Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Gathering of Crows


It was cold the day they buried me, the mist shrinking back from the hump of the hill. The crows had arrived early. They arrived with me. They gathered, like sleek flowers in the branches of the undressed oak. They were silent until the funeral entourage appeared, as if taking cue from the first arrival.

Thel arrived first, as I knew she would. She was always on the run, from something or toward something and there was no reason why my funeral should be any different. I know now that she wanted to make peace with me but, to be honest, I hadn’t realised there was a peace to be made.

That’s the thing about being dead ….. you get to see things as they really were, rather than how you thought they were. It’s not quite the same as when you are alive but it is similar. Death has a way of making things very clear. It forces you to see even as it blinds you. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely taken unawares. After all, Death had been my companion for many years. We had walked together, through bright nights and dark days for longer than I cared to forget, but I had managed, through most of that time, not to look too closely.

But there comes a time when it isn’t a matter of choice, and you have no option. That’s when Death holds your face in her long, burning fingers and forces you to look deep into her eyes. You can fall into those eyes and never find your way back. That’s why it’s better to choose while you can. The name-reader taught me that. We can change our lives, simply by choosing.

Thel wanted to know who I was and that’s why she had to find the diary.

It started with the milk-haired girl, her face turned toward the wind, poised like The Fool upon the precipice, daring all to follow her into the unknown. Like ancient Mania’s moon-child, she clung to the bars that separated her from the churning sea, as if at any moment she might take flight and soar through the brooding heavens, at one with the screaming gulls.

I can still see her now, even though it was so very long ago … the image engraved upon memory, finely worked with feeling. And that’s the other thing Death taught me; it’s not enough just to think about things, you have to feel them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself and stories are meant to have a sequence. I’m not sure why though, because most of the time life doesn’t. We all like to think that it does, but often it doesn’t. In truth it’s only something we tell ourselves, in order to create the illusion of certainty.

But there is no certainty, never was and never will be. When you look back there’s nothing much of substance either. It’s just a collection of moments pulled together into something we call a story. The truth is that most of the time we live in the bits of our lives, dropping in and out at the whim of what we call consciousness. It’s an erratic process and it’s a wonder that we’re not all crazy by the end of it. That’s probably what they say about me now, but I don’t care what people think, not anymore.

To my mind it is the story that we make out of the dregs and dross of our lives that is the most important thing because that is where we find meaning, and meaning, I’ve come to see, is the one quality that can make the worst of life bearable.

But I was talking about the child, the one who brought us all together on the island, so many years ago.

I was there because of the letter. If it had not been for the letter our paths would never have crossed. I would not have been standing on the dock that day. Synchronicity they call it, the coming together of people or circumstances that create meaningful connections. The ancients would have called it Fate; the Arabs would have said ‘it was written,’ and a lot of people would have just said it was ‘luck.’

Every story lives of and through itself and it is in the telling that the threads are sorted and re-worked. I happen to think that words are living, feeling things and, like human beings, they breathe most deeply in the spirit of change. And so the pattern is the same, and yet different; the telling is true, and yet false, and the story is timeless and yet changed. For it is in the changing that we can find a place for ourselves in the story; and in the doing, re-make the bed in which we must lie.

This story belongs to many, but I tell it now so that I may find my own place in it. And while I was there from the beginning, I did not know it, for life does not have beginnings until we look back. There are those who would say it has no future either, only the eternal now, but it is of the future that we dream most often, forgetting that the past is both source and pattern of all dreams.

‘Come home. I am dying.’ Those few, short words said everything, and nothing. It was typewritten, with the date at the top and the address below, Pelican Point, The Island. There was no need for a name. My mother was the only person who lived at Pelican Point, that bleak, rocky outcrop at the far end of the windswept island.

It was the first time I had heard from her in thirty years and it was the only letter I had ever expected to receive. It was a letter only she could have written, as if she were ordering flowers, or summoning people to a party.

It was winter when I headed South, although the days were still bright, as if to spite the chill of night and the icy tongue of dawn. The letter had given me no choice, but it had been time to leave anyway. The job was boring, and the relationship … well, that had been moving somewhere that I did not want to go. Thomas had told me he loved me, but I couldn’t think of what to say to him and so it was easier to leave.

Copping out I guess you could call it. A tactical retreat was how I preferred to think of it at the time. Anyway, the letter had provided a convenient key, one that fitted neatly into the complications of my life and served to set me free.

In the years of wandering I had always known that someday I would go home. It wasn’t as if I had made a conscious decision to stay away, but at the same time, I had had no urgent desire to return. And so, in that way life has when we do not choose one thing or the other, the days had folded neatly into weeks, the weeks in turn to months, and in the rolling onwards they had made an untidy pile of circling years.

I had left barely more than a child; tall, ungainly, thoroughly determined and utterly terrified was how I had left. And now I was returning as a woman nearing fifty, still tall, less ungainly, still determined and marginally less terrified.

Somehow, seeing it like that, compressed as it was between two ages, my life seemed very tired and small. It was a thought that bit as spitefully as the wind that played around my ears, those ‘elephant ears’, as my mother always called them. There wasn’t a collar big enough to triumph over both wind and memory.

If I hadn’t been in a foul mood already, that thought would have been enough to put me in one. Looking out across the sea, I could hear my mother’s voice. I may not have spoken to her in years, but she had never ceased to speak to me.

In all the years of wandering the mainland had been my mast, something to which I could tie myself. It wasn’t that I thought she wanted me back, rather that I felt guilty for leaving. I don’t know why I felt guilty although I suspect it is something that we suck in with our mother’s milk.

Looking down I could see the stretch of water heaving and sucking. I could feel the salt in my nostrils and a drift of something else, a fragrance of pine. Those ancient trees ran the length of the largest beach on the island, and perfumed the eternal wind.

The paint flaked fine as I ran my hands along the metal rail, spreading itself in a pale freckling upon ink-stained fingers. Overhead, the gulls screamed in shrill salute.

“Ennis! Ennis! Come down from that rail!”

The child was balanced precariously upon the middle rung, her cream-ice hair shawling the small face that was turned toward the invisible island. The wind took voice and in its frenzied surety, moved circling, through wonder, to terror, and back again.

Some moments draw themselves slowly in an instant, and in this place, balanced between two possibilities, there was time for me to run. It was as I held her, like some captured bird, that she fixed me with a firm, if thwarted look.

“Let me down.” There was no panic in the high-pitched voice, merely demand. As I set her down, her small face puckered as if she was thinking about saying thankyou but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it.

“Thank-you. Oh thank-you.” A woman rushed past and reached for the child.

“I didn’t need any help.” Ennis shrugged herself away.

“It’s okay,” I said. But the words were blown away by the wind and the woman had eyes only for the child.

“Ennis, I told you not to climb the rail. You might have fallen.”

“I wouldn’t fall.” The child pouted, but the words were strong and determined through budded lips.

At the time she reminded me of myself as a child, but I’ve wondered since, if I saw in the child what I had wished myself to be, rather than what I was. Memory plays tricks on all of us, all of the time, and becomes, more often that not, a dream of being rather than an accurate recall of any reality.

The woman brushed at the child’s coat and straightened its already tidy collar. Ennis pulled away with an irritated grimace. She looked to be about six years old.

The woman sighed. “Ennis, come here, you look a mess.”

“I don’t look a mess Mummy!” She shook her head in defiance.

Wilful or not, there was something engaging about the child. She looked nothing like her mother, although there was a similarity of expression that played lightly around the eyes and a careless splash of freckles across both noses. But that was it. No more that gave claim, each to the other.

Then again, the child could have been adopted. That thought did run through my mind. Followed closely by another, that I looked nothing like my mother, nor my father for that matter.

“Wild imaginings,” my mother would have called it, “letting the mind wander where it would without rhyme or reason.”

“Trying to make sense of something, that did not seem to make sense at first appearances,” I would have replied.

I believed in finding a place for things that did not seem to fit. There was a reason for everything, you just had to find it.

At least that was what I believed back then. It wasn’t that I believed that life had a purpose, but rather, that everything could be explained. If nothing else, the eternal search for ‘sense’ kept me from getting bored. And by ‘sense’ I don’t mean answers. That’s a different thing. When something makes ‘sense’ then you can find a place for it, find a reason for its being. ‘Sense’ is much more flexible than answers.

Answers were something my mother always wanted. And, if she feared such things as ‘wild imaginings,’ it was only because she feared anything that did not smack of absolutes. It was as if, in the act of following one rebellious thought, the entire world could be brought to its knees.

It was one of the many differences between us. I preferred to roam in the world of potential, putting together and taking apart a myriad of possibilities. Then again, that was probably why I always found it so hard to make a decision about anything. ‘Indecisive,’ my mother called it. ‘Going with the flow,’ was how I saw it.

“You never think you will fall Ennis but one day you will.” The woman had dropped to her knees, and was carefully buttoning the child’s grey, woollen coat, as if in the very act of protecting her from the bitter wind, she could hold death itself at bay.

“No, I won’t,” Ennis shot back, before pulling herself out of reach, and running across the car park, her face turned upwards like an excited puppy.

The woman watched her. She had large, hazel eyes and neat, fine hair that swung low against a tidy chin. That was the word for her, tidy. Everything about her was in its place, as if under strict orders to obey. Except for her smile. That was different and it almost looked as if it did not belong. It’s hard to describe, that smile, but I suppose the closest I can come, is to say, that it had about it a sense of abandonment.

”Look, thank you very much. I do appreciate it. She’s always doing things like that. It’s as if she …” the woman grinned sheepishly. ”Well, let’s just say she is always doing things like that.” At her feet two seagulls began a steady, pecking dance, as if entranced by the mirrored perfection of her patent leather shoes.

“ She’s a child,” I said, finding the remains of a broken biscuit in one pocket and throwing it to the birds. “They thrive on danger. It’s one of the best things about being a child … you believe you’re indestructible.”

“I think you’re right.” She began to brush invisible strands from her own coat, stroking up and down with long, elegant fingers. Her nails were finely manicured in the French style and the flesh shone pink against the ivory tip. “Do you have children?”

“ No, single and alone, that’s my fate.”

“They can be a handfull,” she said ruefully.

“Well, I think she would have been okay.” I hated myself for digging my ink-stained fingers, with their finely chewed nails, deeper into my pockets, but I couldn’t help it. “She looks strong. Not the sort to let go, no matter how much the wind blows.”

“She’s certainly strong-minded, that’s half the trouble.” The words had been drawn in critical shape, but they lacked substance, and the woman’s half smile spoke both of love and something that could have been exasperation, or perhaps was just weariness. She did look tired, but then everyone standing on the dock that day looked tired. It was the wind. There’s a niggling, spiteful edge to the wind when you go that far south … especially along that part of the coast. It’s the same on the other side, as if the wind that travels along the wide, ocean channel, hates the land that reins it in.

The wind was blowing that day at its very best, incessantly, nastily. I could see the woman’s shoulders begin to hunch. At first I thought it was because she was cold and then I had the sense that she was trying to make herself smaller than she really was.

I knew that feeling. I think it comes instinctively to tall women, as if we feel that we are doing something wrong by being so tall. She was not only tall, she was slender as well. We had the tall in common. I could feel my own shoulders begin to curve inward, as if in sympathy.

My mother’s words came back to me yet again. As you can see, they did that a lot actually, and so did my father’s. It doesn’t happen as much now, but then, it was constant. It was almost as if I had been tuned to their frequency and had no way of finding my own.

’You’ll end up a hunchback if you don’t stand up straight!’ I could almost feel the hard, bony finger, jamming once more into my shoulder. Instinctively I pulled myself up. It was then that I realised I was taller than the woman. Just a little, mind you, but definitely taller. For some reason it pleased me … probably because of the manicured nails.

“ It’s an unusual name,” I said, having obeyed the ghostly jab and brought my mind back to where it belonged. “I haven’t heard it before.”

“Ennis? It means island. I always liked the name. I don’t know why and I always wanted to have a little girl and call her Ennis. And I suppose it suits her … she is a bit of an island unto herself. ” Her eyelids dropped as she said this. It was almost as if she was trying to remember something. Or forget. That thought occurred to me too.

“Thel Mendes by the way. It looks like we are heading in the same direction.” I put out my hand and she took it. Her hand was broad and firm, like mine, but her grip lacked strength.

“Helen Evans, glad to meet you.”

“That’s funny, Helen is my name too.”

Clearly drawn eyebrows rose above questioning eyes.

“Well, it was my birth name if you like, but my mother always referred to me as, ‘That Helen,’ and so by the time I went to school I was Thel to all my friends and it’s been the same ever since.”

“It’s nice,” said Helen. “Unusual and it suits you. Much more interesting than Helen and a nice way of shortening it …better than ‘Hel’ anyway. That’s what they called me at school and I never liked it.” There was a wrinkle of the small, neat nose that was both charming and enviable.

“It’s okay. I guess Helen is a bit boring. It was my father’s choice actually. Probably the one time he got his own way. I liked it more after he told me why he chose it. He said it was both honourable and powerful and I had a lot to live up to. He said there was Helen of Troy and Helen, the harlot, the fallen thought of God, through whose raising mankind was to be saved.”

Helen gave a tidy, but delighted laugh. “Goodness me, and he told you that?”

I could feel the blush before it came, a brightening barely visible beneath well-tanned cheeks, but a familiar one that caused me to shuffle all the same. It also gave me the chance to give my shoes a quick rub against the back of my jeans. Not that it probably made much difference. There wasn’t a lot of leather left on them anyway.

“Well, he was different, my father. He always said what he thought … no matter what, and there was always a lot of ‘what’ where my mother was concerned.” I could see that guilty smile of his even as I spoke, that first indication of the apology that would surely come.

“They didn’t get on … your parents?”

“To put it mildly.”

“But at least they talked, even if they argued, they were talking. Silence is worse. Silence is much, much worse.”

“I suppose so.” It hadn’t occurred to me that anything could be worse than what they had been like but I could see what she meant about silence being worse. She looked distraught when she said it too, and the look on her face made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was like stumbling into a graveyard when you’ve been heading for the garden. It wasn’t at all the sort of thing I expected to find in someone so, well, so controlled and tidy. It was probably the first time that I began to suspect I wasn’t as good at reading people as I thought I was.

“ But it’s wonderful, you know, that your father could talk to you like that. I mean, to be so open, so honest with a child.” She pulled her collar up as she spoke and secured the top button. It was getting cold and she didn’t look as if she was used to it. She was also trying to smile but I could see her lips were turning blue. Not that there was much I could do about it, except to keep talking and take her mind off the cold wind.

“He was special,” I said. “The sort of person that you wish you were, if you know what I mean.”

She nodded and I knew from her eyes that she knew exactly what I meant.

“He was selfless really, probably too much so, but he just had a way of being considerate, of doing things that made other people feel more comfortable … a natural gentleman I guess you would say.“He wasn’t perfect, no-one is, and there were times when he made things harder for himself, harder than they needed to be. I mean, if he had stood up to my mother occasionally … things might have been different. I suppose too much niceness can make you weak,” I added lamely.

“But don’t get me wrong … he was wonderful, quite wonderful.” And there I was defending him again, just as I had always done, in life and in death, but this time I was defending him to a complete stranger…. and blushing like an embarrassed child.

“He was the one who got me interested in … the meaning of things, I mean, like names, ” I went on, hoping to distract both myself and her. But, it all sounded so much like an apology, and one offered for no identifiable sin, that I felt even worse.

“ You are very lucky to have had such a wonderful father. He sounds as if he was quite fascinating. There’s not many fathers who would put so much thought into what their daughter was called. He must have loved you very much,” she said gently.

“What else did he tell you about your name?” She gave me that look I would come to know so well; an expression that could only be called warm acceptance, as if it did not matter from that point on what I said or did, it would be perfectly fine in her eyes.

“Well, Helen of Troy was said to be an incarnation of the Virgin Moon-goddess, a daughter of Hecate, the dark goddess of ghosts and witches, Goddess of the Underworld… she who presides over the summoning of the dead. ”

“Don’t like that bit.” Helen grimaced and folded both arms across her chest, while still keeping a careful eye on Ennis who was now down on her knees, head bent low to the ground, her face shrouded by the curtain of now dusty hair.

“Well, Hecate was also renowned for her sexuality.”

“Now, that ‘s better … I like that.” She rubbed both hands together and then raised them up and began to blow on them.

“Me too,” I said, thinking that her fingers were beginning to look quite frozen and it wasn’t that cold. Not that I noticed the cold much anyway. Not after the way I had been brought up. I still shivered at the thought of those cold showers in the middle of winter that my mother said would make me strong and fight off germs.

“But it all ended badly for Helen of Troy. I know that story too, ” Helen said.

“Yes, she was married to the Trojan, Menelaus, who was really the moon-king, but she fell in love with Paris and the rest … as they say … is history. It all went to hell in a basket! The story of my life!”

“Mine too,” said Helen, with the twist of a grin.

“Do you think it’s because of the name?” I was trying to make a joke of it but she was looking serious.

“Well, if it is, your life has to be in better shape than mine because you changed your name.” She had taken a handkerchief from her sleeve and was twisting it around one finger as she spoke. It was small, what they call a ladies handkerchief, with embroidery in one corner. I hadn’t seen one for years. It was the sort of thing my mother always carried. And my aunts. Those handkerchiefs were barely good for half a sneeze, but they carried them all the same. It was probably as much principle as practicality, but I only ever used men’s handkerchiefs.

“Now, that’s open for debate but we’re going to need a long night with plenty of wine for me to tell you about it.” I wanted to sound friendly because she seemed a bit uncomfortable.

“That would be wonderful,” said Helen. “It’s years since I’ve done such a thing so it’s probably about time.” She smiled again, in that bright, quick way that she had and then neatly folded the handkerchief up again into a small square, with the embroidered flower, a red rose, on top, and tucked it back into her sleeve. It fascinated me, that action of re-folding and replacing the handkerchief, as if, at that moment, it was the most important thing that anyone could do.

I couldn’t help but think that there was something obsessive about the act. It was clear that she was the sort of person who would always put stamps on straight, perfectly positioned in the corner.

Helen turned to look at Ennis who had climbed back onto the railings, but was now balanced one rung lower. Two other children stood nearby, as if wishing they too had the courage to climb up. I couldn’t help but think I would have been up there on the higher rail with Ennis, had I been a child again.

It’s funny how different people are. My father always said that. ‘There are those who do and there are those who don’t. And it doesn’t matter which you are.’

He believed that the only way to navigate life was to follow your own truth. The trick was to know what that truth was. “You can’t do more than your best,” he would say.

He did have a very simple view of life in so many ways. It probably worked better with compost than it did with me. He was the best compost maker on the island. Everyone said that. He even got orders from the mainland.

“Shit, “ he would say, letting handfuls of the rich, black loam, crumble through his fingers,” that’s what makes things grow. You just have to know what to do with it. And you have to be prepared to mess around in the muck for a long time.”

Like I said, it all sounded simple, but of course it wasn’t. It was probably my rudest shock, when I finally did leave home to find that truth was rarely as simple as my father seemed to think. It was the only time I ever felt betrayed by him.

My father had talked about truth as if it were something so clear, you could recognise it solely for itself. Perhaps children can do that, see things in black and white. It certainly keeps life simple, but it isn’t a skill that seems to survive adolescence. I’ve changed my mind about so many things since then.

I looked at Helen, but she was looking at Ennis in that ever watchful way that I would learn she had. Overhead the clouds began to blow, bunched together like great, grey sails. There was a storm coming. I could smell it. If we were lucky it would not arrive until after we reached the island. The crossing was notorious at the best of times and my stomach turned at the thought.

The only way I liked the sea was from a distance. My father had always laughed at my lack of ‘sea-legs.’

“Thel, I think you actually have blood in your veins, not salt water,’’ he said. “One day you are going to have to leave this place.”

He was right, I did leave, but so did he.

“My heart is in this place Helen, always will be,” he had said. “My soul is in the sea.”

But he had died in the city and was buried on the mainland. And yet, some of the island went with him, although only because I insisted. My mother didn’t go to the funeral and she wouldn’t let me go either. But Anne, my aunt went. I filled a plastic bag with compost and gave it to her at the docks. Something to scatter amongst the alien earth in which he was to be buried. And I wrote a poem for him as well.

I can’t even remember that poem now, but I can still remember the smell of the compost.

“Black gold,” he called it, “The purest earth of all.”

“Fool’s gold,” my mother called it. But she used it all the same and even started making it herself after he left. She had one of the best gardens on the island and her roses always won prizes at the annual agricultural show. In a way my father had won after all, but it was probably the only time that he did.

But I’m wandering in and out of my story. That happens a lot now. Perhaps it is only when we get old that we allow ourselves to consciously flow in and out of the present, the past and the future. I’m beginning to understand that it happens all along, it’s just that when we are young we don’t realise it. There isn’t time when we are young. It’s one of the ironies of old age that when we think we have less time, we actually have more.

“Look what I found,” called Ennis, waving from her windy perch.

“That’s nice dear,” said Helen, waving back. “Heaven knows what she’s found now,” she added, “Ennis is a regular magpie, always finding things and always finding a way to surprise me, and let me tell you, they are not always the nicest of surprises.”

“I never liked surprises,” I said. “I always thought they were over-rated.”

“I don’t think anyone really likes surprises,” said Helen, suddenly shivering, as the wind breathed deeply from icy lungs far off in the southern seas. “I think they merely pretend that they do.”

“Is it your first time to the island?”

“Yes. It’s a treat for Ennis,” said Helen. “It is something she has wanted to do for a very long time. From the time that she saw it on a travel program she has been obsessed with the thought of going there. She didn’t know there was an island so close, she said.”

“So you’re tagging along for the ride.”

“Well, I guess so … but I’m hoping for a rest as well. I’m on leave from work. I teach at the university, history and literature … but I haven’t been feeling the best.” Her voice dropped, and the words were lost in the whispering rush and suck of the surging sea.

“It’s been a difficult time,” she went on. “Ennis’s father … my husband … died a few months back. He had been sick for a very long time and I promised her this.” Deep lines appeared on either side of her mouth. Within the space of word and breath she seemed to crumble.

“I’m sorry,’ I said. Sorry seemed a pitiful offering, but it was all that I had. For a minute I thought she was going to cry and started fumbling for the man-sized hankie I could offer, praying that it was clean.

“That’s okay.” Helen brightened and managed a weak smile. “It’s better this way. At least he is at peace now.”

I couldn’t help but think that while he was at peace, she certainly was not. It was then, that Ennis, jumped down from the rail and began a strange and sorrowful dance, turning and whirling in a circling of creaming hair.

“Ennis, come here.” Helen began to walk away. I followed slowly. There was a moment of stillness, in which I could hear myself breathing as I watched. The sea framed them from the back, like some great, heaving beast. Ennis ran to her mother and wrapped fine, thin arms around her legs, as she giggled with delight.

And then, in an instant, time snapped her grizzled fingers, and all was movement. Engines revved, children laughed, voices called loudly across the carpark, gulls screamed, and across the waves came a deep-throated bleating, as the ferry announced its arrival.

“The boat is coming,” I called out. Helen turned and waved.

“Look what I found,” said Ennis, as they came up to me.

“Put it down Ennis,” said Helen, “it’s just a dirty feather.”

“It is not dirty. It fell straight out of the sky and it’s perfectly clean.” Ennis pursed fresh, pink lips and gave me a pleading look.

“Well, we can always give it a wash when we get on board,” I said. I didn’t want to come between the mother and her child but there didn’t seem much that a bit of soap and water wouldn’t fix. That was another family rule, more my aunt’s than my mother’s, but a rule all the same. So many of my treasures had been saved through this act of purification.

“Can I keep it mummy? Please. Please.”

Helen sighed. “Well, if you promise to give it a good wash with some soap then I suppose you can.”

Ennis raised the feather high as if in victory. “It’s for my collection,” she said sagely.

“And quite a collection it is too. The things that child finds … You should see it,” said Helen. “No, on second thoughts, you don’t need to see it … you can smell it!”

“Smelling makes things real, doesn’t it?” Calm, grey eyes once more turned toward me for support and it was clear they expected no opposition.

“I suppose you could say that.” I would have laughed except Ennis looked so serious. And in a way of course she was right. That’s the thing about children, they are so often right, not because of what they have learned, but because of what they instinctively know. And that’s all the stuff they manage to beat out of us before we grow up.

“There! I knew I was right.” Ennis gave her mother a self-satisfied glare. “It’s the most beautiful feather in the world,” she added. ”It’s from a black seagull.”

Both of us were now trying to keep straight faces. “Well, I’ve never seen a black seagull Ennis, but I have seen a black crow,” I said.

“Hmmm. I suppose it could be a crow’s feather.” Ennis turned the feather over and over in her hand in shivering black waves.

She tucked the feather into her pocket and claimed the last word: “I know a story about crows.”

“Well, you can tell us when we get on board,” said Helen. “Come on now, we must hurry. We need to get back to our car and drive it onto the ferry or they will leave without us. I guess you have to do the same Thel.”

I nodded. And they were off and once more I found myself hurrying to keep up with them. Helen had a firm, brisk walk as if she knew exactly what she wanted and how she planned to get there. Ennis skipped and danced, like a wind-blown leaf.

Above us the bruised crush of cloud settled ominously. My stomach began to turn. By the time we met again on the on the upper deck I was feeling even worse. My mouth was dry at the thought of the crossing. The sea was beginning to heave and churn on either side of the ferry.

If I kept talking perhaps I would be able to forget about where I was. Or perhaps the wind would drop, and the seas fall calm. That happened sometimes.

“Come on,” said Helen, pulling Ennis by the hand. “Let’s find the cafeteria.”

“Down there,” I said, pointing the way. I kept trying to take deep breaths in a bid to calm myself. It was the kind of sickness that smacked of fear and I hated myself for what was clearly cowardice.

“I’ve got a place for us.” Ennis had jumped up onto one of the benches and now stood, arms outstretched on either side. For one blurred moment she looked like some shadowed image of the crucifixion; the faint glow of a grimy porthole illuminating her.

“You sit there,” said Ennis, pointing to her right, “and you sit there mummy. That place is for you.”

It didn’t take long for the cafeteria to fill up. Everyone had the same idea. The murmur of voices rose higher, to braid loosely with the call of the waves and the keening wind.

The ferry was crowded. And it seemed smaller and shabbier than I remembered. It was mostly women and children in the cafeteria. The men would have been up on deck, their faces to the wind, like dogs hanging out of car windows. That at least had not changed. I wondered how many of them were going home. How many of them were islanders. Once I would have been able to tell but I wasn’t sure anymore.

Thirty years is a good gulp of time, enough to swallow a generation. There was nothing recognisable in these faces. They could have been from anywhere. They were probably tourists. There was more of that these days. The island was now a popular place for holidays, and it was renowned for its cheese, free-range chickens and its honey, especially its honey.

That didn’t surprise me. I could still taste that honey. It was like drinking sunshine. Old Mary who had the property next to us kept bees. My father gave her compost and she gave us honey. It seemed a fair enough exchange.

I raised my head to take another deep breath and saw an old woman sitting down the back, hunched up against the side of the counter. She kept looking at me, as if she knew me. I couldn’t place her although she looked like any one of the countless old women who had lived on the island when I was a child. It was that sort of place. Full of old women living alone.

I had asked Aunt Anne about it and she had said that men died young on the island because the Aborigines had put a curse on it.

So many of them had died when the first settlers came because they had no resistance to the new diseases, that finally, there was only a handful left.

One day in winter, when the frost was still heavy on the ground, they buried the last of their children, a boy of about ten. That night an old woman stood by his grave and sang. She sang through the night and then, at dawn, she walked into the bush and disappeared. You didn’t have to understand the language to know that it was a curse that she sang into being. Curse or not, from that time on, the island men died young.

It was just as I was thinking about this that the old woman who had been looking at me, reached into her bag and pulled out her glasses. She put them on and this time she really did look at me. And then she turned away and began to read a newspaper she took from her bag. It was then I realised that she hadn’t been looking at me at all. It just goes to show that things are often not what they seem.

I looked at my watch. We still had a long way to go. Helen brought cups of weak tea, which she said would make everyone feel better. The ferry crashed through the choke of malicious waves.

“Is it always this rough?” said Helen, licking pale, dry lips.

“Often,” I said, wishing that we didn’t have to talk about it and thinking that even if I did vomit, there was a good chance I would not do so alone. The wan gathering of drawn faces and startled eyes crept closer.

The only one who seemed unaffected by the malicious heaving of the sea was Ennis. She was hunched over the table drawing intricate patterns in a glitter of spilled sugar, with the end of her feather. She had emptied six packets before Helen raised one quivering hand to stop her.

“That’s enough Ennis,” she whispered.

“Just one more mummy. Just one more.”

“I’ll put them out of the way,” I said, gathering up the remaining packets.

“Just one more Thel …. Please, please!”

I looked at Helen who nodded weakly. “Well, just one more,” I said.

“Just one,” said Helen softly. “You have to watch her Thel. She’ll have you twisted around her little finger in no time.”

Ennis beamed. “I would too Thel,” she said, her fair head bobbing up and down. “I would too twist you.”

That she would and she did was written even then.

It’s strange looking back in this way. Even as I think about the ocean I can smell it. I may not have liked it but it touched me all the same. There is something about the ocean that returns us to ourselves, or perhaps, reminds us of where we have begun. It was like that for me then although it is only now I can see it. It is beautiful in a way how that happens; as if old age has been designed so that we may understand our lives before we relinquish them.

In a way it is like telling someone else’s story. I can see myself in the memories and yet, it is not me. In some ways it’s like looking at a stranger. I am who I am. I don’t feel any different now than I did then, and yet I was different. You see, while she might be a part of me, the woman I am talking about, the woman whose story I am telling, she is no longer me.

It was clear, even then, that Ennis sailed lightly upon the turbulent waters, but Helen and I had taken different passage. We both feared the ocean, but for different reasons.

For Helen, as she whispered to me later, in those darkening days, the sea reminded her of a drowning place. She had fallen into the water, when she was barely five, and while strong hands had dragged her quickly back, there were shreds of self, like trailing seaweed, that had stayed behind. Those strangely formed sea-creatures crept across memory’s dark floor and called to her then.

It was different for me. The ocean had always been a border, something that held me in place. From the time I was a child, it stood between me and where I wanted to be. It was like some stygian winding that had to be crossed over and over again. Through seven times seven and beyond, I have passed, from hell to paradise and back again. And always the waters shrieked, through sharp, black teeth, the same warnings … If I died here then I would be lost forever.

“See,” said Ennis. “I’ve put it all back for you.” The child held, in cupped hands, a bowl of glittering crystals. “See, it’s just like magic.”

“Let’s tidy up,” I whispered, gathering together the scattering of papers that had once held the sugar. Helen sat with her eyes closed, her black coat pulled tightly across her breasts, her arms crossed.

“There you are, all tidy.” Ennis handed over her wad of paper and then turned to press her face against the porthole.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched her, snub nose pressed tightly against the glass, if she saw what I had seen so many years before. Children are like shape-shifters slipping so easily from one world to the next. I had done that on those long-ago journeys across the ocean, slipping from fear to fascination and back again.

Ennis moved to one side as I slid across to join her, almost as if she had been expecting me. Neither of us spoke.

Outside, the waves danced and turned and drew themselves anew, in a fury of dying and becoming. The stories were being written in the ocean’s dance. Within the gulping drag of salt and sand I could trace the phantasmal shapes of men, with teeth laid bare and lips drawn, and nothing but rags to drape across the face of starvation.

And once again I was the beautiful princess, whose heart broke for pity, praying for them, calling upon the cool breath that would show me the way through countless rivers and hopeless streams, until at last, just as I am about to turn back, the waters begin to flow golden in the fading light.

“Let’s tell stories,” said Ennis, turning suddenly from the window

“We’ll be there soon.” We were close to land. I could feel the knots in my stomach unwinding. “It’s nearly sunset … you can see through the window. It won’t be long now,” I said.

“Thank heavens.” Helen sighed and swallowed hard. “It seems a little calmer now.”

“Yes, the closer we get to the shore the better it will be. There’s no protection on the open sea and you really feel it. ” I did feel sorry for her. She looked like death, the skin drained to unearthly fade.

“Well, I still think we should tell stories. We won’t be there for ages,” said Ennis.

“Five minutes is an age for Ennis,” said Helen. ”but you have been very good and I think that now I could at least listen to a story even if I am not up to telling one.”

“That’s okay mummy. Thel knows lots of stories don’t you?” Ennis nodded her head, as if willing me to agree.

“Well, I don’t know about a lot, but I do know a few.” The child’s confidence was amusing. It was also surprising. She was right. I did know a lot of stories. Fairytales were one of my great loves. I had been collecting them since I was a child. I had special notebooks where I wrote them down.

“Okay, okay. I’ll tell a story first,” said Ennis giggling. “Well, this is a story about a black seagull.” Tiny fingers flicked straggling hair back from a broad, clear forehead.

“There was a mother seagull who was all alone because the father seagull had died. They lived in a beautiful garden, but they were all alone really because a snake lived there too and the other seagulls were frightened and they had gone to live in a safer place.

“But the mother seagull said she would not leave her home because her baby was too small. But one day she was so hungry that she had to leave to get food.

“She told her baby to be very good and quiet otherwise the snake would come. And then she flew off to the mountains where there was lots of food.

“But the baby bird wanted to sing and because she was little, she forgot what her mother said. And then the snake came and gobbled her all up.” Ennis’s eyes grew wide at the telling.

“And then, and then …” the brow furrowed, and the child rubbed hard at one ear, as if the angel who whispered at her side, had suddenly grown silent.

“And then, the mother bird came back and saw the snake in the tree and she was so angry, she pecked and pecked and bit him really hard and said … she said, ‘You give me back my baby or I’ll peck your eyes out.’ But the snake was a naughty snake and it shook its head and so she did, Peck! One eye gone!” Ennis’s tiny hands flew high in mock terror.

“And do you know what?” Both of us shook our heads. As did the now pale young man behind the counter.

Ennis sat back, hands folded neatly on the table in front of her, clearly savouring the moment of power.

“Well.” The tip of a pink tongue traced her lips. “The snake began to cry!”

Helen and I smiled.

“It did. It did. It began to cry and the mother bird had never seen a snake cry and she felt so sorry for the snake that she stopped her pecking, and said:’ Why are you crying snake?’

“And the snake, who had a very deep voice, said: ’I am hungry and my wife is hungry and we cannot feed our babies.’

“And the mother bird felt so sorry for the snake that she promised, if he would just give her baby back, then she would let him keep his last eye and she would help him to find food because she could fly so high she could see everything in the whole world.

“The snake coughed.” Hands to tiny chest, Ennis provided the required choke. “And there it was, the baby bird …. But, because it had been in the snake so long, it was black … it’s feathers had all turned black. But the mother bird did not care because she loved her baby anyway, no matter how she looked. And so then the mother seagull helped the snake to find food and they all lived together in the garden, happily, for ever and ever and ever.”

Ennis beamed. Clearly delighted with herself and eager to add: “Do you know what, I made up that story all by myself?”

“That’s very clever darling,” said Helen.

“It’s a great story,” I said. And it was, something that I would write down later when I had the time.

“And now it’s your turn. I bet you can’t tell a better story.”

“No Ennis, I bet I can’t either. But we are nearly there. Let’s go up on deck to have a look and my story can wait until later. I will tell you a story another time.”

Ennis pouted just a little, but was already climbing down off the seat.

“Alright,” she shook her blonde silk of hair. “But you must promise not to forget.”

“I won’t forget. I never forget,” I crossed my heart just for good measure.

Helen began to re-button Ennis’s coat. “ Sometimes no matter how you try to forget, you can’t,” she said. It’s easy for people to say you should forget but it doesn’t work like that. Some things just can’t be … forgotten.” Her mouth closed tight against the final words.

“Things don’t get forgotten,” said Ennis in high-pitched agreement. “They just hide for awhile because we don’t like to see them. I don’t ever forget anything, never, never, never.” She shook her head from side to side and the hair swung and closed upon the face of innocence.

“Right again Ennis,” laughed Helen. “What would I do without you? Come on, let’s go upstairs for some fresh air.”

“You’ll get plenty of that given how windy it is around here,” I said, this time leading the way. “You will either love it or hate it.”

“You can’t hate the wind,” Ennis said sagely. “It’s much stronger than you are.”

We all laughed at this, including the people who had gathered behind us, and Ennis began to blink, her long eyelashes flickering up and down, in embarrassment.

It surprised me because it seemed so out of character. It was as if in her few short years, she had never doubted her place in the world. They say that’s the way it is with only children although I can’t say I’ve noticed.

By the time we got up on deck the ferry had slowed. There would be a measured progress to the dock because the waters at the entrance to the bay were treacherous.

More than one ghost ship lay in ruins below us. When the first settlers came to this island they came with the knowledge that there was a good chance they would die before they could reach safe harbour. But they came all the same.

It’s a remarkable human quality that, the ability to remove from consciousness anything that might stop you from doing what you want. Some people call it bravery, others think it is stupidity. I like to think it is something factored into our survival mechanism … I mean, if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t do anything, we wouldn’t go anywhere, we would risk nothing … we certainly wouldn’t fall in love.

I kept thinking of these things as we stood upon the breast of the boat, and the sullen waters carried us closer to shore. The sun shone bright upon the ocean’s grim face and in the distance the island braced broad and rocky shoulders for our arrival.

The distant mountains were back-lit, and the full-bellied sun sat lightly upon the horizon, awaiting the call to descend.


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