I don’t write fiction, but decided to have a go at a short story seeing as I was unemployed. It definitely lacks polish and hardly consider it to be good, but feedback is welcome.
It is the story of an isolated priest in a reality we do not call our own. It’s a bit odd, but please enjoy.
The storms hadn’t subsided in a few days, and the Father was worried. His thoughts dwelled on his crops. They would be sodden. It’d be another two weeks for them to dry, and then the autumn wind would only hamper their growth. It was looking grim for winter.
He lay quietly in his cot. The wind howled through the old church. It blew dust down from the high rafters, settling on the cold slate floor beneath. A mouse darted between the patches of darkness, fearful of the flickering patches of illuminating candlelight. The Father rolled towards the empty hall, shining his eyes at the creature’s departure. He longed for interaction, but even he knew he would not find solace from a mouse. Wind continued to batter the slate roof tiles. Several fell during the night, adding to the Father’s worries. Yet, the building would hold.
Water flowed down the glass panes that separated the outside world from his inner sanctum. Thin curtains blocked out any definition or shadow, but the occasional glimmer of the outer beacon cast outlines of droplets onto the Father’s cot. He was surprised the fire kept its flame. Most nights it would fade before dawn, but the storm gave it a will to live. It clambered and sparked along the wind, grasping at the flakes of water that dripped into the brazier. Light-keeping duty was a minor task enshrined upon the Father when he arrived at the Bishopric of Mona. By the second winter it had become his only duty on the island. Pilgrimage was limited to the shrine of St. Diogenes before he arrived. By now it had fizzled out into a handful of devotees per year. This was reality, in his eyes. The will of God to maintain the rights of some saints was fickle, and it seemed as if he was done with Diogenes.
St. Diogenes’ islet lay half a mile across a sandbank from the main island of Mona. It lay underwater for fifty weeks of the year. Small rowing boats were docked across the island way, linked to a small jetty made from local granite. Several had been washed ashore by the autumn storms, irreparable. It was unlikely he would receive any visitors until Christmas at this rate. In calmer weather, pilgrims could access the boats, free of charge, and row the mile along the edges of the sandbank. As such, the brazier was not only for the wider sea. Oft the Father peered through his telescope to ensure visitors weren’t grounding. The thick sand, only dry at the end of the annual fortnight could easily drag unweary souls down into the depths.
Perhaps the dangers of pilgrimage turned visitors away. The Bishopric hadn’t advertised or pushed any visitors to the islet in over five years. This was long before the Father’s arrival, but he felt as if he could do more. Yet, communication was slim. No phone, no radio, and only the brazier to attract distant attention. Electricity was only a luxury afforded to the main island, and no cables spanned the straits. Fire was his lifeline. It was seldom extinguished. A bridge was discussed when the Father began his position, but were quickly swept aside. Money was tight on Mona.
The Father was restless. The mouse had made him worry of an infestation in the near-barren pantry. Most supplies were stored in Tupperware, so should be safe. His remaining potatoes, however, were in a simple sack, and could easily be scavenged by mice. His fears weren’t alleviated by the scampering of quick feet opening the wooden hatch to the cellar. It was the same mouse as before, scampering back to its nest in the rafters. Only one, thought the Father. A damp chill slid through the pantry, caressing the Father as it evaporated through the ceiling hatch.
A few days before the storms, the Father had noticed a small fishing vessel along the shore of the islet. Steep cliffs and a single rock staircase, carved by the sea as much as by man, dictated the islet’s shoreline. The sea was a deep calm that afternoon. The Father peered through his telescope toward the vessel, hoping to see if any members of the clergy arrive and relieve him of his position. Thoughts such as these weren’t uncommon. Still summer days made the isolation unbearable..
The boat drifted towards the shore as the Father noticed it was empty. It was an old boat, Spanish writing along the side. El Diablo Muerto. Strong winds and oceanic currents could hypothetically draw salvage from all across the world. It calmed the Father to know that the world still existed outside of Mona. There were people building, laughing, drinking, and fishing. Whoever’s boat this was had unknowingly allowed the Father to gain some semblance of sanity that day.
He heard distant squeaking. Father shook his head in astonishment. How long was he absorbed? Dreaming? Rustling his cloak, he made his way through the hatch. Sunlight was peering through the window.
Daily chores mainly revolved around maintenance and food. The winds were still kicking waves along the coast, so yard work was unwise that morning. Nevertheless, he ventured into the gale. He gathered wood from the maintenance shed, flimsily held on to the side of the church by means of chain and string. It howled and roared in the wind, its wooden beams dangerously swaying near the Father’s head. Exiting, he gazed at the vegetable patch, correctly sodden by the night’s rainfall.
He brought half the logs to the brazier and loaded them in. The smouldering embers still warm to the touch blew in his face as the logs were dropped one by one. It was still too early to light the beacon at this hour. He brought the rest of the logs inside, lit a fire and pondered about lunch. Potatoes or leftover pasta? A tough decision. He eventually decided to nibble on some cheese, and sat by the hearth.
The inside chores for that day were menial. He tidied up his study, and was to clear some of the wax residue off the candle holders. He’d been meaning to do so for around three months. The narrow nave echoed the outer winds. Dust was unsettled by the Father’s dusting as much as the resonating brickwork. Ancient stones encircled five rows of pews, made from local oak. Slate floors with markings from a busier time. Towards the altar, placed precariously behind the grave of St. Diogenes, the slate was worn thin by the kissing and caressing of pilgrims long gone. Arched on his wooden ladder, the Father took in the view from up high. Small pieces of wax fell to the floor as returned chiselling. They lay in the worn slate ditches, creating a sea of green along the ash grey floor.
Out of the nearest window he saw his latest project, having only recently been finished. A small sculpture of wood and sea rock was perched on top of a cairn. The wood was fashioned into a demonic face, with the stone having been carved into an axe. Beneath the two lay the name of the boat that had floated across an ocean.
He sat that afternoon. He sat on a hard stool. Coals embered in the hearth. He grabbed a nearby throw, and comforted himself as best he could. He’d made some coffee that afternoon. It was a rare treat, but needed after his morning’s laborious work. He’d been given a ration of around three ounces to last the year. This storm was an anomaly, and he felt anomalous enough to grab the grinder and brew. He had around an ounce and a half left for the winter.
He shifted his weight to his left side. His good side needed rest. He wasn’t necessarily tired. He just needed to comfort himself that afternoon. Evaporated mist continued to trickle down the windowsill, as a lighter wind still had enough force to batter the roof tiles. He muttered some explicative about the effort he’d need to fix the tiles once the coffee had settled into his cup. The saucer underneath caught a few drips as he settled it back into the dimple. He hadn’t had any biscuits in about a year.
As he sat, unusual thoughts entered his mind. What did it mean to be on this island in the middle of a storm? It was unlike the Father to be faced by the typical existential crisis expected of the hermit. He tried to focus on the window, but the thoughts had keenly nestled themselves into the deep crevasses of his mind. They repeated. What was his life? He was a Father. What did he wish to accomplish in life? He was a Father. What did it mean to be on this island in the middle of a storm? Ad nauseum.
He was in his mid-forties, there was little left to appreciate of the wider world. His friends were gone, far across the Spanish sea or deep into the Sinese continent. He had no family he wished to acknowledge. His career had been cultivated from his youth. He went to school. He went to University. He kept his nose clean and did what he was told. This was all until he was faced with the realities of modern life. He was told that what he was told to do was not what he should have been told to do. He shouldn’t have gone to school. He shouldn’t have gone to the University of Lundin. He should have stayed home. Worked the fields. Worked the factories. Made the weapons. Joined the Corps. Travelled the seas. Explored the continents. Everything he was told to do, was wrong. He’d never amount to anything as a Father. Why did people need to learn in this day and age? All you needed to do was till the fields and you’d get good pay and a roof above your head. You could travel on a whim. You could learn all you wanted at home.
Everything he had done, in society’s eyes, was pointless. It was growing on his consciousness that he was, by association, pointless too.
His usual resoluteness at the face of life’s absurdities all came to point. He threw his cup across the room. He felt the caffeine hadn’t aided his state of mind. Some gin could easily counter this. He had none. In his mind this explosive outburst seemed exhilarating, yet he came too with the cup of coffee still in hand. He took a further sip as his glazed eyes drifted towards the embers once more.
‘The minimum stay would be fourteen months, I hope you’re aware? A month of preparation, a year of service and then a cleaning month. Of course, this is only if you wish to leave once your position is up.’
Mona cathedral was more of a chapel than anything else. It was only around twice the size of Diogenes church, room for around 200 parishioners at best. The grey sky on that morning two years ago cradled the towering minaret; its distinguishing feature. It was a damp day. The bishop continued with his explanation,
‘And as such, your pay will be standardised to the current economic climate on the island. You’re aware of this procedure, correct? All in line with cultural norms, as you know. Well, I’m sure if you’re willing to take this position, money isn’t a major concern of yours.’
His office was a large wood panelled room, encircled by long benches adorned with green cushions. His desk stood at the far right corner of the room, flanked by a small bookshelf, placed under a large steamed up window. It would have been an impressive sight a century ago, but now the musty smell of damp coats and long tobacco fuelled meetings cloaked the room’s grandeur. The books on the shelf were curled and yellow to the touch. The Father watched as the Bishop reached for some liquorice from a jar on his desk. Offering, the Father declined.
‘Now Father, there’s no need for modesty here. You won’t find any better liquorice this side of Deva. It’s a luxury you won’t get on your little island!’
The Father implored, ‘I’m aware that the position can be dangerous? I’m capable of looking after myself, but what about the parishioners?’
He thought of the possible dangers he faced living alone on the island. No electricity, no radio, no boat; isolation. Whilst he veiled his query under the guise of his parishioner’s safety, he was inquiring for himself. Least of all he wanted from this position was his own death. He twitched suddenly when the Bishop replied, absorbed in thought.
‘It’s not a problem, Father. You won’t have many parishioners during the year. Easter and Christmas will be your busiest times, around twenty or so across the two periods. During the rest of the year you might get one or two a month. So for the whole year you’ll get around thirty people, but this is usually much less. Our last Father, Father Edmund, said he saw no more than five people. But it’s the whim of the times, you might get more, who knows. We can only pray.’ He bit down hard on another piece of liquorice, his teeth covered in black spots.
The Bishop had failed to mention the lack of advertising work the Bishopric had undertaken whilst at the Deva convention that year. Mona was a growing laughing stock amongst the ecclesiastical community, as it failed to embrace the telephone-marketing ploys of other, more established, parishes.
‘I see’ said the Father, ‘will there be any other duties I need to undertake whilst on the island?’
‘Not that I can think of. You might have to cater to some slightly archaic Christianity; the locals embraced it when we arrived, and of course adapted it to suit their own means. It can be a little ‘unorthodox’.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well,’ continued the Bishop, ‘you might be asked to bless a sacrifice or two. Oh, nothing major, maybe a chicken or two. You don’t have to participate, just bless the ritual. They usually carry it out back home, they just come to the island for the divine blessing, or divine justification.’
This set an uneasy precedent for the Father. He appreciated the Bishop’s honesty; but sacrifice? ‘Oh nothing major’, was hardly comforting. A wave of anxiety pulsated his skull. Yet, he ultimately returned to baseline. Of course he’d have to perform sacrificial blessing. He’d read about it, he knew that’s what the old inhabitants of Ordivica used to, or continue to do. Adorn slaves in golden torcs and plunge them into bogs, leave them to drown or starve depending on depth. Lucky individuals were executed first.
‘Are you willing to undertake this role?’
‘I have little choice.’
‘Good man.’ said the bishop, reaching for another piece of liquorice.
He was expected to walk to the islet. Of course, the Bishop had a car, but fuel conservation topped comfort. Deva was at least seventy miles eastwards, and with the commonplace act of grounding air flights, it was essential to keep the car stocked. The Father donned a large rucksack, filled with bottles of water, medicine, a week of rations and a spare robe. It was only a twenty mile trek to the coastline, so the Father questioned this overkill. Twenty miles on Mona, according to the Chaplin, was more like fifty on normal terrain. The hyperbole was deafening, but he accepted this information. Marshland flanked by forest made it heavy going, not expecting anyone to manage more than 5 miles in a day. The week long rations would just be enough, as rain could stop anyone walking for a day. He asked why he couldn’t stick to the main road, but was informed that it went North instead of West. The main road would inadvertently take longer, despite being an easier hike.
The chaplain walked the Father to the edge of the Cathedral enclosure. Its walls encircled a large pasture of land where pigs foraged. A few apple trees had begun to seed, and the pigs made short work of anything that the parishioners hadn’t collected in time. He bid adieu, and was advised to stick to the edge of the marsh. The boundary between forest and bog had formed a natural mound which locals used as their main walkway between the town of Cargalig and the Cathedral. The Father was expected at the town’s inn within two days.
He walked the first mile to the main road with little difficulty. The path was adorned with birch trees. They were placed in adjacent to the cow pasture which stretched as far as the Father could see. Yet, he could only count around three or four cows. As he neared the main road, he could smell the roasting of pork, beef and vegetables. The exotic smell of banana also flooded his nose, firing off some long suppressed memories. Fried banana and cream was for sale in the small kiosks that lined the road’s junction. It was a popular pit stop for parishioners and for the local militia that had recently marched through. He caught a brief glimpse of the rear of the platoon, each with large packs on their backs. Canteens dangling from one side with a bolt-action on the other. Bayonetting gladii were tied to each man’s belt for quick draw, a vestige of an older time.
‘Awe Papa! Awe Papa! Fresh rhubob and whycream here for you! Awe Papa!’
They were all calling to him. They all wanted his money, but none did so aggressively. The traditional cry of ‘awe’ drowned out the sound of coal fire ovens, blasting their hot air into the narrow causeway. There were a few parishioners being served beef at nearby stands, but the Father was keen on banana.
‘Awe Papa. We got the finest rhubob in all of Mona here, fresh from the field marsh! We also made our own whycream out of eggs we got from our ducks this morning. It’s been a fine day so far hasn’t it papa! Would you like a bit extra cream on your rhubob for no extra charge? It’s fair game for someone who works as hard as you! Got some cafi here if you want some too, only five pence a cup!’
The woman looked well for her age, which the Father placed at around forty-five. Her teeth were clean, but crooked. She wore a small shoal over her shoulders, adorned with small curls of wool. It was a deep green colour, but stained with the pinkish hues of the local rhubarb or rhubob as the locals knew it. The dialect barrier of Mona wasn’t much of an issue, as it was quite similar to Standard. They used a lot of older military words to describe the landscape and architecture, as Mona was an outpost of the outer reaches of the old kingdom. Fenust, ponn, glis and milit were used for window, bridge, church and army respectively. Many other words were used interchangeably with standard vocabulary, but most of the locals were more comfortable with their own unique tongue.
‘Is this where I could smell the banana coming from? As much as I’d like some rhubarb and egg-cream, I have a bit of a craving.’
‘Banana… Banana… Oh! Platana! Why papa, why didn’t you say! We got some platana from the Spanish boats a few days ago. Nice an brown, sweet as sugar they are. Massive good with some whycream if you’d like to try? Also don’t forget the caffi.’
The Father agreed to try the whycream, simply to get the woman off his back. They were about the same age, and she reminded him of one of his old colleagues. They’d grown up together and spent a long time debating the complexities of the world and its, often, absurdities. The Sister was eventually sent across to the Spanish lands, about 10 years ago. He’d received some letters since then, but they’d mostly fallen out of touch. The Father was not the best at long term, distant communication. As much as he enjoyed her company, people often floated in and out of his life.
The Father handed over 1L, much to the woman’s astonishment. He realised his error slightly too late to react. The woman was astounded at the money he nonchalantly handed over, and he could see the greed festering in her dark eyes.
‘You know papa, I could fill up some army canteens for you full of cream and cafi to last you at least a pythweek! I could load off some of this rhubob on you, and all the platana I have. I have contacts in the docks you see, I could get some deliveries down by tomorrow and you’d have enough platana to last you another pythweek?’
‘No. Just what I’ve ordered.’ said the Father, with a flurry of anger in his eye. His tone was deep, apathetic.
‘I… Okay papa, whatever you say. I’ll make your platana and cream now. Want some cafi to go?’
‘No.’ in a similar tone.
She handed over the fried banana and egg-cream alongside a small fortune of change. He slid the money across the counter into his pouch and took the paper plate. The woman stared at his back as he walked along silently, with the other kiosks raising their voices once more to catch his attention. She hesitated as she continued to stare at the Father wandering down the narrow causeway. She eventually continued her cries also, almost in unison with the other peddlers.
A few hundred yards down the main road, the kiosks began to taper off, and an intersection was centred by a small sign; ‘Cargalig, 7 miles’. He glanced down the western road and took a bite of his meal. It wasn’t very good.
The town was about a mile off. It’d taken the Father a day to travel the first four miles from the kiosk-crossroads. He took a long sip of his canteen and thought of the soldiers from the other day. The gladii strung alongside each soldier’s belt was a peculiar memento of the past. He’d learnt of the legions that conquered the known world during the old kingdom, and the civilization and language they brought to the modern era. The swords were an homage to that time. Nevertheless, the Father found them strange in this age of rifle and powder. He brought his mind back to the present and glanced towards the stretch ahead of him.
It was a steady path with nary a hill in sight. This was consistent to the pleasantness of the sloping path taken from the Cathedral. He was, nevertheless, conserving his energy for the days ahead. Whilst the road to Cargalig wasn’t easy by any means, the country route would be unforgiving. His pace slowed considerably as he neared the town’s primitive walls. A small placard mentioned, in broken English, that the walls had been ‘erect’ for about three hundred years. The Father glanced upwards as he walked under the chalky archway.
The initial view of the town was mostly subdued. The day was extended by late September sun, and the townsfolk were beginning to wind down. Kiosks, carbon copies from the main road, were dotted between stalls and shops holed under towering insula. The inhabitants were too busy relaxing and watching the distant hum beneath to give the Father any attention. He smelt the warm aroma of wine and diluted garum wafting from a nearby tavern. A few shifty figures from within caught his eye. He continued to shuffle along; head down. What he’d do for a good glass of Red Lundin right now. Tepid, as was tradition. The locals here preferred their wine white, and cold. He stifled his inner revulsions.
The town’s inn was on the key intersection between the small church and the main meeting hall. Initially it seemed to be a crossroads of sort, but the three main walkways convened in a haphazard pattern, betraying the Father’s senses. He peered through the oak door, held ajar by a piece of rope dangling from a signpost above; ‘The Wilted Badger’.
‘Awe papa! Siwmeh hediw, dwch meen a steddwch ger y dân sgenom. There’s lawer o gwen ac garum if chi want? Dwi’n cymred you’re here am y room?’
The innkeeper’s dialect was unsuccessful in alleviating the Father’s already heightened sense of confusion. He wore a battered down overcoat, with buttons adorned on both sides. Peculiarly, he wore a top-hat which was cut off on top. Some nearby patrons oft tried to flick their fish-bones into the vacant space. A high score was rounded off by a cheer. It had only occurred to the Father, after staring at his hat for a few moments, that he hadn’t understood a word that had just been said.
‘Erm… Siwmeh? I don’t speak Ordovician my friend.’
‘Ahhh, wai you comin ere not knowing the language then boi! Haha, pullin’ ya leg I am. Come in! The Bishop sent a letter the other morn tellin’ me about chdi. Got your room all set up fyny stairs. Some rations here for you to take as well.’
He was offered some wine, which he politely refused. Instead he was brought some bread and garum, for dipping. The sweet, savoury, salty condiment was popular everywhere. It stemmed, like many things, from the Old Kingdom. Fish guts; fermented. The tanning grounds of Africa Minor boomed a few decade ago when there was a surge in desire for garum in the then newly conquered Dutch Australis Land. They have their own industry now, their variety of exotic fish giving it unsavoury bitterness, yet popular with the locals. Garumite, they call it.
Lost in thought the Father hadn’t realised he had a guest. Reclined in his chair by the hearth, he noticed her green shoal.
‘Awe papa.’ she whispered, turning her gaze towards the tamed flames.
‘Ave to you too my daughter. What can I assist you with this calm evening?’
His tone was clinical and robotic in speech that evening. Perhaps it was the bread, they did add a lot of fermented yeast to it around these parts. She remained silent and peered up to the Father’s gaze. He figured her demeanour was an attempt to guilt the father into apologising for the earlier incident. If there was one thing he did well, however, was act the fool. His demeanour implied that he’d never met this woman in his life.
‘You’re not safe here.’
His heart skipped and his ears warmed.
‘There’s trouble in the hills around south, you hear? Brewing it is. Nothing like the problems from the cities and towns of the kingdoms on the mainland. These are old problems. Deep rooted. Stubborn. Make you aware that the time you spend here might be your last. Papa, you should start praying for your god now, he might be around for much longer.’
She stood up and walked off, her shoal drenched in sweat. She had sat very close to the fire, the Father thought. His eyes dropped down to his small brazen plate. The garum slid from one side to another, being absorbed into a small piece of crust the Father had saved for dipping. Its maroon colour began to ooze as he picked it up for inspection. He wasn’t hungry.
His sleep was light. What was he on the lookout for exactly? He wanted to pass this off as superstitious nonsense, or a local trick. His perceptions had been off that evening. It could have been anything. His monologue continued this chatter until morning. His mind stung that morning.
He wished he’d spent more time in Cargalig. In another life he would have explored every nook, feast at every tavern, garum tasting, begin to tolerate the wine and actually make an attempt at Ordivici. What a strange land, he murmured. He walked towards the town’s western wall and paced through the main gate. No road lay in front of him. As he walked off the wind caught him, aiding his pace. Back in the town many began hauling in their washing lines between the insulae. A row of shoals swung in the breeze, with an assortment of colours, most being blue and red.
Each obstacle had its own charm. Each landscape had a cut of the earth all for its own. The marshland glazed by dandelions, which were late in the season. Their leaves were harvested for food, and their flowers for medicine. Pine trees dotted within the deciduous forests that carved into hillsides. Deep and looming, their branches perched by kites and squirrels, red as the sap they feasted on. Lowland dunes splotched with whisps of grass covered the coastline as it braced itself against the Northern Sea. More islands in the distance. Days it’d take to travel by sea. Days it’s take to be found, he rebutted.
Marshland wasn’t an issue. There were pockets of dry land that could be traversed with ease, with patience. Bushes hid perilous puddles, which could swallow a cow whole. Few animals lived here. The rations were useful. Water was stagnant. Remnants of a peat mine were etched along the northern shore. A dilapidated shack sunk low into the boggy ground. Whilst worn by time, it would have made good shelter in a pinch. The marshland, however, was unforgiving to the Father’s footsteps, and he was ushered to continue before nightfall. An old book once told him; ‘don’t follow the lights’. It seemed to him, that this was misinformation for marshland travel.
Forests were harder. Thick with bramble and oak. The sun was hidden, and his spirits low. While the birds shone high above him, only the thickness of rotting fungus and shrub greeted him through his travail. Several days traversing brought him to a clearing. His camp eclipsed by the towering reaches of the ancient oak and pine, overshadowing his meagre flame. He ate soup that evening. Following days were drenched by dew, caught clothing and sodden feet. Exhausted by the penultimate day, he was greeted by screeching gulls, and darting sandpipers.
The dunes proved to be a minor inconvenience compared to all he had already faced. Some climbing, swatting away sand-flies and avoiding dune grass were the mainstay. The smell of sea air drew him to the inevitable.
Sand collected in his shoes. They were worn by travel, but were cleaned by climbing the shifting sand beneath. As his mind drifted towards the distant mountains, peaking over the tops of every dune, he arrived at the shoreline. Pebbled beach, with patches of sand. Driftwood perched on the largest stones. A few bird clamoured towards a crab who chose a poor time to emerge. He was absorbed by the spectacle. How simple it was. The mountains now showed their true beauty, the sun reflecting emerald green from the divided fields. The town of Farnor dangling between them. A small tower with a flag. He’d forgotten all about the small island to the right of his vision.
Barren. It yearned for an owner. It was a church of the older style. Grey scale walls, bricked stone, chiselled staircase. All encompassed by sea. The pathway, as was expected, was laid before him. He shuffled down the final dune. Tiptoeing over rocks and sea-streams, he made it to the causeway. Sand. Impractical. His gaze turned back towards the mainland, spotting the small jetty with its old boats bobbing. Farnor shone, as his gazed arched downwards. He made his way across the damp walkway, a harder journey than any he had undertaken.
The storm was over. He was able to go outside. His crops were ruined. His larder, growing impatient, hungered for fresh food. It’d have to suffice on buckets of rainwater and Tupperware for the foreseeable future. He liked Tupperware meals; nostalgic. His craftwork greeted him as he bought some firewood to the brazier. It had shone poorly the last few nights, and the dampened wood would need drying. It was fine to heat, but useless for light. His brazen duties had grown thin, and this was close to seizing it up for the remainder of his tenure. It was a duty, however, and one he was begrudgingly ready to continue. Shoddily.
Farnor’s mystique had waned, by now. It was merely a city between rocks. The tower he longed to visit, now a stack of stone. He could never make out those who lived there clearly though his telescope, even though the first few weeks his eye was perpetually fixed on the upper floors. He wanted to be there. He wanted to know how tower life felt like. It was a grey morning.
He’d made a scarecrow to pass the time. He placed it on the rear side of the church, where the seagulls liked to perch. Placing it in the ground, bird began flocking to it, and using its string and clothing as nesting soon after. He recalled one of his earliest visitors to the church. Long haired, unkempt, dirty. He attributed it to the journey, until he discovered he’d come by boat from the mainland.
‘Ave my son, what brings you here to this desolate place, are you one with the Lord, do you seek his advice? Does your heart long for Diogenes’ blessing?’
‘No, look, I need you to write a blessing on this card. My father’s side is having a sacrifice next weekend because of the harvest. Only some ducks, we’ll eat them later, don’t worry.’
The Father’s breath was strung with relief.
‘I see, well, at least they aren’t wasted then. Where do you hail? You don’t sound Ordivici.’
‘No, I’m not. Come from the far side of the outer peninsula. Hibernic roots you see. Reduced the accent. Others see us as Ordivici, but we’re Hiberno by culture. We don’t speak the dialect, and we prefer ale.’
Ale wasn’t a drink he’d had in a long time. It had been ruled out of polite society since the Father’s youth. It was a pidgin drink, one for the poor; the degenerates. When he tried some in his teenage years, he could hardly tell why it had gathered this stigma. It was growing in popularity these days.
‘That explains it then. You share similar practices though, no? I’m glad I’ve found someone who shares my distaste for chilled wine. I’d take an ale any day.’
‘You know, the alcoholic Papa was a cliché of the older texts? Suits you to a tee doesn’t it. Alone here, nary anything to do but drink, and peer through that scope of yours.’
He pointed towards the brass tube that lay on the desk. A wave of shame crawled over the Father.
‘Well… Yes… It’s lonely. Will that be all today?’
‘Of course, wouldn’t want to keep you from the stress of your daily tasks. Sure there’ll be a congregation to meet soon.’
The Father hastily scrawled his blessing. It was the law. It maintained a degree of agreement and validity over sacrifice, without going overboard.
‘Thank you. Vale, Papa.’
The grease stricken man plodded along and sank into his ramshackle boat. The Father withdrew his curiosity to gaze at his departure.
It was short, abrupt and anxiety provoking. The man was at least a decade younger, but his eyes were dulled by age. He never got to know what they liked to eat. He could have set up a trade link. Some crafts for some carrots, perhaps. He missed roasted carrots.
Shackling tiles was the order of the afternoon. He gorged himself on a tin of poached apples and dates. He saved the juice for later. His mind drifted as he began hammering the tiles, relatively haphazardly. The last occupant had done a poor job, he did so as well. His thoughts went to the pugio left for him on the stovetop when he arrived. A small stiletto type dagger, fashioned with the Ordivic symbols for life and courage; a bear climbing a tree. The scabbard was worn leather, etched into the side a token for the wielder; Ad finem. It was written in Classic, yet the blade was sharp and shone with a copper edge. It would be useless against another dagger, yet useful for the shrewd. It hung to his belt side as his arm hammered the final nails. He touched the scabbard, as he did periodically. Still there. Ad finem.
The days grew longer. The food grew shorter. The fires grew warmer. Perpetual darkness began to fall once winter approached. Mona lay north of the European midpoint. Its winters, whilst refraining from the snow of the uplands, were long. The darkness came from the cloud. The sun still shone, yet the thickness of mountain and sea cloud desaturated the atmosphere of light. Nightfall came in the early afternoon.
The roof still clanged in the night. Whilst fixed, it would surely fall again before winter’s end. There was little reason to make effort. He’d wait until spring. It was cold. The hearth crisped the evening air that stagnated his cloister. It reflected off the bookshelf which clutched the stone wall. Religious books, mostly, leftovers from the past. His only comfort was his book on animals. It had matured with use, notes having been added, words having been erased. It had little in common to the book he bought years ago. This was his. From his journey to Diogenes had at least added Sea Otters and Porpoise to his catalogue.
A few weeks had passed. The long days seemed to sway through the calendar like a trickle of wax. Stodgy and sodden, it made no improvements on his daily workload. He solaced himself, reclining in his decked chair looking outwards towards Farnor and Mona. His telescope shone on the dim sky, giving the illusion of natural light in his cloister. It eclipsed the fire in magnitude. He store out into the sea, saw little but animals and weeds. The shores of Farnor were dotted with jetties. A large harbour encompassed most of the coast, large sail-ships chugging with steam and smog. The town had been sotted by it, but the tower kept clean. He stared at more than any other features of the town. It took pride of place in his scope. The small flag showed a white whale on a red background. The whale, harpoon in its side, lay vertical. An odd flag, but emblem of the town. The whaling industry was confined to history, yet still played its part. The harbour, par example.
The inhabitants were an older couple. The tower seemed ill-fitting for those nearing their centenaries. Their sunken faces stared outwards as much as he, but he lacked the foresight to believe they could see him. They peered at gulls, they ate their food. They had a carer come every once in a while, lady in pink. No smile, a small armband with the whale symbol adorning it. They spoke few words, mainly seemed to be in annoyance. The arched window from which they peered, the only access to the wider world, now cut off by frail limbs; and minds.
More walked along the town’s harbour, armbands, gazing at the cranes now building newer insulae along the coast. Tourism was up, the church had recently been torn down for housing space, and the rise in cheese farming in the local hills had provided them with a gourmet boost. For an impoverished town, it was on the up. A demonstration, or two, occurred by the town’s centre a few days at a time. His view obscured by sullen alleyways, but the central plaza had an opening into the harbour. Muted affairs, but busy. All but a few in armbands. Mostly subdued, calm, vacant. Markets spread along the front, usually cheese and fish for the touring steam-sails. The Father could only imagine as to how the soot would enhance the flavour of an already potent cheese. Most of the visitors, nonetheless, drank wine.
Crows arrived weeks in. The markets died down, the demonstrations, more scant. The town, however, seemed healthier from it. The tower began to be alight by night, the flagpole adorned with candle-light. Vigils being pursued along the docks. People, smiling. This made the Father more uneasy than it should have. He decided to call it a night.
The greased man wasn’t the only visitor he received during his early months.
‘Awe my most pristine and elegant servant of our Lord Iesu Christ. May he watch over us for ever and eternity unto the next world. Amen.’
He wore little, considering he’d walked the same route the Father took a few weeks prior. A small hand sack contained a plastic canteen, and the clanking of some food tins. His cloak hung wet off his shoulders, a damp hood dripping seawater across his forehead. His shoes were sodden, yet his crusted shirt and tattered jeans were remarkably dry. The Father had noticed he was sitting before the brazier when he came out. The rambler called out to him as soon as he heard the nave door open. He was expecting him.
‘Ah’ said the Father, be musingly, ‘Ave I ti hefod!’. He thought he might as well test out his Ordivici, to stay on this rambler’s good side. After all, even with his dagger, the Father was poor in a fight.
‘Ordevicen! Why Papa, you humble us in the eyes of this magnificent cathedral’, he said, gesturing towards the sunken minaret. ‘it’s high time the Bishop employed someone who cared about the land around hem. You from the Sooth, I take?’
‘Yes. From Lundin. Can’t really compare it to here. Anyway, my child, how can I be of service?’
The rambler swiftly drew a list from his coat pocket. He moved with an elegance the Father had only seen in theatrics. His charisma, whilst bordering on insanity, was intoxicating.
‘Hahahah! Here be the list you see, a list from my home! I went round you see, asking everyone around. They wanted each thing, in time for you know, the wasting of winter is coming athrone!’
The Father reached out his hand in expectation, yet the rambler merely cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
‘Mai wife; a hedge to burn and a mouse to throw. Mai dotor; a leg of lamb for the family feast. Mai uncle; seven candles to place on the mantle, each one a day of the year. Mai grandmother; prayers for her horse. These are what they wish, but oh! they cannot get all. I travel across these islands in serche of these things, knowing, oh papa, you’d be able to assist in one. My family, they need it! They need it! Oh so. They wish for the summer, it leaves us so soon.’
Unwilling to cause any issue, the Father took liberty to bow his head and begin to pray. ‘May the lord protect our fine mothers’ horses and bless us in these difficult times’ etc. This seemed to satisfy.
‘Ahhhhh. There’s hardly a one doing it like that amor’
His eyes darted between the Father’s shoes and the church. Father had dealt with this sort of behaviour before, and whilst it was anxiety provoking, he felt he was on top of the situation.
Suddenly the rambler was by his side. He grabbed the Father tightly, squeezing to the point of constriction. But before the Father could react in any way, he was back to his original position. Bemused, the Father simply stared at his eyes. Each a darken brown. Each bloodshot from sand and seawater. No words were exchanged as the rambler continued to smile through the Father. He turned and wandered down the staircase.
The ashen smell of burning shook the Father from his dream and awoke him. He was reluctant to leave bed. That night, Farnor burned. It didn’t take the Father by surprise when he saw the ominous glow peering through the farthest window from his cot. He peered through the steamed glass, donned his coat and toed into the howling wind. Flicks of grandiose flame climbed for the wind. It reached and grabbed yards above the town. The tower, was engulfed. The port was docked to the brim, boats being loaded by anyone who had strength. He was reluctant to gaze through his telescope. Echoes of distant screaming carried across the waves. They were muffled by the snapping of timber and the cracking of stone, glass and mortar. The heat, he felt from where he stood. Metallic cranes began to tumble and crashed through the tower. It struck through its heart and landed on the harbour. It made no sound, drowned by the wind, fire and screaming.
‘Ave Maria, what in the ever godly is happening?’ as he turned and grasped for his quilt. It was now morning. He wanted to stay where it was warm. He didn’t want to see the remains of Farnor. He knew what he’d see. Nothing. Blackness. It was exactly what he saw.
Soot covered one side of the church. It must have carried over in the night. The town lay in ruins. The cranes contorted into agonising shapes, having been moulded by the intense heat. Some stood up from the harbour’s edge, whilst a few of the stone buildings remained upright, but scattered. Some modern insulae that hung towards the edge of town leant to the side. Its as if the structural integrity of the whole earth had been ruptured.
What of chores that morning? In his drying garden he began to plant some of the onion bulbs from his pantry. He formulated that they’d grow and keep in the mud as well as they would in the pantry, with a degree of greenery to spare. Something fresh might make a world of difference to his shaken self. Only half a tile fell from the roof that evening, and he let it be. The slate reserves were growing thin, he needed to preserve them until springtime.
He was unknown as to when in winter it actually was. He forgot to change and note the dates a few weeks into his tenure. He estimated it was mid-December. The cold had not been at its height as of yet, he had Janusy to hope for that. His morning chores were over, and he stared at the settlement before him. It absorbed all light from around it, even the flames that still smouldered from within it. A plume of smoke remained high in the sky, blotting out a portion of the day’s already gloomy sunlight. Dusk hung low in the sky even in this early morning.
He sat on the edge of the island. His eyes fixed towards the plume, gazing down towards the town when the creak of a steel beam buckled under the heat. There was little the Father could do. He wanted some more coffee, things didn’t feel real that day. Today might have been reason enough to make some. He took a deep sigh, got to his feet and walked to his stove.
The following days, things remained unclear. He had no visitors, which wasn’t a surprise, but the area around Farnor remained quiet, empty. No recuse attempt, no salvaging operation, no boats, no people. Deathly silence apart from the occasional structural fault. He’d been imagining the publicity surrounding a whole town going up in flames. There’d be camera boats for one thing, maybe tourists from the Spanish lands. Anything. But yet, the silence remained.
Fires started emerging in the distance now too. On evenings, the distant howl of crackling flame rustled through the calm sky. Dotted by screams. What could he do, but watch? He was stuck on the island. He could simply swim across towards Mona, find a quick way back to Cargalig and see the Bishop. His car could be very useful at a time like this. The Father reckoned, however, the Bishop would be the first across the bridge towards Deva.
Mona wasn’t spared. Fires began to dot the skylight from above the dunes. The heat was astounding. He gathered that at least half the settlements on the Island were ablaze. The process was gradual, then abrupt. One evening at least twenty plumes covered the starlit sky. This was now beyond wrong, this was a matter of survival. He had food. He was isolated. He was, relatively, safe. But from what? Was it a warband from the Jorklands? Surely not. They were a force to be reckoned with, but hardly had the capacity to mount such an attack. Hysteria? Disease? Anything was possible at the moment.
He sat near the empty hearth. He hadn’t felt like stoking any fires that afternoon. He glared, emptily at the unburnt logs, laying on each other. The ash of yesterday’s fire hugging on to them. The hollowness of the hearth gazed back into the Father. The depth, the endlessness; oh how he could simply fall into it. How he could swim in the embers of eternity. The hearth did not call for him. The hearth did not want him. The Father wanted the hearth, but the fires could not be extinguished that easily.
Some mornings passed, as well as some afternoons. Mona remained smouldering. Some trees closer to the shoreline had their tops singed by the overwhelming heat. The grass along the dunes, browned as well. His gaze drifted aimlessly. He stopped caring a few hours after the Mona fires. How was he supposed to maintain his sanity? Was there anyone left? As if God had answered, he peered towards the smouldering island, and caught a glimpse of an individual on the farthest jet wearing a grey cloak.
He knew his eyes weren’t betraying him. He’d had some coffee that morning. Took the edge off (then put it back on). More figures were gathering on the jetty. There were about three before he went to make the coffee, then seven when he came back. He was astonished by the speed in which they’d traversed the land, but apathy sank in quickly, and he lounged along the Cliffside and peered at the group with his eying lens.
The ringleader pointed towards the steep cliffs to the left of the jetty. The Father failed to appreciate that all but one of the group were wearing the same grey cloaks, yet one wore civilian clothing. A young man, late twenties. Yellow hair and a flush of facial hair. He was clearly agitated, and often attempted to free himself of his captors. Yet, his legs were mangled. They dragged him up the embankment up towards the cliffside. Without ceremony, almost in haste, they threw him off the side. Almost in comedic fashion, the Father’s telescope followed the man as it became a body on the rocks below. The sea quickly absorbed the corpse, into the Northern waves.
Abrupt way to start the morning. He could have done with some more coffee, or maybe they could have done with some. It might have settled their nerves a bit (and then piled them back on). Yet, by morning’s end, there was another dead person to the unfathomable numbers lost over the last few days. The Father remained on his perch. The rest of the group meandered down the cliff, towards the dunes. Three stayed behind on the jetty, and kept their position. They pointed towards the islet. They’d known he was watching the whole time. It might even have been a spectacle, a calling card, as it were. They maintained their gaze, and maintained their arms fixed in a point towards him. The Father simply gazed back. They were likely to just grab him in the night, if need be. They could get a boat, or wait a week for the tide to go out. A week. That was all he had left. A week.
He continued to light the brazier. He continued to dry out his vegetables. He continued his chores. He ate. He drank. He prayed (for a change). He took to his study. He peered towards Farnor. He looked towards the Jetty. Still there. Still pointing. He’d noted their chanting from afar. It was quiet, yet the sea wind could carry anything across it. It was in Ordivici, but too quick for him to discern. ‘Tad’ and ‘Tan’ would staccato across the waves, however. His small pocket dictionary maintained; father and fire. Oh joy.
Days into his imprisonment, the bodies began floating by. Not one or two, but many. They drifted peacefully past the rear of the islet, a few creeping by the stone staircase. Some managed to be washed ashore, but all were prey to carrion. They wafted overhead, like flies. Darting down to corpses that were floating upwards, revealing their eyes to the hungry scavengers. Those with their faces down turned occasionally due to their bloat or the currents. What remained of their sullen faces were their cheeks and brows, too tough for the fish and crabs that scavenged below. Their sockets, hollowed; fish occasionally getting caught in the cavities. The bloat was setting in, but the saltwater kept them. The current was slow those few days, he managed to get a glimpse on many of their faces.
Young women were the mainstay. Young men not far behind. Older individuals, he hypothesised, put up less of a struggle. It was beyond reasonable doubt that all these people, hundreds that floated by, were murdered. There was no mystery to it either. The majority, of what remained of their faces, were bruised or cracked to the skull. Estimating by the degree of bloat and calmness of the sea, they were killed not that far away. He could only hazard a guess as if to who had done such. They were still staring, pointing.
Their clothes, matted and damp. Grey skin, purple blotches. He was grateful there were no flies. He casted his eyes towards his monument. No, the devil was not dead today. Arms and mutilated legs also began floating, alongside their respective corpses. Not at all beneath them to mutilate their victims and then cast them off a cliff then? Some had musket wounds to their faces, bayonet wounds to their legs. This was calculated, efficient, and brutal.
The Father’s demeanour prevented him from collapsing into his mind. There were things to attend to, life to pursue. But with them staring at him? The burden grew exponentially. Some bodies began to pile up at the bottom of the staircase, and he lacked the medical resources to stave himself from dysentery or worse. He donned his best protective gear and a broom. They were dislodged quite soon, leaving some residue for the sea, or gulls, to clean up. The peered up after his venture. The figures remained. There were four of them now. He could not remember when there had been fewer. They all pointed. Their hoods averted their eyes, reluctant to give the Father the pleasure of knowing his torturers. They kept pointing.
A shrill in the dark. The figures still there. He peered through his scope. One was lighting a fire, the other three remained pointing. The fire was dim, but encircled the fourth. The fourth gave himself to the blaze. It crept. It flowered. It burned. The others remained vigilant, whilst the fourth wailed and turned. There was a brief moment of lapse, when the felt the fourth was to break ranks. He remained, and collapsed into the hearth. The fire blazed a few hours into the morning, the smell carrying towards the island. The gulls kept to their bodies, the allure of cooked meat had no such effect on them.
A singular body caught his attention. Green shoal. He knew who she was. There was no face left, a gull was perched on her back. It floated by like one of many. He threw a rock at the gull, but it returned earnestly. There was nothing left to the bloating mess of a body. The edges of her ears were picked to the bone, and her hair fell in clumps along the edges of her sodden dress. The Father merely stared at the body. This one was different. This body had spoken to him once. Perhaps some of the other bodies had done so as well, but this one mattered. When in death, only the physical remains. Only the physical can be appreciated. The spiritual, only remained in his mind. The physical, was in the present. He did not wish to remember the physical present. He longed for the physical past. The bananas. The custard. The village. All physical, now spiritual. They meant nothing at a time such as this. The physical was all that he could control. They kept staring, long into the next days.
Two remained. The other had walked off, towards the cliff, and threw himself down. The body arrived a few hours later. Crushed in, like all the others, was his skull. One of his eyes remained, but dangled from its socket. He envisioned a pendulum. His teeth, were unmistakable. The grin shone from the spiritual. The physical was before him, rotting. He kicked the body back into the sea, the teeth shining at him. The grey hair dangled into the waves like a jellyfish snatching the souls of those who had passed before him.
‘What is it to be here?’
He lamented. There was not much left to sustain him. The moon was dawning on March, and soon the tide would be out. This was his final stretch. He felt empty. A cliché on the rock of a distant island. Isolated. His life was a cliché. He never wanted to be here. He desired his friend. He desired his love. He desired to be along the Spanish coast. He missed the open world.
These, he knew, were only the physical desires of his final days. The spiritual, were the same. He longed. He had no faith to confine in. He was not a religious man. The church provided him with a safe haven. He was grateful, but more grateful to fate than the divine. Was fate that useful? He was going to die soon. Should he curse or praise it?
It was only a matter of days before the tide would begin to subside. He gathered the last few grams of coffee and brewed it all. He got some condensed milk. He left the sugar. He got out a deckchair and placed it close to his sculpture. He grabbed the aze from the shed and tore it down. God, the Devil and Fate were dead. The world, and all its failures, islet or on Mona, remained. He chucked the aze in the pile and lit a fire. It kept him warm that day, night and evening. It would do, over the brazier.
He settled. He store back at them. There were around fifty now. He’d lost count. He left his scope in the church. The coffee lasted him only the first hour. He drank it tepid. It soothed his brain. Brought back a glimmer of hope, masked in anxiety. I shouldn’t have burned the aze. I needed it to defend myself. I need to flee. I could take them on. He settled back into his chair, grasping at the mug, and enjoying his final few hours staring over the island of Mona and Farnor to the distance. His blanket was warm by the embers. His chair sunk into the grass.
The tide was out when he awoke. There was a pyre on the jetty. His time was up. He grabbed his mug and drank the last few drops. Cold coffee. Something to savour. There was no procession. He made his way down the staircase. They weren’t pointing. The cobbled stone and rocks that paved his way were slipped with the algae of summers gone by. He struggled to his feet. In another life, he would be embarrassed. A dune had collapsed during the winter storm, he hadn’t noticed until now.
The crowd amassed around the pyre. All hooded. All bemused by his existence. All in silence. He expected a gentle coup de grace. He was presented by a forceful boy of around thirteen, armed with a gladius. He’d forgotten his pugila on the hearth. So much for that burst of adrenaline. The boy pushed him to the ground, and grasped his hood, pulled backwards.
‘I’r tan yr ei, i’w wynebu.’
‘Ave, my child.’
He crossed a pattern along his chest as he straddled his back. The cut was deep, but off the bone. It was a cross, but crude. It dripped to his feet, the stain showing through the sides of the torn habit. He was tied to the iron stake, brass at the floor. The fire began suddenly. The licks of flame heating the metal at his sides. He began to burn.
His thoughts drifted to the sky. So did his eyes. The gulls circled above. Maybe it was the crowd. They all looked so pale. They all looked so normal. They were all hooded. They were all people. They weren’t spiritual. They were both; their bodies and thoughts entrenched to the earth. They remained silent, as did he. His thoughts of Mona were distant, yet his ashes would remain here. The flames overcome his view of the sky, as the smoke began to plume whilst the sun stood firmly above.