Storylistener's Borning Work
by Bill Gillard
Below the thunders
of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath
in the abysmal sea,
dreamless, uninvaded sleep
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
There hath he lain
for ages, and will lie
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
Jack had to
move the couch to clean the floor right.
He twisted his knee against it and the couch slid with
across the room, exposing a rectangle of dust and dullness on the
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,
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
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
that, just plain meanness. One
days, Jack would just stop taking it all in and let that pipsqueak have
both barrels. One
of these days.
In the few
seconds he was gone and back from the sink closet, a woman sat down on
out-of-place couch. She
conference program like it was Friday and not Sunday afternoon, even
was pretty easy to see from the empty lobby that the conference was
over. He watched
her in profile against
the gray day outside the door as she bent over the program, pen poised
the page, toe kicking rhythmically against the air.
Very respectable looking, like a librarian or something,
pretty grey hair down to her collar, not like steel wool, not a hint of
all, just soft looking and natural.
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
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.
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
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
it. He found her in
the directory of
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
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
told Jack this session was called: "Anthropologic Revelation on
'The Kraken'" Fleance
(Independent-UK), 12:00-1:45 PM, Room 16.
The floor outside that room might need some extra
he’d have to buff away
some scuff marks and that might take the whole session, who knew? And when the snow everyone
hit, maybe she'd be stranded here and might appreciate some company. He looked over his
O’Donnell. Good. He pushed the mop bucket
slowly down the
hall toward his new favorite, Room 16.
Victorianists, Wanda Hiffle paid scant attention to Tennyson's early
years, Wanda would stand erect at a podium, left hand cradling an open
right hand pointing to the heavens, and tell her students that she
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
"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
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
through the door in a panic. He
tall, with scraggly brown hair, black frame glasses, and was almost
skinny, as if his image were stretched by a circus mirror. Fleance Gurdy, Wanda
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
they knew each other. Fleance
unpacking papers and arranging them on the podium.
He pulled the end off the tube and dumped a long white
onto the floor. Slightly
out of breath,
Fleance Gurdy began:
was not the sort to be taken with flights into the unlikely. Oh, no.
Even when dealing in fantastic subjects, he had an eye
realistic, a marked interest not in simply what he could get away with
would make sense in the context of a journey into medieval Baghdad, for
example, or—Oh, my!" Dr.
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
to tear it to pieces.
room, right time. It's
just me." She
relaxed. He looked
down at his notes. He
"Pathetic, isn't it?
does one deliver a paper to one person?"
He took a deep breath and pushed the glasses back up his
nose. "Shall I
moment, if you don’t mind."
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
be a little short on an audience.”
Wanda saw that she was speaking with a custodian, an old man at that,
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
door open and waited for him to respond.
sure, I guess. Why
not?" He leaned the
mop against the door frame and
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,
Kraken,' therefore, cannot be read as a sincere attempt at mythmaking. Tennyson would not employ
references if narrative were his object.
No, this poem stands out precisely because it draws on
folklore. What was
his source? That is
the question I hope to answer here.
father, that terrible minister of Our Lord, made the acquaintance of a
mid-nineteenth century gentleman explorer, a Liverpuddlian named Andrew
Phastus, who had lately returned from a sea voyage with a tall tale
spun to the Tennysons when Alfred was just eighteen.
In fact, in a letter dated January 11, 1830, Tennyson
this story as the source of 'The Kraken':
was a strange sod, this St. Phastus, one might not be surprised to find
perpetually soaked to the bone with brine, addled with rum, and with a
case of scurvy, the old buccaneer.
took some cajoling from the younger children but with filled pipe and
tankard drained thrice for lubrication, the old codger quickened and
tale. Before you
get a mind to do it,
dear Arthur, know that I have already used this story, in some form, as
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
that is from a letter to Arthur Hallam sent by Tennyson in 1830. I believe the story behind
derived from the meeting Tennyson herein describes.
the story itself, the tale told by the mysterious St. Phastus, has been
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
essence of my forthcoming book, is that I believe that the strange
found in the manuscript bundle with the Tennyson family documents is
account of the visit of St. Phastus by one of Tennyson's siblings,
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
On a time,
in the cliff-side port of Grace-by-Sea, there lived a handsome young
Theodore. He was a
fine boy from an
upright family and he always tried his best to live according to the
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
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
eat, even as the less bold of his brethren came back to port with empty
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
winter gale. People
smile so much, Theodore?" to which he replied, "I am happy that we
live, my friend. That
all." Some laughed,
quote, and said the stories of the Great Book of the town were written
Theodore's heart. But
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
Theodore, grown into his manhood, became a respected and admired member
courted the Maiden
Daphne, a daughter of nobility, and continued to fish for himself and
others. He was
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
always sat on an upturned bucket stood and watched their best fisherman
with an empty hold. But
not the only one whose had wasted his day, or the past week, on the
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.
sat instead in the row in front of her.
What was he thinking?
have to act interested, absorbed even, by this fool if he wanted Wanda
him seriously at all. And
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
imagined laying with her as
she slept. He
swallowed and remembered
Margery. He never
enough. And she
never forgave him for
not being a big success. They
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.
the moon, Theodore made his nightly journey up the hill away from the
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
catch today?" Killingsworth
roper with a reputation for adequate work, and he supplied many
Grace with nets.
stories say, 'The sea does what it will' and today it kept me too far
for too many hours. Strange
quiet. I hope
others' luck was
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.
say no, Theodore is a rational man, a reasonable man.
He knows the old stories are just meant to scare the women
children. So what
say you, young
Theodore? How do
explain these strange
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—"
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
stories of the town...
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.
was awful of me to drag him in here, but at least he’s not
post-structuralism of some stripe.
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
the person would die soon. Very soon.
sorry to have to say no again, but this night I go to the temple to
kinsmen in study."
groaned. "You and
telling wives' tales in the dark.”
held his arms out from his side. “Come
now, be rational, Theodore. Be
my duty, that is all."
grabbed Theodore's arm and spun him roughly.
"Duty is an ass. But
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
lurched down the hill toward the docks and the taverns.
wharf, the rising moon glistened across the water.
For his whole life, he had known the sea as a friend,
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
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
striping of the incoming waves. Now
knew how to read currents, find shoals and submerged rocks just by the
they made on the surface. He
much now to find the beauty. A
cold wind nearly blew the cap from his head.
So unlike summer. He
pulled his collar around his throat.
felt the mystery of the sea press against his back as he trudged up the
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
don’t suppose there are any
started in his hands
and shook his head quickly. Wanda
stopped at a kinsman's home, a faithful old blind man named Boniface,
relied on the charity of others to live.
It had been many a night that Theodore spent in deep
Boniface on some question raised by the Great Book.
Theodore knocked on the old man's door and was surprised
unfamiliar woman opened it. For
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
at the hearth, and a small group of old men and women, some he
some not, in the room around him.
woman pulled him by the arm inside and closed the door behind them.
silence, Boniface spoke. "Young
Theodore. What news
of the sea?"
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
and exploded in a burst of grainy heat.
spoke. "And what of
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?"
think the Kraken
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
The Kraken sleepeth…
In roaring he shall rise…
that's straight out of Tennyson's poem!"
Wanda interrupted. "Are
saying that this source predates Tennyson’s work?" In front of her, the
custodian nodded, as if
he understood her objection. It
as if he was having trouble breathing.
She saw again the elevens and thought, I’ve
never seen anyone die.
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.
not sure,” Fleance smiled, glad for the challenge. “I do know that
'The Kraken' is the dog in the dining car of
all these years?" Theodore
to face the group. "One
no fish? Surely
that has happened
strange new current, some
sickness among the fish, perhaps?
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
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
in ways others did not. Theodore
squirmed in his seat, but respect and decorum dictated that when a
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
will be gone in a week / or two / we will make our climb up and over
other side to escape this terrible village / my woman Hargan carries
these late days / she sweats now in our place in valley among women
life / I labor waterside among these filthy men coil rope wive
fishing boats mend nets / for not much longer / a hand on my shoulder I
we all do our borning work tonight / older man says / men must make
to fire for story / as if I do not know generations of tradition / I
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 /
wise and strong more than any other woman / and no man can match my
together we will make a beauty of a child / child of far hills and
/ we men when night comes meet in great hall of village / we make fire
drink and eat and wait for women to come and tell us / boy or girl /
full of wonders / some among us are storytellers / these men bear other
gifts / some places like here others far away with great creatures no
wish to meet / and some men / most men / like me / are storylisteners /
makers of meaning / each his own calling for stories / for what is
without listener and who is storyteller without storylistener / old man
storylistener from time of my father's father says anyone can tell a
it takes a man of strength to listen with all his spirit and mind / to
sense of it to make it real to make it mean what it means / to see it
it is / that is what old man says / I sit nearest fire tonight and feel
behind me and heat like summer day in front / storyteller to my left
to my right / it has ever been this way / men grow quiet for a story
silence and must be embraced like a woman lest it disappear back into
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
and understand / now and then in distant village a woman of powerful
many riches / a woman late with child / alone keens from weaving place
her borning work away from village / against all nature / she brings
world keeps him for herself / no mother of women aborning for her / her
knows not where she is bound, only that she is gone / woman alone child
by night forlorn cries echo through hills / woman alone covers him in
tiny child shivers against woman alone / dawn teases at warmth through
trees / child cries became sighs breathing a whisper / woman alone
fire for warmth pulls child ever closer / child must live child must
speaks woman alone / must be mighty among men as power greater than we
longer / and a moment passes then another and woman alone witnesses a
heavens a light as if sky rent itself in two / a cut a break a crack as
were wine flask and her wish a stone / child stirs in arms of woman
kicks and grunts but does not cry out and will not / and fog grows
and night are two gray brothers who press hands over woman's eyes even
weeps / tears at her hair / her village forever lost / she cannot find
though they live beneath rock gray sky child grows in strength / a year
then three and six and boy grows till by ten summers he stands a head
than woman alone / woman alone raves for loneliness becomes feeble
time / young man takes pity on himself / I need this wreck of a woman
longer / leaves her one night while she sleeps / travels far with
hunger nor fear / he stands by shore of a great lake / admires shadow
on water / touches reflection / says I am beautiful / I am more
woman alone / than endless sea / I am most powerful / above him is sign
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
hips above / steps over trees on far shore / tries to find his
puddle that remains / but for lake alone / he sees many miles in all
/ 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
forest or village center / earth shudders at his passing / great
in on themselves and flatten / boy alone stands now higher than highest
mountain / feels earth curve beneath his feet / world becomes small
remains boy alone / soon it is not he who perches on earth but world
from him like a stone / a burr / a feather / he brushes world from his
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
shine then glister then glimmer / they stick to him like magic dust /
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
head and stretches with pointed toes to his full length he feels a wall
surrounding him / in all directions / soft / alive / moving inward / he
legs and presses with all of his strength outward / first with hands
back then with knees elbows hips / pressure / boy swells / knees press
forehead / fist against fist / pressure ever greater / boy alone tries
/ mother / head presses tighter against walls / please / village of
to die alone / mother / terrified / memory fades / village of stories /
mother gone / all gone / pressed into himself / blank / a pink light
around him / weeping still he weep for joy at end of nothingness /
against his head and brighter light warms hands / fire burns lower as
ends / how could storyteller know / feet behind me shuffle against
and hand rests lightly on my shoulder / I know whose hand it is / I
of my village on this night / it fits me like well-coiled rope over my
fits me like soft rain on sea / and story fits me well, too, but it
who hear according to their needs / our child / to die alone / Hargan /
alone / a voice at my ear whispers in smell of coming spring / news
weaving tent / a boy / Hargan calls for me / bedroll / listeners /
against door / I wait for them to move / Hargan calls for me!
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
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
an ember of respectability. Jack
his eyes and smiled.
watched the man in front of her with greater interest than she watched
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
different. If he
wasn’t senile or
listened to the old one speak, Theodore thought of his beautiful, young
their future together, the children they would make, the home they
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
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
the distant hills and beyond into the land of the newborn sun. Theodore thought of the
he had seen while fishing. Tales
wild beasts and monsters kept him from tying up along those distant
see what he could find. Yes,
stories like these from the Great Book.
And what was he searching for that he could not find in
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
around him and saw what he feared: many wrinkled faces, deeply shadowed
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
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
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
for protection. To
these elders, the
signs we see today would be clear.
great debt has come due. If
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
purchase the lives of our town from then till now.
Will you take up his battle and, as Grace did once before,
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
actually expect him to make a journey out of the harbor into a storm in
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
stared into the
yes. But, ah,
see the seduction of the rational all too
clearly. I must
believe in the legends
because that is who—so I must go.
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?
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.
walked toward the door
but his way was blocked by chairs and listeners, intense in the shadowy
the back of the room. He
and between them, stopped with the door knob in his hand, waited. These people are insane
with faith, he
thought. These old
their own mortality, look for something greater than they in the
the wind, the running of the tide.
the Great Book has never been proven wrong, never with anything
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."
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
of Daphne, his one sure love? But
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
there in the shallows of Land's Death.
And if there be no Kraken, then he could get in a full day
fishing. If there
be no Kraken… A
woman looped a bag over his shoulder.
"Food," she said. And
then, “Make way!”
“Let a man pass!”
A hand on
Theodore’s shoulder shook him from his reverie. Hot, fetid breath in his
ear, a man whispered,
him, Theodore pushed through the door, and stepped outside into a thin,
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
pushed off from the dock
and began to row, the wind’s hand pressing his shoulders
thing saw him leave.
thing would venture to the wharf on a night like this one.
thing saw Theodore laugh as he pulled against the swollen sea.
hours, he labored against the wind.
the open ocean, he tacked widely.
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
navigate by feel, by wind direction.
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
October. There must
be a rational
explanation even for this. But
fish? Where did
struggled against the mounting gale.
His course was difficult, moving headlong against a stiff
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
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,
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
raw fingers. He
lost his bearings, his
sail flapped in the swirling gale.
hours passed this way. He
the void, senseless in a world that had collapsed into abject darkness
howling wind that his ears reported, but his face and hands forgot how
feel. He navigated
as if he were
watching someone else do it. His
pounded inside of his chest. The
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
one moment he could neither see nor feel anything and the next he
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.
boat had filled with water and was riding so low that he feared it
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
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
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.
to battle the Kraken! How
he had failed
those who believed! How
hardy the men
must have been ten centuries ago.
courage faltered. I
will die out here
Kraken or not, he thought. How
foolhardy I was! At
Temptation groaned as if dragging along a barnacle-covered reef. Wood shrieked and throbbed
below his feet
and all around him. He
forward, nearly headlong into the water.
He held onto the seat below him as his boat pitched
he rolled into the icy water that
sloshed at his feet and grabbed at the harpoon, trying to loose it,
shaking. He managed
to pull the harpoon
free, to hold it in both hands above his head.
He struggled to his knees.
a loud groan, he tried to hurl it downward, straight into the water. Theodore fell once again. His head smashed against
the bow bench.
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
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
nothing and feel nothing. The
the wind, the murderous cold: his senses were blind.
Darkness was complete.
swells shouted his dying mantra:
is where the original source narrative ends,” Fleance said,
white-knuckled grip on the podium.
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
through. Bear with
me for this one
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
listening to this kind of thing. He
felt strong in mind and body, active, alive.
summer storm was gone. Each
rising sun brought warmth to the dawn hour and burned off the thick fog
hung low over Grace harbor. The
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
into the hearts of the people. But
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
the shallows on the rocks. One
used a gaff to pull it clear.
in silence. The old
spoke: "For mercy's sake, tell me what you see."
the man with the gaff, whispered: "It is a boat, one of ours. And there is a body
is, old man. It is
Theodore, late of
Grace. Frozen and
dead. On a fool's
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.
was naught else to do.
Boniface whispered in the
boy's ear, "No harpoon?"
took his arm. "Take
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?"
from the hill and a young woman stood with hands on her hips outside
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?"
Daphne! Dead, Miss
in silence, then pressed her mouth into her shawl and ran down the hill
the men. She
stopped and looked down at
the boat, at the body inside. She
turned toward Boniface. "You
this! You hateful,
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.
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
rolling the end of the
rope in his fingers, testing the individual strands, sniffing the
Killingsworth knew different. Dragging
across coral or stone or anything else did not do this to a rope, not
across the reef,
jumped. "Yeah. You're right. Stupid.
I warned him
about those stories. Nothing
'em. Now look at
the harpoon guide?"
made the rope myself. Sure,
guide." He raised
his head and
sniffed the air. He
just dragged it
across the reefs."
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.
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
that night was a quieter than usual.
One stool was empty, to honor one of their own.
the ashes had disappeared with the outrushing tide to the open ocean,
sun had gone down behind the hill, the roper stood on the dock as the
rose. In his pocket
was a piece of
by the look of it.
bastard, Killingworth. He
happened better than anyone else.
he’s going to let Theodore die without giving him any of the
got to tell his woman that he died
a hero’s death, that he faced down the Kraken and saved the
got to tell him? The
end of the story? It
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
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.
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
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?"
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.
together over a map which included the north coast of Scotland as its
southernmost limit. With
Gurdy traced a jagged line from Edinburgh.
"Here and here. The
route of St. Phastus."
closer to see that the route passed through an archipelago she was not
with, an tiny island chain north of the Faeroes.
"And these, Dr. Gurdy?
Is Grace somewhere near here?"
must be, and yet
the islands have been uninhabited for as long as anyone can remember."
conclusion, then? Is
Grace an invention
of St. Phastus or of Tennyson’s brother?"
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
some sizeable gaps in it, of course.
How would anyone know both the manner of Theodore's death
aftermath? It seems
Theodore have an unnamed companion?
Might the story have been corrupted?"
certainly possible that it was. But
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?"
tale may have seen many hands in the telling, passed from one to the
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?"
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,
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
matter." He turned
and walked back to Wanda smiling.
You are kind enough to be my audience today. I might as well make it
while. You see, the
tale recorded in
the manuscript had other, I might say, markings on it.
Beyond even the mental wanderings of a
leaned closer to
the map, intrigued. Fleance
eyes and ground fists into his temples.
Jack was about to speak as well when the door to the
apologizing with his eyes for the intrusion, and motioned for Jack to
in the hall.
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
heart raced. His
hands shook as he stood, wobbly for a
moment, and shuffled to the door.
could he say? He
squinted ahead, shoulders
hunched. Like a
little kid, that’s how
he treats me. That
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
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?
touched his sleeve as he passed. “I’m
sorry—I hope you aren’t in any kind of
was too choked up to turn to thank her.
Too much all at once.
Too much all at once.
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
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
the hotel. The
rectangle of dust and
dull wax remained untouched. Jack
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?”
the old anger rising in his chest.
wanted to lash out, to smack this young upstart alongside the head, to
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
deeps he came from. Before
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.
finished the floor quickly and had everything back in its place when
called him to the front desk. Jack
silently as O’Donnell looked him over.
“I took a real chance hiring you, old
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
the lobby bundled against the cold, laughing.
Wanda gave a smiling wave to Jack, and Fleance tipped his
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
took a real chance. Now
smiled maliciously. Killingworth,
that bastard. He
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
O'Donnell, that it wasn't as it looked.
She was gone. Jack
nearly ran to
the front door. “You're
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.
© 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.
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