My story Sealskin is published in the current issue of Enchanted Conversation magazine. I’m grateful to the team at Enchanted for their continuing support. Thank you, Amanda!
The table of contents is here
and you can read my story here
A tale within a tale for Sue Vincent’s #writephoto writing prompt.
“And the stone giant in a fury brought down his axe on the rascally Findbjörn, but he had slipped away and the axe only split the rock in two.”
The guide beamed at the group of school children, expecting to see similar expressions of delight on their faces. Instead they looked at one another and shuffled their feet. Gillie eventually spoke for them all.
“Then what? Stories don’t end like that. What happened to Findbjörn and the stone giant?”
“They went home for their tea,” Jason piped up from the back.
“Nah, they had football.” Ahmed cackled and there was more shuffling and a few guffaws.
Mrs Wilson looked at the guide with amusement, enjoying his confusion. He’d been a pain ever since he’d picked them up from the coach park. Dry as dust and boring as hell.
“G’wan then,” Lisa said. “Finish it.”
“There isn’t any more to the story,” the guide said sharply. “It’s just a legend, not history. It never happened.”
“I know the story.” It was the new boy, Lorcan who spoke. The other kids called him a Gypo, or Tinker if they were being friendly, but gave him grudging admiration because he was good at football and had lovely black curly hair.
“Tell us then,” Jason said, and all eyes fixed on Lorcan.
“Findbjörn stopped running when he got to the forest. Over there.” He pointed. “The giant pulled his axe out of the crack to swing for him again, but he’d split the rock right down to the centre of the earth where it’s molten rock, red and fiery. He’d disturbed the salamanders that live down there and they poured out, roaring like banshees, poured all over the stone giant and wrapped him up in their long tails and long necks until he glowed as red as they were. Then they dragged him down with them to the centre of the earth and the crack closed.”
Lorcan paused and the children looked at him expectantly.
“But it’s open now,” Lisa said. They all looked at the split rock and the shuffling began again. They hung on Lorcan’s words, spellbound.
“Because Findbjörn wouldn’t leave it alone. The salamanders grow jewels. They grow diamonds from raindrops and bits of stars, emeralds from new green leaves, and sapphires from bits of the sky. Where they live at the centre of the earth it’s full of ’em. They eat ’em and spit out the pips. That’s what miners dig out.”
Lorcan nodded. “Jewel pips. But Findbjörn wanted some real gems, the big fat brilliant ones that the salamanders grow in the fire at the centre of the earth. So he got a pickaxe and he tried to open up the crack again.” He paused again. They were all listening, waiting for the dreadful end they could half-imagine. Even the guide. “The salamanders heard and at first they were angry. Then one of the salamanders looked around the fire orchards and noticed that they were low on rubies. So they raced up to the surface of the earth, quick as greyhounds, and they opened up the crack again, and grabbed Findbjörn.”
“To grow rubies?” Ahmed asked uneasily.
“They wrapped their long tails and long necks around Findbjörn and dragged him down back down with them and they didn’t let go until he glowed red as the inside of a fire, and until each drop of his blood had grown into a ruby.”
Gilly asked the question that was bothering all of them now. “So why’s the crack open again?”
Lorcan shrugged and looked at the guide. “It’s just a legend,” he said. “It’s not true. But they say that the crack opens when the salamanders need a bit of sky to grow sapphires, or because they’ve run out of emeralds or diamonds.”
“Or rubies,” Ahmed said and shuffled a few steps backwards.
There was a silence, the wind scattered dead leaves about and they watched as some of them blew over the lip of the cleft and disappeared inside. Mrs Wilson shivered and wrapped her arms about herself. She looked at the sky, then at her watch. “I think it’s time to be getting back to the coach.”
It wasn’t and they all knew, but nobody felt like hanging about any longer. Nobody except the guide. Perhaps because he didn’t believe in fairy stories, or because he had heard, as the children had done, the distant sound of salamanders singing, he went back to the Giant’s Axe-Blow, much later when the centre was closed. Just to have a closer look, he told himself. And if he did, that would explain why he was never seen again.
This is my response to this lovely but strange Pre-Raphaelite painting. Bear with me; it’s a long one.
Long ago and far away, a rich young man bought a ship to go on an adventure. He hired a captain who hired a helmsman who spread the word and got together a crew of oarsmen. The rich young man invited his friends with stories of the sights they would see, the fights they would fight, the prizes they would win. On the other side of the sea, he told them, was a sorceress who turned men into pigs, a golden fleece guarded by a dragon, there was a labyrinth inside a mountain where a bull-headed man devoured young men and women, there was a serpent-haired monster whose gaze turned to stone, there were monstrous raptors with the faces of women. There were wild women who sang and danced and tore men apart with their bare hands, there were beautiful young women strapped to rocks in the sea for monsters to devour, there were ugly old women with only one eye between them. There were lots of women, in fact, to be killed or to be carried off as prizes.
The young men’s betrothed begged them not to risk their lives on such a reckless and unnecessary quest. They had no need of riches, they could fight battles with their neighbours if they wished, and they each had a young woman willing to marry them. Why risk their lives so foolishly? But the young men were adamant. They would have a whale of a time and their names and their exploits would go down in history. The girls sighed and waved them off, and prepared to mope along the shoreline for years and never marry at all.
The young men found all the adventure they could handle, rescuing girls from the jaws of sea monsters, from labyrinths, and from being handed over as tribute to monsters and tyrants. The girls thanked them and asked to be allowed to go home, but the young men just laughed and stowed them away in the ship’s hold as booty. The young men found all the battles they could wish for, killing blind old women, sick women cast out by townsfolk to die, deformed and miserable women. Before they turned for home, they vowed they would track down the mad young women who ripped apart the handsomest young men of the region. They would avenge the murders with the usual rape and enslavement. They followed the wild singing and dancing along the seashore until they came to a cave.
“Within, you will find your greatest adventure,” the leader of the wild women shouted as she leapt the rocks above the cave. You will find a monstrous woman whose death will bring you the gratitude of all the kings of the region, and they will pay you tribute of gold and slaves every year for as long as you live.”
The rich young man who was the leader looked at his friends and declared, “I will go into the cave and kill this woman, and then we will take her head to the nearest palace and claim our reward.”
His friends sat down on the shore and waited. They heard the sound of cursing as he blundered about in the dark, and the swish as his sword sliced through the air before him. It was not long before they heard his victorious cry and the sound of him slipping and sliding his way back to the daylight.
“I have it! The monster’s head,” he shouted and held up the head with its writhing coils of serpents for his friends to see. Naturally, they were all turned to stone. The young man was struck with horror and did not see the birds with women’s faces that swooped from the rocks above and snatched the head from his grasp. He reached after them in anger, and the birds hovered, turning the serpent-framed face to gaze down at him with dead eyes. In an instant, he was just another pebble among the pebbles of his friends. The sailors who had seen the tragedy from the ship immediately shipped oars and made their way home.
When the news of the terrible fate that had befallen their sons reached them, their fathers sent for the young women, their sons’ betrothed.
“By your fault our sons have been turned to stone. If you had been more beautiful, more accomplished, more placid and docile they would never have gone looking for their pleasure abroad. You will scour the sea shore until you find our sons and bring them back to us.”
So, at every new tide, the girls searched among the pebbles left by the waves for a sign that one of them was her betrothed. They searched, though the young girls became mature women, then bent and stooped with age, but they never found a single stone that was any brighter and more intelligent than the rest.
He took her for his second wife
as if she wouldn’t care,
that second wife would be enough,
as if first wife would shrug and turn
back to her broideries and her bairns.
He told her that he loved her,
and when first wife, in her jealousy
as was surely only right and just,
cast the spell that sent her fluttering,
bright butterfly-wings beating,
over the stormy sea,
beyond the reach of prince and druid,
he followed her, or at least he tried,
or at least he said he tried.
And when he took her back again,
years later when she had a life
as someone he had never met,
and found a love who cherished her
and kept her by his side,
he never saw how many lives
by his golden hand lay blighted,
never a frown creased his golden brow.
She followed him with backward glances,
leaving husband and her child,
because her prince would have it so,
and being golden and beautiful,
that is how the story fell out.
Such has ever been the way of the world,
and probably always will be.
I have given up everything for you, she said. All I ask is that you do not pry.
Everyone is entitled to their secrets. Even women. Even women like Mélusine who are not women at all. I should have let her have what she asked—respect. For me she left the lake and the underwater ways, the dark, water-echoing tunnels that run to the sea. For me she left the sinuous depths, the dark ocean currents, the hunt of swift silver fish among swaying weeds. But it rankled that I had not all the power, for her to be able to tell me, no.
So I watched. And I saw. And Mélusine, because she is not a woman at all, knew that I saw. In her fury, she gathered up our children and leapt with them into the lake. They have no father. And what rankles still, is that perhaps they have no need of one.
I watch, here in the shadows, hoping that she will come back. But the fear hangs over me, because I am a man, and just a man, that she will return only to seek revenge. The dark lake mists gather and the ripples race to the shore. They lap at my feet, drawing me from the shadows and into the blood red light of the dying sun. She is there. She has come.
The mists twist and rise and draw back from that face, those eyes, beloved and dreadful, and it is too late to run. There is nowhere to hide from that gaze. Whatever she wants from me, she will take.
Nothing changed. Aeons passed. The trajectory, traced in advance, led always into the darkness. The comet dragged its fiery tail through whistling winds that wove between the stars singing over and over the same song. Stars were born and died in explosions of light that echoed back and forth across the roof of the universe, and still the comet streamed, a river of fire through the void. Salamander. Winged. Ageless.
A beat in time, the comet tore across the horizon of a tiny insignificant planet, a dead rock spinning slowly around a paltry sun, in the wings of the great universal stage. For one instant, men looked into the darkness and saw glory, heard the song of the stars, looked upon the face of infinity. The comet passed. Fire blazed in its wake. Eyes followed, longingly. Hearts yearned to tread the paths of the skies. In a turbulent desert the fingers pointed, stories flew from tongue to tongue. A legend grew.
The comet, with its cargo of singers and celestial brilliance sped by. Time passed. Men forgot why they had yearned to follow the winged salamander. The comet with fire in its tail saw the birth of a billion stars.
He beats the waves with useless fists
His little boat tossed back upon the strand.
Still he shouts her name in the storm’s teeth,
The Sea king’s anger brewing black.
Beneath the wave she sleeps now,
Eyes tight closed against the world she tried to leave,
The curlew’s sadness furrows her brow,
Her lips smile at the sweetness of the blackbird’s song,
But her lover’s call is just a fading cry,
Echoing in the sea caves of her dreams.
An Irish poem seems appropriate today. You can read Ali Isaac’s version of Ciodhna’s story in Grá mo Chroí. It’s free from today for three days.
Today is the official launch of Grá mo Chroí, and what might just prove to be the first instalment of a clutch of retellings of Irish myths. It has been a real labour of love and I hope it’s a success. Not just because every writer wants their work to be appreciated, but because these stories belong to everyone and to share them is to be part of a historical process, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
Anyway, if you like stories with passion and patina, you might like these.
I thnk it was some time in November last year that Ali Isaac first suggested we each write a retelling of an Irish legend to give away in a booklet which we would then fill up with promotion for the books we have already published. The idea took root, and before we knew it, it had metamorphosed into a collection of love stories that we would publish for Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day, as everybody knows is half way through February. And before that there’s Christmas to get through and the assorted afflictions that health throws at us at this time of year. That didn’t give us much time.
I’m proud to announce that we have done it! Our collection of love stories from Irish myth is uploaded to Amazon and waiting in the wings for the big release day. For almost two months we have been living and breathing Irish myth, heroines and heroes from a very different time. People were different then, incomprehensible in many ways, even though the rawest of the emotions probably haven’t changed much at all over the centuries.
The picture below is one I downloaded because I liked the colour and the movement. But looking more closely, I see, or I think I see, some of those differences of sensibility that separate us from our distant past. The picture is entitled Caparison, and so is the poem.
Was life really so simple then?
Wars fought and won
With just a handful of rockinghorse men?
What were they defending,
Land, lord, families?
And did they ride out with these thoughts,
Vivid as the sun,
Carved on their hearts?
The turned, worried faces say it all.
Death approaches a spear’s length away,
Chain mailed and caparisoned.
Men’s tiny faces furrowed in anguish,
So clearly drawn,
And the faceless helmets,
Sinister in their repeated facelessness.
This we understand,
The fear, the grief, the shame.
But there is more,
Equally important to the artist’s eye,
Pretty ochres and shades of Sienna,
The swirl of waves, fins or blue leaves,
But not a drop of blood,
Not until the end.
All is movement across a muddy field
And all the horses are smiling.
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