his eye was drawn to the two birds on the far right of the page. They were smaller than the others, cowering, with their wings wrapping around each other as if in terror. There was a caption at the head of the page. Randall did not read much these days. He held up his lantern, struggling to make out the words.

‘Seven for a secret never to be told’

Art by Tom Brown

From the writings of Salacia Went

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.

The Sister of Mercy

One grey afternoon, in the closing months of 1842, Sister Evangeline, late of the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy, settled herself unsteadily into a small, birch-bark canoe. She was all too well aware of the amount of trust that she was placing in her God and the wiry Passamaquoddy Indian who had reluctantly agreed to transport her to a mysterious fog-bound island that lay just off the coast.

Her decision to leave Dublin, in order to join the Catholic community on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Maine, had not been an easy one. The death of her mentor and founder of the order, The Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, had left her bereft. For ten years the two had laboured, shoulder to shoulder, providing food and shelter for the homeless women and children of the city. When Mother Catherine died Evangeline knew in her bones that it was time to move on to somewhere far away.


After being only a few weeks on the reservation she began to hear rumours of a small band of ‘fallen’ women on a nearby island. It seemed to Sister Evangeline that it was her Christian duty – and indeed her destiny – to seek out and help these poor souls who had been forced into such dissolute ways. The apparent name of the island – Hopeless – conjured, in itself, visions of purgatory.  The very fact that few seemed to be aware of its existence and even fewer entertained any desire to visit, did not deter her in the least. With a subtle mixture of bribes, cajoling and hints of eternal salvation, she managed to persuade an Indian, who confessed to having traded with the islanders on occasion, into providing the necessary transport to get her there.


If Sister Evangeline ever had any remotely positive preconceptions of what Hopeless may have looked like, these were quickly dashed within moments of setting foot ashore. The cloying blanket of fog that seemed in no hurry to disperse, successfully muffled any sound that might have tried to sneak across the narrow but treacherous channel that separated it from the mainland. Dark shapes that may have been buildings, or possibly strange rock formations, loomed ominously before her. Occasionally some of these would seem to move but the nun attributed this to a trick of the light, which was so sparse that one could comfortably (or more correctly, uncomfortably) call it funereal. This is not to say that the place was without light – it was just that the it was muted and not always found in the places one might reasonably expect. There was, for instance, an eerie glow emanating from a series of sickly-green orbs that seemed to be following her progress along the rough-hewn pathway. They peered from the rocks and skeletal bushes that marked its margins. Every now and then  these would shift position, often to the accompaniment of an ominous metallic scraping sound. Sister Evangeline clung steadfastly to the handle of her suitcase and cast her eyes heavenwards. Inexplicably, there seemed to be glowing eyes in the sky, as well. They appeared to be following her progress, bobbing along like small balloons in a breeze, except that there was no breeze. Something told Sister Evangeline that these strange lights represented no heavenly intervention. She shuddered. She had a distinct feeling that to wander from the path could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness and so, with faith in her heart, a hymn on her lips and mud on her habit, she made her way steadfastly inland.

If the island had first appeared to be grim, then some of its inhabitants were surely even grimmer. So pinched, lean and unkempt did they appear, the paupers who haunted the streets of Dublin looked positively decadent by comparison. It felt as if a mad look lingered in almost every eye that turned in her direction. There were some eyes that turned in opposite directions at the same time, which was somewhat disconcerting. The place and all who dwelt there gave, in her considered opinion, a vision of what Hell might be like (but without the warmth, of course).

The gloom around her deepened and Sister Evangeline surmised that the shadowy drapes of evening were drawing in. It occurred to her that, whatever unease she had felt earlier, this would be multiplied several times over with the advent of night. She needed to find shelter and find it quickly. No sooner had the thought entered her head than the unexpectedly warm and welcoming lights of an inn appeared, as if from nowhere. Thoroughly untrusting of this island by now, she cautiously wandered up to its walls and studied the sign swinging over the door. Painted upon it she could just make out the figure of a cephalopod that regarded her with a baleful eye. It was wrapping itself sinuously around a teapot, for some obscure reason known only to itself and the obviously talented but decidedly eccentric artist who had been responsible for the depiction. The nun shrugged, crossed herself and boldly ventured into the building.


Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, had catered for a variety of castaways, fugitives and accidental tourists over the years, as had his father before him. Never before, however, could he recall having a nun cross its threshold. To say that he was surprised would be an understatement.

The truth was that Bartholomew had never actually met a nun before. He had seen pictures and heard tales – not all of them complimentary – but to encounter one in the flesh, as it were, was a new experience – and by no means an egregious one. The slightly bedraggled woman who stood before him was infinitely less terrifying that he had expected. She was petite, probably in her early thirties – his own age – with a pleasingly gentle lilt to her voice and a more than pretty face. When she enquired if there might be a modest room in which she could stay for a few days, she gave Bartholomew a smile which sent his pulse racing, rendering him more than a little tongue-tied and unusually awkward.


Sister Evangeline was nothing, if not discreet. Over the next week or so she was content to settle into her new surroundings and meet some of the islanders who frequented the inn. To begin with there had been a certain amount of distrust on their part; they expected to be lectured on temperance and godliness. They were pleasantly surprised, however. Despite her calling, Sister Evangeline had no intention of using her religion to browbeat people. She had long ago learned, on the streets of Dublin, that she could achieve far more with love and compassion than with cold, judgemental words. For her own part, Sister Evangeline began to see the inhabitants of Hopeless in a different light. They were not the deranged creatures she had at first imagined – well, not all of them. They certainly had little in the way of luxuries but on the whole they were simply ordinary people struggling to survive as best they could in a harsh environment. It was this thought that she carried with her when she made her way to the bordello, where the reasons for her mission to the island – the fallen women – were to be found.


As related in the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’, the bordello had been established more a century earlier by the female survivors of a convict ship that had been originally bound for Virginia. Over the years many women had found their way to its doors. While some had happily engaged in the business of the oldest profession, others had come there purely for companionship and protection. In a very short period they became .a tight-knit community that looked after itself as best it could. There had been odd occasions, in the past, where certain gentlemen had thought that they might take control and line their own pockets. Without exception, all such gentlemen had quietly disappeared without a trace.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that the arrival of Sister Evangeline was greeted with little enthusiasm. She had come looking for a pitiful rag-tag band of frail and abused womanhood; what she had found was a veritable bastion of female strength.

It took weeks for the nun to be regarded with anything but suspicion by the women. They expected her to have come with an agenda, intent on trying to lead each and every one of them back on to some narrow path of guilt-ridden righteousness. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While she disapproved, at first, of some of the more louche activities, her only concern was for their welfare. Sister Evangeline soon learned that to achieve anything at all she would need to lose her title, discard her wimple and habit and grow her hair.

And so it came to pass that  Evangeline moved into the bordello and little by little, became an essential part of the community. It took little more than a year for the others to ask her to take charge.

“Like a Mother Superior?” she asked, with a mischievous look in her eye.


The name Evangeline means ‘The Bringer of Good News’, which was certainly apt. The bordello and the general populace certainly benefited from her continued presence on the island. Evangeline herself, however, thought her name was a somewhat incongruous, given her new position. It was too pious, by half. Regular readers will have guessed by now that she became Evadne and for the clients who came to the establishment, that she euphemistically called a lodging house, she was Madame Evadne. To make her transformation complete she tried to affect a French accent when dealing with clients. Unfortunately, the result was a strange Gaelic/Gallic hybrid which was not unpleasant to the ear but, more often than not, slightly unintelligible, which added to her air of mystery to later generations.

For the next fifty years Madame Evadne oversaw the running of her Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen with a firm but benevolent gaze. Over that time she became one of the island’s greatest benefactors. After her death a statue was erected in her honour in the lodging house courtyard. As you may recall from the tale ‘The Supper Guest’ the statue came to life on one memorable occasion, and protected her girls from a particularly evil man. She was a Sister of Mercy even in death –  you could say that she never really lost the habit.


This tale is dedicated to the memory of

Sister Evangeline/ Madame Evadne 1808 -1891

Art by Tom Brown

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.

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