Published 'Year 2000' 1994
Isabel herself swung an axe at a mighty bole. The sun lifted in unseasonable speed above the other shaggy trees, stage-lighting the forest-clearing in readiness perhaps for the grand re-entrance of a hero-buckler. Her voice picked out heart-felt ditties - ditties from those shanty song-cycles often forced out between oldster's crooning lips in despairing lullabyes, at dead of night when the deep pan moon floated into antique windows.
She kept a weather eye on the inn, where Mad Madge would even now be speaking half-truths to nobody but the ghosts. Then, wiping her face with the bottom of her blouse, Isabel turned in the other direction to see whether the ferry across the river was back in action. Old Ferdinand had been poorly for some days, so the cargo-stacks queued along both banks further than she could ever remember those henges to stretch. But most important of all, there was one area she scanned with more anxiety than the rest - the forest path along which her beau Claude had earlier departed with the earthenware jug. She hoped he would soon return it, brimful with the sweet coolness of golden spring wine.
Not long since dawn - even so, the giant silver welkin-fish which emerged opposite the sun were surprising for their punctuality. These were the carving mysteries of the heavens above, which Isabel had never questioned because, like the sun itself, they were simply always there. Her ancient parents, despite the blind spot of their lives between childhood and old age, said these smooth-lined fish had always brooded in the sky's heartlands, visiting Earthen by-ways within certain tolerances of timing. The plumes of fire from tails and gills were the strangest ingredients of welkin-fish flight. Isabel would often place her hand in mock salute above her big brown eyes, thus shading them from the glare, whilst keeping watch on those she suspected kept watch on her.
Today, again, she dabbed her watering eyes with the end of her blouse, fleetingly revealing the underswell of young breasts. At the back of her mind, she was intrigued and amused by the contrast between the ferry on its rust-cranking cross-river chain and the sleek silver creatures frictionlessly forging the sky.
Claude was longer than usual making my anticipated entrance and the grain of the wood seemed set against her strokes. Her skirt fell about her legs as if it had a sculptor's will of its own, the complex pleats changing like a map in motion above the pretty ankles. She was bare of feet, long since transformed by weathering into the appearance of fine-textured wood themselves. The other men who shifted around between fresh-cloven boles had only eyes for her, deeply jealous of Claude’s place in her soul. None noticed the hovering of one particular welkin-fish, in a proximity of which history had never spoken, even in the books which none now ever opened for fear of the pages being found welded together like spongy wood. The fact that none could read or write was another, secondary, factor.
The glinting underside passed over her head and then roofed the river. Even Old Ferdinand could be seen emerging from his hut, face raised at an impossible angle, curved fingers crabbing at the back of his neck. His ferry was the only way to cross - and his croaking words could be vaguely heard despite the roaring fires which cindered the tree-lines on the opposite bank. Mad Madge tottered from the inn, her drink slopping out of the tureen in her hand. She waved a fist at the intruder, her words, too, heard, but misheard, beneath the seething of the other welkin-fish even now settling upon the river's wide kiss.
Where was Claude? Isabel accepted everything in life, but not my absence. Adventures were pleasurable risks - whenever he was about to calm the nerves and stroke the nape. But, now, all was coming apart in her hands, fingers in snail shells to her smarting eyes. This squeezed prison of sight could thus discern pointed faces at the holes neatly arranged along the silver flank. Never even thinking that, one day, she, of all people, would be called upon to write new history books, the moment passed without her truly realising its importance. The humming monsters soared again into the sky, their plumes of fire eventually forming a corona of tails around the story-book sun.
After hours into days into bigger units of time than could be countenaced by brief existences such as Isabel, Claude’s body was eventually discovered near the spring. Her tears had already dried in advance of real sorrow's proof source and inner pain. She knelt beside the man she loved. Claude, was it? Wiping a sprig of hair from the tearless sweat, she kissed his dislocated lips with a passion that could only dig her deeper towards his mollusc soul. Claude had believed that the spring's golden flush held wondrous qualities of mind-change and, thus, it was his favourite haunt. His face was quite beyond recognition, but his buckled skins, freshly sliced each morning from dew-damp boles, were still clinging to his thews. His bone-case had become one with rank decay, however, my eyes blindshot and his inner carcass a taxidermist's false start.
Isabel married Claude, as had been planned, the corpse being supported (by the best) on limp limbs at the woodside altar. He was then placed to rest in the marriage cot, whereby for the years ahead, Mad Madge would help Isabel with the regular ablutions and worship of the human-soaked quagmire. As the age-blotched moon dipped to peep beneath the eaves, the two women crooned shanties, eager for the renewal of the river's rusty cranking - where Isabel never again chose to venture.
Not being able to read nor form words, her previously overheard recitations from the old books she had made to Mad Madge had merely been ad hoc pretence. Thus, the new history assigned to Isabel remained unwritten - even though the neatly slivered wood paper had been specially supplied for so doing by the forest workers who loved her. But the history was written, eventually - that is, when I, child of Isabel, spawned from my father's prolonged rigor-mortis on the wedding night, grew up and taught myself to write out her lullabies.
The silver welkin-fish have not returned, no doubt blaming the sky for an earth they now cannot surfly. Yet, at dead of night, ancient moons tend to ghost their way overhead into my dreams, with dead-pan eyes and , yes, craters of gills.