Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Storylistener's Borning Work

by Bill Gillard

 

The Kraken

Below the thunders of the upper deep,

Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides; above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,

From many a wondrous and secret cell

Unnumbered and enormous polypi

There hath he lain for ages, and will lie

Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

- Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

Jack had to move the couch to clean the floor right.  He twisted his knee against it and the couch slid with little trouble across the room, exposing a rectangle of dust and dullness on the linoleum.  That would need mopping and some polish.  Jack left the couch on the part of the floor he had already finished mopping—in front of the main entrance so that it blocked the door of the hotel.  Nasty day out anyway, with the snow coming, and his boss, that bastard O'Donnell, was out to lunch so what did it matter?  It was only for a minute.  Jack was not the kind of man to mop around something when he could do a complete job without much more trouble.  He knew that once a man reached a certain age he should feel lucky to find steady work, so Jack was happy at the hotel, even if cleaning up after people was not his idea of a glamour job.  That bastard was another story.  He once saw O'Donnell fire a man just for whistling—a father of two young kids, to boot.  No humanity in that, just plain meanness.  One of these days, Jack would just stop taking it all in and let that pipsqueak have it with both barrels.  One of these days.

In the few seconds he was gone and back from the sink closet, a woman sat down on the out-of-place couch.  She studied the conference program like it was Friday and not Sunday afternoon, even though it was pretty easy to see from the empty lobby that the conference was mostly over.  He watched her in profile against the gray day outside the door as she bent over the program, pen poised above the page, toe kicking rhythmically against the air.  Very respectable looking, like a librarian or something, with pretty grey hair down to her collar, not like steel wool, not a hint of blue at all, just soft looking and natural.

His anger disappeared, replaced by the powerful loneliness that washed over him.  His throat tightened, for a moment he forgot how to breathe.  He clenched his fists and stared at her.  She must have been a real beauty in her day.  He swallowed and remembered his wife Margery, dead for six years now.  He twisted the mop handle in his hands and rested his chin on the end of it.  The past is gone, his friends tell him, bury the dead and move on.  All we’ve got is the present, they say.  But it’s easy for them.  Easy when you’ve got a future and someone to plan it with.  She pulled a thin water bottle from her purse and lifted it to her mouth.  Those hands—how he would love to feel them in his, to stroke and kiss them.  Jack maneuvered around to the far end of the couch, played at mopping, just so he could read the name label stuck to the binder all of the attendees got.  Professor Wanda Hiffle.  Below that was the name of a small college about forty miles west of here.  He pushed his bucket past her and around the corner where he knew there was a table that still had programs on it.  He found her in the directory of participants.  "Dr. Hiffle teaches Victorian literature, with an interest chiefly in Arnold's poetics."  He stuffed the program into his pocket when he heard her coming and pretended to be wiping the table.  She passed behind him without a word.  She had a coat over her arm and her bag bounced off her hip as she walked.  What a figure!  And a professor, too.  His chest hurt just thinking about touching those hips.  But it would never happen, he knew suddenly.  Never in a million years.  She stopped, glanced down at her program one more time, and pushed open the door to Room 16 and disappeared inside.

The program told Jack this session was called: "Anthropologic Revelation on Tennyson's 'The Kraken'"  Fleance Gurdy (Independent-UK), 12:00-1:45 PM, Room 16.  The floor outside that room might need some extra attention, Jack thought.  Maybe he’d have to buff away some scuff marks and that might take the whole session, who knew?  And when the snow everyone was predicting hit, maybe she'd be stranded here and might appreciate some company.  He looked over his shoulder—still no O’Donnell.  Good.  He pushed the mop bucket slowly down the hall toward his new favorite, Room 16.

***

Like most Victorianists, Wanda Hiffle paid scant attention to Tennyson's early poems. 

Over the years, Wanda would stand erect at a podium, left hand cradling an open book, right hand pointing to the heavens, and tell her students that she cringed at the thought of an older Tennyson—one who had lived through the sudden, untimely death of his great chum Arthur Hallam and who had written the transcendent "In Memoriam" while in the throes of that grief—rereading some of his early work.  Wanda had great fun at the expense of a young Tennyson, so filled with the glory of himself that he couldn’t possibly notice that his poems were senseless, soulless drivel.  So it took a lot for Wanda to find herself attending a session on "The Kraken," in her opinion the most unremittingly dreadful of Tennyson's early poems.  But it wasn’t as if she had much choice—of the few sessions offered, it was the only one close to a subject she knew anything about.

She was the first in the room, but moments after she had sat down, a young man rushed in through the door in a panic.  He was tall, with scraggly brown hair, black frame glasses, and was almost impossibly skinny, as if his image were stretched by a circus mirror.  Fleance Gurdy, Wanda presumed.  He carried a briefcase and a long cardboard tube.  Wanda saw another man in the hall and thought for a moment he would come in as well, but he only smiled as if they knew each other.  Fleance began unpacking papers and arranging them on the podium.  He pulled the end off the tube and dumped a long white paper roll onto the floor.  Slightly out of breath, Fleance Gurdy began:

"Tennyson was not the sort to be taken with flights into the unlikely.  Oh, no.  Even when dealing in fantastic subjects, he had an eye toward the realistic, a marked interest not in simply what he could get away with but what would make sense in the context of a journey into medieval Baghdad, for example, or—Oh, my!"  Dr. Gurdy looked up at his audience for the first time, mouth wide open as if the sentence he had cut short clogged his windpipe.  His eyes gaped.  Thin, almost translucent hands clamped down on the front of the podium as if he meant to tear it to pieces.  "Where?"

Wanda smiled.  "No, Professor.  Right room, right time.  It's just me."  She shrugged.  "Sorry."

"I had no…"  He relaxed.  He looked down at his notes.  He laughed.  "Pathetic, isn't it?  How does one deliver a paper to one person?"  He took a deep breath and pushed the glasses back up his nose.  "Shall I continue?"

"One moment, if you don’t mind."  Wanda stood and walked to the door where the man outside still stood.  She opened it, he shied away into the shadows.  "Excuse me, would you like to come in to hear a paper on Tennyson?  We seem to be a little short on an audience.”

Immediately, Wanda saw that she was speaking with a custodian, an old man at that, obviously cleaning the floor.  What he might care about poetry by a young Tennyson she could not say.  But it was too late to rescind the invitation so she held the door open and waited for him to respond.

"Uh, sure, I guess.  Why not?"  He leaned the mop against the door frame and slipped through. 

"Wonderful!"  Wanda lied.  Subjecting this poor old man to this lecture might not be the best idea after all.  Poor Fleance.  She and the custodian settled into their seats, Fleance sighed deeply, and continued, "I do have a copies of the poem here.”  He passed them out to Wanda and Jack.  “Yes, indeed.  Moving on, moving on…  Ah, here—

"'The Kraken,' therefore, cannot be read as a sincere attempt at mythmaking.  Tennyson would not employ such vague references if narrative were his object.  No, this poem stands out precisely because it draws on such unfamiliar folklore.  What was his source?  That is the question I hope to answer here.

"Tennyson's father, that terrible minister of Our Lord, made the acquaintance of a mid-nineteenth century gentleman explorer, a Liverpuddlian named Andrew St. Phastus, who had lately returned from a sea voyage with a tall tale that he spun to the Tennysons when Alfred was just eighteen.  In fact, in a letter dated January 11, 1830, Tennyson recounts this story as the source of 'The Kraken':

"'He was a strange sod, this St. Phastus, one might not be surprised to find him perpetually soaked to the bone with brine, addled with rum, and with a latent case of scurvy, the old buccaneer.  It took some cajoling from the younger children but with filled pipe and with tankard drained thrice for lubrication, the old codger quickened and told this tale.  Before you get a mind to do it, dear Arthur, know that I have already used this story, in some form, as the basis for a poem.  I beat you to it, in short.  We must take our liberties where we may.  I cannot afford to be a gracious second in the Poetry Prize to you again, can I?  I have my reputation to safeguard!' 

"Again, that is from a letter to Arthur Hallam sent by Tennyson in 1830.  I believe the story behind 'The Kraken' derived from the meeting Tennyson herein describes.

"But the story itself, the tale told by the mysterious St. Phastus, has been lost, until now.  No record of the original source material for Tennyson is known to exist.  But my discovery, the basis for this paper, in fact, and the essence of my forthcoming book, is that I believe that the strange handwriting found in the manuscript bundle with the Tennyson family documents is the account of the visit of St. Phastus by one of Tennyson's siblings, possibly his tragically insane younger brother Edward.  There are enough similarities between the tale and Tennyson's poem to convince me that it is the true source for the poem.  Translated from muddle English" Gurdy looked up from the podium at the audience of two and smiled at his own joke.  He dabbed his forehead with a dainty handkerchief.  "Here is the story…"

***

On a time, in the cliff-side port of Grace-by-Sea, there lived a handsome young man named Theodore.  He was a fine boy from an upright family and he always tried his best to live according to the laws of his town and to respect the ways of the elders.  Theodore was a mighty fisherman for one so young.  He sailed farther out to sea than even the bravest of his kinsmen dared.  When he returned to port, his boat overbrimmed with a bountiful catch.  Each day, before selling his goods to traders, he made sure that the poorest of his fellow townspeople had enough to eat, even as the less bold of his brethren came back to port with empty boats.  Cutting through the surf in Temptation, his great black blade of a ship, no one mistook Theodore.  He stood erect, long rudder in his firm grasp, smiling, always smiling, even when facing the clawed hand of the early winter gale.  People said, "why smile so much, Theodore?" to which he replied, "I am happy that we live, my friend.  That is all."  Some laughed, recognized the quote, and said the stories of the Great Book of the town were written in Theodore's heart.  But others, more worldly, less apt to remember, frowned, saying, "Why don’t you forget that old nonsense, Theodore?  You are a man now, too old for these childish tales."  Again, Theodore would smile.  But, as always, he persevered in his study, joining the elders at night, observing his duty.  Days passed and Theodore, grown into his manhood, became a respected and admired member of the community.  He courted the Maiden Daphne, a daughter of nobility, and continued to fish for himself and for others.  He was happy. 

That day, Theodore’s boat Temptation was the last to return to harbor.  A fisherman's eye would have seen that it rode as high in the water as it did that morning.  Theodore passed by the commercial wharf and the old man who always sat on an upturned bucket stood and watched their best fisherman return with an empty hold.  But Theodore was not the only one whose had wasted his day, or the past week, on the empty sea…

***

Jack knew it was a mistake when he did it but to undo it would be too obvious.  He intended to sit next to Wanda Kiffle, but at the last second lost his nerve.  He sat instead in the row in front of her.  What was he thinking?  Now he’d have to act interested, absorbed even, by this fool if he wanted Wanda to take him seriously at all.  And there was nothing even to look at, except for this crazy guy at the front of the room.  Then he became aware that even above Fleance’s drone, he could hear the gentle wheeze of Wanda’s breathing.  Every two or three seconds, a small whistle.  He imagined laying with her as she slept.  He swallowed and remembered Margery.  He never appreciated her enough.  And she never forgave him for not being a big success.  They just never got going, even after almost thirty years of marriage.  Both too afraid to open up, to rise above petty day-to-day concerns, to live the kind of live they always should.  Regret.  A mean, vast word.

***

Solitary as the moon, Theodore made his nightly journey up the hill away from the harbor carrying his wet sail on one shoulder and his fishbasket on the other.  This night, when he was halfway home, a man leaning against the corner of a house eyed Theodore as he approached.  His face was like a cliff with small caves eroded into it—eyes, nose, and mouth.  The man spoke.  "How is your catch today?"  Killingsworth was a roper with a reputation for adequate work, and he supplied many fisherman in Grace with nets. 

"The stories say, 'The sea does what it will' and today it kept me too far abroad for too many hours.  Strange and quiet.  I hope others' luck was better."

The roper stepped closer, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his pants.  "No, not mine.  Nor anyone else's."  He paused to measure the effect the news had.  "People say you talk about the legend again, of the bargain.  But I say no, Theodore is a rational man, a reasonable man.  He knows the old stories are just meant to scare the women and children.  So what say you, young Theodore?  How do explain these strange sea days?"

"One week with no fish is no cause for alarm."  Theodore spoke and Killingsworth bared his teeth in a smile.  "But I know a little about this sea, and I never thought there could be days like these.  If the stories—"

"Leave behind!"  Killingsworth spat.  "Stone and sea, you'll get the women and children running for the mountains before you're done."  He wiped away spit from his chin.  "Come down to the Gull tonight, be with the men.  Tomorrow the sun will rise and we will fish again."  These "men," Theodore knew, were the ones who every night drank until they stumbled home, barely able to keep upright, the ones willfully ignorant of the stories of the town...

***

Strange mix of scholarship and storytelling, Wanda thought.  She couldn’t help but smile.  But this custodian in front of me.  I wonder how he’s taking it.  It was awful of me to drag him in here, but at least he’s not subject to post-structuralism of some stripe.  This is old-time source study.  Not bad.  And he does give me something to look at.  What a wreck of a man!  And that neck—we used to call that the elevens, when those two tendons at the back of the neck stand out so prominently.  It was a sign of the devil, we used to say.  Either that or the person would die soon. Very soon.

***

…"I am sorry to have to say no again, but this night I go to the temple to join my kinsmen in study."

Killingsworth groaned.  "You and your monsters, telling wives' tales in the dark.”  He held his arms out from his side.  “Come now, be rational, Theodore.  Be reasonable."

"I do my duty, that is all."

Killingsworth grabbed Theodore's arm and spun him roughly.  "Duty is an ass.  But why do I waste my time talking to a child?"  He grunted and pushed the young man away.  For a time, Theodore watched his back diminish in the dusk as he lurched down the hill toward the docks and the taverns. 

Beyond the wharf, the rising moon glistened across the water.  For his whole life, he had known the sea as a friend, someone he understood.  Like a woman, his father told him, the sea sometimes needs to be alone.  A living thing like any other, the sea brimmed with mystery and awe, fish and, yes, monsters.  But what of today?  What of this week?  How could there be no fish at all?  Is it as the old stories say?  What if Killingsworth is right?  What if all the ritual, all of the memories—what if they are just what he says they are, children’s tales, for telling hearthside?  He stared out into the bay.  In his youth, the sea had sparkled with mystery and beauty, thrown jewels in the moonlight, the endless striping of the incoming waves.  Now he knew how to read currents, find shoals and submerged rocks just by the patterns they made on the surface.  He knew too much now to find the beauty.  A sudden, cold wind nearly blew the cap from his head.  So unlike summer.  He turned and pulled his collar around his throat.  He felt the mystery of the sea press against his back as he trudged up the hill. 

***

“Bear with me now,” Fleance dabbed at his brow.  “The direct source material is coming, but I thought it necessary to provide this background in the interest of completeness.  It really is an exciting story…  I don’t suppose there are any questions.”  Jack started in his hands and shook his head quickly.  Wanda smiled.

***

Theodore stopped at a kinsman's home, a faithful old blind man named Boniface, who relied on the charity of others to live.  It had been many a night that Theodore spent in deep discussion with Boniface on some question raised by the Great Book.  Theodore knocked on the old man's door and was surprised when an unfamiliar woman opened it.  For a moment, Theodore faltered, his smile flattened under tight lips.  He could not think of the last time he had seen a stranger in Grace.  Boniface sat at the hearth, and a small group of old men and women, some he recognized and some not, in the room around him.  The woman pulled him by the arm inside and closed the door behind them. 

After a silence, Boniface spoke.  "Young Theodore.  What news of the sea?"

"Strange luck."  Theodore knelt before the old man and held the withered, brown hand in his.  "I caught no fish today, though I roamed even to Land's Death at the edge of the earth."  He startled at the loud pop and watched a shower of sparks fly up the chimney.  He watched transfixed as a log, burned through its core, broke under its own weight, fell to the hearth, and exploded in a burst of grainy heat. 

Boniface spoke.  "And what of the storm building in the east, young Theodore?  Have you known a mid-summer wind to rave like this?"  Theodore ran a hand through his hair.  He knelt staring thin-eyed at the fire, brows pressed close.  "You recognize the signs?" 

Theodore understood.  They think the Kraken returns.  Fragments of the old verse danced through his mind—

Below the thunders of the upper deep;

Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth…

In roaring he shall rise…

***

"But that's straight out of Tennyson's poem!"  Wanda interrupted.  "Are you saying that this source predates Tennyson’s work?"  In front of her, the custodian nodded, as if he understood her objection.  It sounded as if he was having trouble breathing.  She saw again the elevens and thought, I’ve never seen anyone die.

Jack tried to turn in his seat to nod at Wanda’s reasonable point.  But sitting for so long made his back hurt and his neck stiff.  The best he could muster was a grunt to the air over his left shoulder.

"I am not sure,” Fleance smiled, glad for the challenge.  “I do know that 'The Kraken' is the dog in the dining car of Tennyson's poetry.” 

***

"After all these years?"  Theodore stood to face the group.  "One week with no fish?  Surely that has happened before.  Some strange new current, some sickness among the fish, perhaps?  Let’s be reasonable.  And the storm…"  But even as he spoke the words he knew that what was happening was something new, something no one in a hundred generations had known.  The elders in the room muttered words like "doom" and "end."  Theodore sat heavily.  Could it be that the prophecies were correct after all?  Not just stories?  One of the elders he did not recognize opened the Great Book and read from it.  It was not the story Theodore might have chosen—in fact, it was one of the more obscure passages from the Great Book, a story that unsettled Theodore in ways others did not.  Theodore squirmed in his seat, but respect and decorum dictated that when a message from the Great Book was read aloud, all who were present were obliged to listen.  The elder labored over the words, as if birthing each one…

***

Patches of gray snow painted on brown of hills that slumber dark etched against bright sky in west / a path there and there / mud and snow will be gone in a week / or two / we will make our climb up and over ridge to other side to escape this terrible village / my woman Hargan carries child these late days / she sweats now in our place in valley among women weaving new life / I labor waterside among these filthy men coil rope wive miserable fishing boats mend nets / for not much longer / a hand on my shoulder I jump / we all do our borning work tonight / older man says / men must make their way to fire for story / as if I do not know generations of tradition / I turn away from hills to see my village in valley of late day mountain shadows /  I will not miss this place / child for me / for Hargan / I do not to speak of my profound hope for our child / Hargan is wise and strong more than any other woman / and no man can match my strength / together we will make a beauty of a child / child of far hills and bright days / we men when night comes meet in great hall of village / we make fire and drink and eat and wait for women to come and tell us / boy or girl / night is full of wonders / some among us are storytellers / these men bear other world gifts / some places like here others far away with great creatures no one would wish to meet / and some men / most men / like me / are storylisteners / true makers of meaning / each his own calling for stories / for what is story without listener and who is storyteller without storylistener / old man by me storylistener from time of my father's father says anyone can tell a story but it takes a man of strength to listen with all his spirit and mind / to make sense of it to make it real to make it mean what it means / to see it for what it is / that is what old man says / I sit nearest fire tonight and feel cold behind me and heat like summer day in front / storyteller to my left and elders to my right / it has ever been this way / men grow quiet for a story arrives in silence and must be embraced like a woman lest it disappear back into night also like a woman / storyteller begins ever this way / thanks for ears power greater than we / so that stories may be heard / and thanks for minds to hear and understand / now and then in distant village a woman of powerful family and many riches / a woman late with child / alone keens from weaving place / does her borning work away from village / against all nature / she brings child to world keeps him for herself / no mother of women aborning for her / her man knows not where she is bound, only that she is gone / woman alone child arrives by night forlorn cries echo through hills / woman alone covers him in skins tiny child shivers against woman alone / dawn teases at warmth through fog and trees / child cries became sighs breathing a whisper / woman alone kicks at fire for warmth pulls child ever closer / child must live child must live / speaks woman alone / must be mighty among men as power greater than we no longer / and a moment passes then another and woman alone witnesses a sign in heavens a light as if sky rent itself in two / a cut a break a crack as if sky were wine flask and her wish a stone / child stirs in arms of woman alone / kicks and grunts but does not cry out and will not / and fog grows until day and night are two gray brothers who press hands over woman's eyes even as she weeps / tears at her hair / her village forever lost / she cannot find road / though they live beneath rock gray sky child grows in strength / a year passes then three and six and boy grows till by ten summers he stands a head taller than woman alone / woman alone raves for loneliness becomes feeble before her time / young man takes pity on himself / I need this wreck of a woman alone no longer / leaves her one night while she sleeps / travels far with neither hunger nor fear / he stands by shore of a great lake / admires shadow he casts on water / touches reflection / says I am beautiful / I am more powerful than woman alone / than endless sea / I am most powerful / above him is sign in sky again like on day he was born / and he strides into lake and lake engulfs him / for a moment / young man grows angry / for water alone is no greater than he / and he stretches himself upward / he walks head above water / shoulders above / hips above / steps over trees on far shore / tries to find his reflection in puddle that remains / but for lake alone / he sees many miles in all directions / watches distant villages awake in morning and buzz like any other hive / in two strides he crosses many miles / he cares not where he trod be it field forest or village center / earth shudders at his passing / great mountains fold in on themselves and flatten / boy alone stands now higher than highest mountain / feels earth curve beneath his feet / world becomes small while he remains boy alone / soon it is not he who perches on earth but world that hangs from him like a stone / a burr / a feather / he brushes world from his tunic and leaps into black sky full of stars / dances among hot jewels / finally I am free / there is no power greater than I alone / stars one by one blind then shine then glister then glimmer / they stick to him like magic dust / he brushes these too from his tunic / certainly there is none greater than I / his voice the vast space between stars / like death / yet when he reaches above his head and stretches with pointed toes to his full length he feels a wall surrounding him / in all directions / soft / alive / moving inward / he braces legs and presses with all of his strength outward / first with hands then with back then with knees elbows hips / pressure / boy swells / knees press into forehead / fist against fist / pressure ever greater / boy alone tries to speak / mother / head presses tighter against walls / please / village of stories / to die alone / mother / terrified / memory fades / village of stories / then mother gone / all gone / pressed into himself / blank / a pink light grows around him / weeping still he weep for joy at end of nothingness / cool air against his head and brighter light warms hands / fire burns lower as story ends / how could storyteller know / feet behind me shuffle against stone floor and hand rests lightly on my shoulder / I know whose hand it is / I know sound of my village on this night / it fits me like well-coiled rope over my shoulder fits me like soft rain on sea / and story fits me well, too, but it fits all who hear according to their needs / our child / to die alone / Hargan / to die alone / a voice at my ear whispers in smell of coming spring / news from weaving tent / a boy / Hargan calls for me / bedroll / listeners / crouch against door / I wait for them to move / Hargan calls for me!

***

Jack sat, transfixed.  That mother—so selfish!—pushed away her one chance at happiness in the arms of her lover and family.  What a stupid thing to do!  Dying alone in a cave?  Not me.  I’ll go out in a blaze of glory before I let that happen to me.  A blaze of glory.  But do I even have it in me any more?  A blaze of glory?  How about an ember of respectability.  Jack closed his eyes and smiled.

***

Wanda watched the man in front of her with greater interest than she watched Gurdy’s histrionics.  He leaned forward in his chair, jaw set, shoulders rigid.  Must have been a strong man in his day, an athlete for sure.  Still not bad looking.  And a keen interest in Tennyson?  Maybe she’d buy him a drink at the bar after the session, talk about life.  After all, she was not due back to her son’s house until dinner time.  Anyway, it would be good to get away from all of these academics for a while, have a conversation about something totally different.  If he wasn’t senile or something.

***

As he listened to the old one speak, Theodore thought of his beautiful, young Daphne, their future together, the children they would make, the home they would build together.  He would not be like the man in the story, not like the woman alone.  He would stay with his town, keep up the old ways, the traditions.  That’s what he thought the story was about, anyway.  But it made his sad to think that there was no way to break out, no way to make new things, no way to climb the distant hills and beyond into the land of the newborn sun.  Theodore thought of the distant shorelines he had seen while fishing.  Tales of wild beasts and monsters kept him from tying up along those distant shores to see what he could find.  Yes, fear, and stories like these from the Great Book.  And what was he searching for that he could not find in Grace?  In Daphne’s arms?   He roused when Boniface again spoke: "The ancient promise comes due for us.  We are called to the final battle.  We are the ones who triumph or die."  Theodore looked around him and saw what he feared: many wrinkled faces, deeply shadowed in the firelight, demanding the price of faith.  His eyes rested on blind old Boniface, seated and hunched forward on a cane.  These old people, they would all be dead with the passing of a year or maybe five.  If the Kraken devoured them or if they succumbed to the ravages of old age, what was the difference?  Their time was done, their lives lived, well or ill, it was far too late to make emendation.  Someone began to chant the rest of the prophecy.  Boniface again spoke: “The legend foretold the thousand years of peace purchased by our town's founders, who bartered with the great sea beast Kraken for protection.  To these elders, the signs we see today would be clear.  The great debt has come due.  If the Kraken still lives, it will demand our lives in payment of the debt.”  If the Kraken still lives...  "Our hope, young Theodore, rests with you.  Story and song tell us the great warrior Grace a thousand years gone fought Kraken on land and on the sea to purchase the lives of our town from then till now.  Will you take up his battle and, as Grace did once before, save this town?"

The image of Killingsworth appeared unbidden in Theodore’s mind.  It seemed so ridiculous, ludicrous.  He had the urge to shake these fearful ancients out of their delusion.  Could they be reasonable about this for a moment?  Whose words were those, he wondered.  And why him?  He had his whole life to look forward to.  Did they actually expect him to make a journey out of the harbor into a storm in the middle of the night?  He'd be lucky to survive.  The crazy, scared old people, he thought.  Maybe all I need to do is to speak calmly to them, to explain that I don’t believe the stories literally.  Theodore stared into the embers.  Difficult, yes.  But, ah, Killingsworth.  I see the seduction of the rational all too clearly.  I must believe in the legends because that is who—so I must go.  If there be a Kraken, then I have done my duty.  If there be none, well, then maybe we go from there with some new story, some new legend to allow the elders to feel useful.  But what if they are wrong?  What if the book lies?

Boniface spoke: "The path is clear, but the journey ahead perilous."  The small house creaked in the wind which had blown steadily stronger since Theodore arrived.

Theodore swallowed.  He walked toward the door but his way was blocked by chairs and listeners, intense in the shadowy heat at the back of the room.  He stepped over and between them, stopped with the door knob in his hand, waited.  These people are insane with faith, he thought.  These old people, fearing their own mortality, look for something greater than they in the portents of the wind, the running of the tide.  But the Great Book has never been proven wrong, never with anything important.

Boniface twisted his gnarled hands around the bent cane.  "It must be now.  Before the Kraken comes into its full power.  Then it will be—"  Boniface paused "—unstoppable."  The room was silent.  "You must take harpoon and hook, net and grapple."  Boniface grimaced.  "You must go now."

Theodore studied the wood grain on the door.  How comfortable they are even as they ask me to risk all for them!  How secure in their inaction!  How long would it be before he would again sit in front of a warm fire?  And what of Daphne, his one sure love?  But then he decided.  He must, for the sake of the old ways and the old ones, do what they required of him.  If the Kraken comes, he will come from beyond the edge of the world.  Fight him there in the shallows of Land's Death.  And if there be no Kraken, then he could get in a full day of fishing.  If there be no Kraken…  A woman looped a bag over his shoulder.  "Food," she said.  And then, “Make way!”  Boniface.  “Let a man pass!”  A hand on Theodore’s shoulder shook him from his reverie.  Hot, fetid breath in his ear, a man whispered, "Go!"  Without looking behind him, Theodore pushed through the door, and stepped outside into a thin, cold, wind-driven rain.

The town was dark.  A dim light shone through the dirty window of The Gull as Theodore passed.  Inside, he heard a woman singing and men laughing.  He felt a drop of rainwater snake down his spine.  He reached the dock and slung his sail and food into his boat.  The wave caps shone white in the dim light, even in the harbor.  This was like no summer storm he had ever seen.  Theodore pushed off from the dock and began to row, the wind’s hand pressing his shoulders forward. 

No living thing saw him leave. 

No living thing would venture to the wharf on a night like this one. 

No living thing saw Theodore laugh as he pulled against the swollen sea.

For many hours, he labored against the wind.  On the open ocean, he tacked widely.  For a while he could use the town and the harbor lights for navigation.  Soon, however, the mist that hung in tatters obscured that faint light.  He had to navigate by feel, by wind direction.  He tried to recite the prophecy, but the words did not come to his exhausted mind.  He imagined the voice of Killingsworth remind him that ten years earlier, the town had its first snowfall in early October.  There must be a rational explanation even for this.  But for the fish?  Where did they go?

Theodore struggled against the mounting gale.  His course was difficult, moving headlong against a stiff storm head.  He thought of the small cottage on the headland, unattended, but of sound roof and chimney.  If he were to tie in there and hide out for a day or two, he could come back home and the old ones, in their blindness, would not recognize his lie.  Wind swells crested over the gunwales and soaked his freezing feet.  No time to bail; his course was far too demanding.  The rain turned to hail that chewed at his exposed flesh.  Then, the hail turned to snow that gathered at Theodore's feet in a messy slush.  Leaning desperately against the pull of the sail, he could no longer feel his hands. The rope snaked through his stiff and raw fingers.  He lost his bearings, his sail flapped in the swirling gale.  Many hours passed this way.  He was plying the void, senseless in a world that had collapsed into abject darkness and a howling wind that his ears reported, but his face and hands forgot how to feel.  He navigated as if he were watching someone else do it.  His heart pounded inside of his chest.  The sail tore free of the mast and was lost beneath the waves in an instant.  The sound of his breathing, labored and grunting earlier, had drowned inside roar of the gale.  Theodore was conscious only of duty and mounting fear that left his benumbed spirit without consolation.

He did not consciously greet the gradual brightening of the eastern sky, but he knew that one moment he could neither see nor feel anything and the next he wondered at the strange legs and feet he could see below him but could not feel.  The moon? The sun?  Theodore could not tell.  Theodore raised his eyes and squinted into the wind.  The remnant of the sail flapped in tatters, held by a single rope to the mast.  His boat had filled with water and was riding so low that he feared it might sink.  He cast his eyes about for his harpoon or grapple: both lay at his side, lashed to the seat below him, although what good these might be against the beast he could not say— 

The beast!

The reason for the journey rushed back into this mind.  Eyes wide, he surveyed the dim, grey sea around him.  Rolling breakers crested and continued their westward path, disappearing into the depths once again.  He knew this place: Land's Death, the end of the world.  He wanted to stand, but his legs did not move.  Above the water line, his overalls were icy and stiff, his feet frozen in place.  He cried out when he tried to remove his gloves—flesh tore, coagulated against wool and leather.  Even his face pained him.  His jaw seemed to have nails driven through it to hold it shut.

A champion to battle the Kraken!  How he had failed those who believed!  How hardy the men must have been ten centuries ago.  His courage faltered.  I will die out here Kraken or not, he thought.  How foolhardy I was!  At that moment, Temptation groaned as if dragging along a barnacle-covered reef.  Wood shrieked and throbbed below his feet and all around him.  He was pitched forward, nearly headlong into the water.  He held onto the seat below him as his boat pitched violently.  Screaming, he rolled into the icy water that sloshed at his feet and grabbed at the harpoon, trying to loose it, amid the shaking.  He managed to pull the harpoon free, to hold it in both hands above his head.  He struggled to his knees.  With a loud groan, he tried to hurl it downward, straight into the water.  Theodore fell once again.  His head smashed against the bow bench. 

The dim light swam in a sea of stars and colors as Theodore lay stunned.  His chest felt as if it were crushed beneath a mountain.  He screamed as he tried to pull his gloves off, and held his hands in front of his face.  They appeared suddenly as the claws of some great insect, some impossibly huge crab, lunging, ready to tear the head from his shoulders.  He tried to kick, to stand, but could not.  The bones in his back felt like they were breaking, one by one, till he could do nothing and see nothing and feel nothing.  The roar of the wind, the murderous cold: his senses were blind.  Darkness was complete. 

The surging swells shouted his dying mantra: failure…failure…failure...

***

“And that is where the original source narrative ends,” Fleance said, releasing his white-knuckled grip on the podium.  Jack and Wanda, he saw, leaned back in their seats, exhaling and smiling.  “But there is one more section, a piece I am not sure about, only that it came next in the manuscript bundle I rummaged through.  Bear with me for this one final section.”

***

Jack had to go to the bathroom, but more than that he wanted to hear how the story ended.  If all academic papers were like this, he thought, well, then, I could spend time with Wanda and travel all over listening to this kind of thing.  He felt strong in mind and body, active, alive.   

***

Five days passed. 

The strange summer storm was gone.  Each day's rising sun brought warmth to the dawn hour and burned off the thick fog that hung low over Grace harbor.  The wharf laughed and roared with activity—the sea, as if to make up for its recent recalcitrance, offered a bountiful harvest to the fishermen of the town.  But the strange disappearance of young Theodore muted the celebration, blocked the warmth of the sun from entering into the hearts of the people.  But this day, a lone figure ran up the hill and stopped at a small house.  He banged loudly until he was admitted.  He disappeared inside.  He and another man, the companion much older and blind, walking with difficulty, hurried down the hill toward the harbor.  When blind Boniface and the boy arrived at the dock, a group of men had gathered above a boat that jostled in the shallows on the rocks.  One of them used a gaff to pull it clear. 

They stared in silence.  The old man, Boniface, spoke: "For mercy's sake, tell me what you see."

Killingsworth, the man with the gaff, whispered: "It is a boat, one of ours.  And there is a body within."

"It is young Theodore."

"It is, old man.  It is Theodore, late of Grace.  Frozen and dead.  On a fool's errand."

"What else?"

"What do you mean, what else?"  Killingsworth turned, vehement.  "You filled his head with lies, that's what else."  Boniface stepped back in alarm and fell silent.  The men stood with their hands in pockets watching the steam rise from within the boat, waiting for the sun to melt what held the body in place.  There was naught else to do. 

Minutes passed.  Then Boniface whispered in the boy's ear, "No harpoon?"

"No."

Boniface took his arm.  "Take me home." 

But before they could move, the roper grabbed the old man's arm and turned him.  "That's it, old man?"  He shook him roughly by the shoulders.  "This is your work.  You drove this good man to his death, and now you just turn away?" 

A shout from the hill and a young woman stood with hands on her hips outside the door of a large house, gazing down at them.  "Theodore has returned."  She spoke it as if it were a fact and not a question.  None of the men looked at her directly.  "Well?"

"Miss Daphne!  Dead, Miss Daphne!"

She nodded in silence, then pressed her mouth into her shawl and ran down the hill toward the men.  She stopped and looked down at the boat, at the body inside.  She turned toward Boniface.  "You did this!  You hateful, crazy old man."  She spat at his forehead and shouldered past him, stumbling her way back up the hill. 

The boy led Boniface, wiping spittle from his cheek, away from the docks in silence.

The boy said there was no harpoon, and he was right.  But that was not the whole answer.  Killingsworth leaned across the bow and pulled at a rope that hung into the water.  He held it up in the light to examine the frayed end.  "Must have dragged across the reefs to get so chewed up," one of the men offered.  But rolling the end of the rope in his fingers, testing the individual strands, sniffing the fibers, Killingsworth knew different.  Dragging across coral or stone or anything else did not do this to a rope, not to his rope.  "Dragged across the reef, right, roper?"

Killingsworth jumped.  "Yeah.  You're right.  Stupid.  I warned him about those stories.  Nothing good in 'em.  Now look at this."

"That the harpoon guide?"

"I made the rope myself.  Sure, it's the guide."  He raised his head and sniffed the air.  He shook his head.  "Probably just dragged it across the reefs."

"Stupid kid.  Believing those stories.  To go out to sea in that storm.  Hey, a Kraken's got to jump into bed between me and the wife before I do that.  And even then…"  The men laughed.  The sea was a harsh mistress, they knew; and life was too fragile to wager on fairy tales.  None but women cried for Theodore.  Death came soon enough without seeking it.

The men of Grace carried Theodore's body to the home of Miss Daphne.  She prepared it lovingly, as a wife would, for its return to the sea.  The Gull that night was a quieter than usual.  One stool was empty, to honor one of their own.

Long after the ashes had disappeared with the outrushing tide to the open ocean, after the sun had gone down behind the hill, the roper stood on the dock as the full moon rose.  In his pocket was a piece of rope. 

Half eaten, by the look of it.

***

That bastard, Killingworth.  He knows what happened better than anyone else.  But he’s going to let Theodore die without giving him any of the credit?  Someone’s got to tell his woman that he died a hero’s death, that he faced down the Kraken and saved the town.  Somebody’s got to tell him?  The end of the story?  It can’t be!

***

Wanda found herself leaning forward, shoulders tight, jaw clenched shut.  Not what she expected at all.  She wanted to stand, applaud.  What a paper!  She had no idea if it was true in any scholarly sense, but those concerns, the discipline of a lifetime of training, fell away like afterbirth.  She slowly sat back in hr chair, aware that something had happened, wanting to reach out, to touch one of them, just to make sure she was still there.  Just to make sure.

***

Fleance cleared his throat and laid the paper tube on the table.  He didn’t want to look at his audience, afraid of what he might or might not see.  He held the edge of the rolled paper down with his left hand and unrolled the rest with his right.  "I have a visual aid here but it appears…  Would you mind just coming up here to take a look?"

Jack stood.  "Not at all.  Glad to."  He was happy to be standing at all for any reason.  The folding chairs did nothing but bad things to his spine.

They bent together over a map which included the north coast of Scotland as its southernmost limit.  With a pencil, Gurdy traced a jagged line from Edinburgh.  "Here and here.  The alleged route of St. Phastus." 

Wanda bent closer to see that the route passed through an archipelago she was not familiar with, an tiny island chain north of the Faeroes.  "And these, Dr. Gurdy?  Is Grace somewhere near here?"

Fleance straightened.  "It must be, and yet the islands have been uninhabited for as long as anyone can remember."

"Your conclusion, then?  Is Grace an invention of St. Phastus or of Tennyson’s brother?"

            "Well,”  Fleance smiled and shrugged, “either St. Phastus made it up or one of the Tennysons did.  It is difficult to say for sure.  How might St. Phastus have come to know the story?  Have you asked yourself this?"

Wanda considered.  "The narration has some sizeable gaps in it, of course.  How would anyone know both the manner of Theodore's death and the aftermath?  It seems impossible.  Did Theodore have an unnamed companion?  Might the story have been corrupted?"

"It is certainly possible that it was.  But by whom?  Certainly, the aftermath seems to affirm the belief in the supernatural vengeance of the sea beast.  But, if so, how can the message be so mixed?"

"This tale may have seen many hands in the telling, passed from one to the next, always changing to suit the needs of the teller and the audience.  Do you know any more of the circumstances of the telling to Tennyson?"

"There is one detail I have held back."  Fleance walked from the table and rested a hand on the piano as if deep in thought.  Actually, it was artifice.  He cultivated the theatrical whenever he could.  "But I have not yet understood the significance of it.  I am reluctant to make it public so soon, so long before I—  No matter."  He turned and walked back to Wanda smiling.  You are kind enough to be my audience today.  I might as well make it worth you while.  You see, the tale recorded in the manuscript had other, I might say, markings on it.  Beyond even the mental wanderings of a madman."  Wanda leaned closer to the map, intrigued.  Fleance closed his eyes and ground fists into his temples.  Jack was about to speak as well when the door to the hallway opened.  O’Donnell smiled solicitously, apologizing with his eyes for the intrusion, and motioned for Jack to join him in the hall.

Fleance stepped toward the door, pointing at his chest, guilty, confused by the interruption, as if he had been found out after all these years.  Wanda looked from O’Donnell to Jack and back again, struck by the breech of academic decorum but unsure whether to say anything.  Jack’s heart raced.  His hands shook as he stood, wobbly for a moment, and shuffled to the door.  What could he say?  He squinted ahead, shoulders hunched.  Like a little kid, that’s how he treats me.  That stupid runt O’Donnell.  What the hell does he think he’s doing?  I’m entitled to a break at some point.  The poor guy needed an audience for his talk, anyway.  I was just making the hotel look good, that’s all.  How will I pay my rent if I lose this job?  What did I do wrong, anyway? 

Wanda touched his sleeve as he passed.  “I’m sorry—I hope you aren’t in any kind of trouble.”  He was too choked up to turn to thank her.  Too much all at once.  Too much all at once.

O’Donnell had disappeared down the hall.  Typical of that little bully, to make me chase after him only to get yelled at.  Jack stopped at the table in the hall where his mop still leaned against the wall in the rolling bucket.  It’s a dumb job, anyway.  If anyone respectable came into the hotel, he didn’t want them to see him anymore like this.  He was better than this, better than this job.  Wanda would understand, he just knew it.  She would know that he was still a bit out of sorts after Margery died.  She would understand and make it all better.  He just had to show her he had some backbone, some kind of spine.  He tilted the mop handle down and pushed the bucket down the hall.  I’ll just finish up today and be done with this place.  I might even knock that O’Donnell down a peg or two.

He rounded the corner and stopped, amazed at what he saw.  O’Donnell stood, hands on hips, next to the couch that still rested where Jack had left it: in the middle of the lobby blocking the front doors of the hotel.  The rectangle of dust and dull wax remained untouched.  Jack stopped.   He felt the fire within him go out.  His face drained of blood—he grew cold from the inside out.  That couch.  No wonder O’Donnell boiled.  Jack dropped the mop and hurried over to the couch.  He heaved it back across the room to its rectangle of dust.  O’Donnell sneered, “Well, you had the couch moved, you might as well have mopped the floor.  Or did you mop that part already?”

Jack felt the old anger rising in his chest.  He wanted to lash out, to smack this young upstart alongside the head, to change that smug smirk to a grimace of pain.  He imagined the surprise on O'Donnell's face when he fell to the floor bleeding.  And then Jack would stand over him, kick him a few times, crush the monster, send him back to whatever dark deeps he came from.  Before he could act, O’Donnell shook his head and walked back behind the counter to his office.  Sweat ran down his back.  His hurt skittered against his ribs.  Jack felt faint.  He thought about doing all kinds of things, but his body, his frail, old, used up body abandoned him, its power faded. 

Jack finished the floor quickly and had everything back in its place when O’Donnell called him to the front desk.  Jack stood silently as O’Donnell looked him over.  “I took a real chance hiring you, old man.”

Jack looked up, opened his mouth to explain.  He didn’t want to cry, but felt it coming.  Just then, Wanda and Fleance came through the doorway and walked across the lobby bundled against the cold, laughing.  Wanda gave a smiling wave to Jack, and Fleance tipped his hat.  O’Donnell flashed his youthful smile.  “Come back real soon, folks!”  They exited to the street and turned into the wind, the first flakes of snow blew horizontally, swirled in their wake.

“Yes, I took a real chance.  Now I know better.”  He smiled maliciously.  Killingworth, that bastard.  He knew.  He knew Theodore faced down that Kraken.  No one else did.  Jack spun, desperate to tell Wanda one last thing, to tell her that he had faced O'Donnell, that it wasn't as it looked.  She was gone.  Jack nearly ran to the front door.  “You're fired, old man.” 

Jack, the hero of his own story, didn’t need to hear this final indignity.  He was already outside, looking up and down the empty block.  The wind, a sudden icy punch, nearly knocked him from his feet.

 

THE END

© 2007 by Bill Gillard. 

Bill Gillard teachs creative writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin. His writing has appeared (or will soon) in Surprising Stories, Star*Line, The Leading Edge, Poetry Bay, Spitball, Explicator, the Dictionary of Literary Biography and others.

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.