Published 'Ammonite' 1995
Madge sung as she spun. Motes of dust were hanging in air’s limbo - thus frozen by the laminar flows of her faultless wheel-treadling - whilst seasonal storms stung her cottage window with salt and the oil wick grew gloomier. Madge’s singing, like her spinning, was loomed upon the rote of memory — and even the darkness invading her parlour from the sea could not sway such mindless efficiency.
Abruptly, the wheel snagged and halted, as if something had become lodged between the wooden spokes. Her revery disrupted, Madge thought she had just seen the dead - or the dead had just seen her. The wind whined and pretended to be a thousand Hell’s demons wildly spitting upon the panes. She idly speculated that either the wick had turned the dimness pink or the very morling wool being spooled upon the floor by the wheel’s extruder was already dyed by its donor sheep. She imagined the coiling strands to be shredded threads of various husbands’ remains: those various husbands she had shorn of their manhood over the unreckonable years.
A retributive ghost, she finally assumed, had left its disembodied hand in the wheel, during a state of temporary semi-materialisation, the blood from its wrist stump dripping upon the spun wool. Madge smiled at this now more likely explanation - for well she might, the ghost having failed in its course of vengeance - and threw the barely warm hand into the fire grate as potential kindle. Then, she resumed her mindless crooning to the wheel’s relentless hum. She did not even bother to remember whether she had recognised the familiar feel of the hand’s sweaty grip.
Another day, another night, another misplaced memory. Madge squatted on the stool before the fire dreaming that she no longer existed or, at best, she was a ghost returned to find her stool empty. Perhaps, she had never lived at all and the series of men wedded to her between drowning tragedies had been no more than betrothed to a lick and a promise. She did not question how such words came to her in this state of rarification.
The sea’s sound was softer tonight outside her cottage. On those earlier occasions of storm when the rollercoasting fishing-boats trailed nets like desiccated wings, she was accustomed to stare through the fucus-spattered panes for a sign of her latest husband’s bobbing torchlit homecoming: but with no hope of catching the squelch of his thigh boots through the salty puddles. Yet, now, tonight, with the fire having doused its crackling, it would have been possible to hear his breathing at the distance of a speck on the runnelled horizon.
She had surrendered the merry-go-round of marriages after the feather-toed creatures of the sea had failed to return her last one. She had been granted simple mementoes of all previous husbands — a cheek-flap or a nuggetted finger or barnacled toe. Sometimes, the bits were delivered late, half-decades late. Tomorrow, the delivery may be a man’s sea-weathered privities on a silver tray, like an aborted Innsmouth lobster.
She wept. The privities might be those of one six husbands ago: the only man who had been able to service her better than she could herself.
The weeping made little noise, like a corpse’s. And as dawn broke, the knocking was fainter than the wings of an angel-fish; quieter even than the many squelching tip-toes that preceded it.
Now to my own story, the one I know best. You see, I once saw Madge standing and I likened her figure to a shrunken, blackened lighthouse with its one failed eye-beam flowing, then flapping down the torso like shadowy wings of a cloak. She was barely visible against a storm-cloud, the darkness of which fed upon a cross-section of the sea that was as straight, long and narrow as the distant horizon. It was strange that only a few seconds had passed since the sun first turned into a solitary purple bruise of a cloud.
She was awaiting, I assumed, the return of her latest husband who usually had to fish the sea until the last daylight was sucked back by the surfacing wreck-fish. This had been no raw deal on better nights when the giddiheads of thundercloud were nowhere near. But, today, she must have wondered why he was braving the onset of foul weather. The need for catch was surely not desperate enough for such measures. But, of course, recently, the salt-wine had scrawny fruit for fins and bones. Nothing but a mouthful of scales for breakfast
Wait, what was that shape at sea darker even than the storm? I crawled nearer to Madge’s skirts to catch her low mumbles. I cupped my fan-nerved hand to my ear:
“Ne’er-be-lickit is my belly’s tongue,
Cradle-clothes are stuffed within me,
Winding-sheets swaddle a love unsung,
And a funk-willie’s my man’s chimney.”
She faltered in her tuneless crooning, since the shape had by now become obvious to her, too. If I had known the words of her song of childlessness, I would have continued it. Instead, I made it up as I myself took up the strain:
“Hog’s lard, fear-babe and pricker-roach,
Sea-shade, blub-bring and earth-fly,
I must boil the sea, let them poach,
‘Cos gulpswollen is my birth-eye.”
The sea soon regurgitated its prey before the storm broke. I helped Madge drag it back through the sand-puddles to the cottage where we put it to bed together, like parents tucking in their only child.
Her tears were dry. I wondered if she even noticed me helping at all. Clambering to the window sill, I could see the storm had nurtured the tallest, most imposing lighthouse ever, sweeping the sky with a god’s flashing eyes. I sang, wordlessly this time, in the hope it would lull Madge into a dreamless slumber. Eventually I nuzzled up to her, to ease a bout of the shyfryngs. Seeing, my solitary birth-eye in the darkness, I assumed she knew I was the baby to whom she’d never given birth. Or was it that the past had no monopoly on ghosts?