The Skeleton

I have been posting this story in bits, over on my other Blogspot blog.  However I thought I would repost draft one here as a total story.  The tale needs a rewrite and the illustrations are rough sketches as yet.  I then need to condense it into an oral tale.

Please all comments and critiques are much appreciated.

 

The wind is stirring the sea tonight.  Listen. Can you hear the whispering of the lost souls? All those whose lives have been eaten up by the greedy ocean.

 Peep through the curtains, look at the cliff top, there… did you catch the shadow?  There in the glimmer of the moon?  He haunts the heights on nights like this, searching the sea for the love he threw away.  Careless, thoughtless, cruel.  Hopeless now as he looks for his discarded jewel. 

The north west wind blew on that night too; not night exactly but twilight with its darkling sky and deeper shadows.  He: proud, angry, marching along the cliff top path.  She:  desperate and weeping, clutching her fingers into the coat he wore, trying to slow him down.  Pleading with him for a kind word or loving look, anything to heal the fracturing words they had hurled at each other.   Onward, upward,  higher he strode, shaking off her hands as he reached the topmost point.  Abruptly he stopped and turned.  His eyes were blinded by the rage in his head. As she stumbled into him the anger swelled; he grappled her arms, her neck, her hair, flinging her away from him.

In that moment she slipped.  Tumbling away, slipping out of his reach, anger turning to horror in that moment of madness.  Mouth open but voiceless as the wind stole her screams, she fell away from him towards the unforgiving stones.  He stretched, uselessly trying to reach forward, fingertips brushing the wind.  Her last breath stretched the seconds, until all that remained was a splayed, broken doll on the rock.  Cradled by seaweed and stroked by foam, she lay unmoving and lifeless.

With a howl he sank to his knees.  This angry man imploring the body below to return to him so that he could beg forgiveness, put right the wrongs  and fill the hole that she had left under his heart.  As he watched the sea grasped at her, took her gently and pulled her with it into the waters.  Slowly her dress billowed, ebbing and flowing with the tide until its sodden masses dragged at the dancing body.  With a last swirl of her skirts the waters swallowed  the girl up and sucked her down into the darkness.

The sea took the girl to itself, playing with her hair and dancing her round and round in a gentle waltz until it laid her down in its soft sand bed.  Carefully the ebb and flow of watery fingers smoothed out the dress,  arranged the limbs and played with the hair.  Fishes kissed the beautiful face over and over; crabs and shrimps cut at the dress with their scissor claws.  Bit by little bit the sea took the woman and rolled over about, turned her over and stripped her clean.  Each tiny nibble and kiss stole piece after piece of her until all that was left was the ivory bone and slender form of her skeleton.

Year after year the sea and her denizens danced with the skeleton girl .  Year after year the skeleton girl danced up to the surface of the moon lined sea, to stretch her arms out and stir the surf with her bony fingers.  To turn up her blind and shadowed sockets and see if she could find the betrayer of her trust.  To open her gaping maw and try desperately to recapture her voice, stolen by the wind . 

 

 

 

 

What was that my lovelies?  When did this happen? Why many, many years ago. 

The young man, you ask?  He lived on,  haunting the cliff paths, begging the ocean to return his love. Year on year, until death took pity and released him, a broken old man.  Yet the sea never gave him back his love… no, she wasn’t given back to him at all.

The old man had been dead many years by the time I had grown to a girl but on cold and moon drenched nights we would dare each other to climb the cliff path.  The story was that those brave enough to climb would catch a glimpse of him, that is if moon permitted.  You might see his hunched form stretching out to catch his love and legend was that if you kept yourself silent, listened carefully, you would catch the stolen screams of the woman tumbling over and over in the wind.  Those who claim to, have dared report a chase over heather as he reached for the intruder; that if you were caught you too would follow his love over the edge and into the sea.

He was not the only ghost in that bay, not if stories are true; and I think you will  find that they often are.  Deep in the sea the skeleton girl danced in the waves spring tide and neap tide, rattling her ribs to frighten the fish out of the bay.  Year after year  fishermen tried their luck.  All the boys of the village knew that a sheltered inlet like that should yield a catch worth bringing home.  Time and time again the boats went out and cast their nets; day by day lines were baited and set.  Yet never did these hapless fishers bring back so much as a sprat or whiting .

Although they caught nary a shrimp or mackerel, they did catch sounds that made them shiver.  Some men reported fingers tapping at their keel, knocking as if to come in through a door.  Others told tales of pulling and tangling of line a net, that mysteriously let free so fiercely they nearly fell back overboard.  Others reported hearing screams, not from the birds that followed the trawlers but from a human voice woven into the kittiwake’s cry.   Every man agreed, whilst nursing their glasses at the innkeepers bar, that the bay was cursed.  All fisherman fear and respect the sea.  This, they muttered together, was the sea telling them to keep away from bad water.  Over time less and less men tried their luck in that nook of the cove, choosing instead to fish further out.  Preferring to risk the waves of the open ocean and the chance of a good catch; trusting to wind and wave to take them safely back into shore.

Before long no one gave a thought to fishing that stretch of the water.  Common knowledge about the village was that a spirit of the sea wanted it for their own.  All the villagers respected the prior claim, some of the older women even remembered snippets of the story of the doomed lovers and the lost girl.  Superstitions aside, nothing ever was gained from fishing there so now few would even cast their minds to the place, let alone a net.  Until the bold young foreigner moved here.

He was a handsome lad, by all account.  He turned the head and broke the heart of many a local girl, despite not sparing a look for any of them.  He came to the village from somewhere else, somewhere strange and distant.  Though he was a fisherman born, not one of the villagers knew him or recognised his boat as from another fleet.  The men of the village little trusted to share the sea with the next town along the coast so they were not so welcoming of the new man in their midst.  Jealous that he was only there to net their shoals and cast a line for one of the village women.

So it was, each day he cast off his boat, set his sail and headed out of the village quay and into the salt spray.  Each day the fisherman took their fleet one way and the young man took his the other.  Day by day he fished further and further around the cove, catching small fry and occasionally herrings.  Late one evening, he drifted into a little moonlit bay.  The moonlight was strong enough for him to cast his net one more time, the fishing of the day having been so poor.  As he cast his net the wind started to whip up little wavelets around him.  Above him the gulls, gannets and more shrieked and shouted.  In between he began to hear another voice carried in the wind, a despairing wail that was not quite bird but not quite human.  Being a practical man he shook his shoulders as if to shake off the ill wind around him.

After a few minutes more he felt the boat twitch along the tiller.  Underneath his feet there was the rhythmic knocking of something tapping against the keel with each wavelet.  Fearing that the net was caught on something and about to drag his craft over he started to haul in the net.  Imagine his surprise when he found the weight of the net was that of a full one.  He hauled and pulled and heaved, each time hearing the tap-tap-tapping, like the sound of wood on drum.  Finally with one almighty pull his net slid out of the water and flopped onto the bottom of his boat.  The young man peered eagerly forwards to see what marvel he had caught, only to fall backwards with a scream ripping from his throat.  For there, in the knots of the net , grasped the bony fingers of a skeleton hand.

Tangled rope, knotted fingers, toe bones that gripped and clutched at frayed ends and caught under the ribs a single red glass buoy that mocked at the missing heart.  With a despairing wail, the young man pushed the net with his feet, trying to send the horrible catch back into the sea.   The rowlocks caught between the forearms, the net turned and twisted over, catching on the splinters.  The young man grasped at the tiller of his boat, hoping against hope that he could sail against the tide;  that by sailing the surf he would shake off the horror he had brought up from the bay.  Matching the clouds pace for pace, the young man took his boat around the cove and into harbour.  Matching the boat wave for wave, the net and its cargo followed behind, one arm caught  onto the side with a grip that would not let go.

Beaching the boat and dragging it up the stony beach made the net and catch bounce and rattle out a rhythm to match each heave.  The fisherman realised that he had landed a fish that would not go back to the sea.  With a softly expelled sigh the young man took up the net and teased each snag off the boat.  He pitched the net onto his back, skeleton and all, before heading wearily back to his cottage at the edge of the village.

 

The fisherman shouldered open the door, half stepping and half falling into the single room that served as kitchen and bedroom.   He flung the net away from him, onto the stone floor, barely hearing the hollow thump made by the falling bones.  Using the light from the moon, he found some stubs of candle and that would provide him with light.  Once lit he slumped into his chair, regarding the shadow on the floor that was net and cargo.  Slowly his head drooped and his eyes closed.  The young man drifted into an uneasy sleep; the last thought in his mind was how to untangle his only net.  Finally the candles guttered out, the breast of the fisherman rose and fell in tune with his dreams, dreams that were to be unlike any he had encountered before.

Deep, deep in his slumber, the young man twitched and turned as he was pulled by the strings of his dreams.  Deep, deep in the netting, the bones twitched and turned in the half light that slipped between the shutters that held back the moon outside.  If there were eyes to see and mouths to report,  they would have told how bony fingers unknotted the strings that bound them.  Inch by inch the hands pushed aside loops of cord, as if slowly undressing itself from a dress of holes.

There, whilst the young man slumbered on, a formal dance began.  As if removing veil upon veil the skeleton shed the fishing net.  Gently dropping it to the floor, the ivory white toe bones kicked the now shapeless net under the fisherman’s chair. Then the slender form twisted and stretched herself upwards, each movement accompanied by soft clicks as the bones realigned themselves.  Moonlight continued to steal through the cracks, illuminating and reflecting off the sea washed ribs, vertebrae, skull.  Fully upright now, she stood still, waiting.

Moment upon moment passed and still the skeleton did not move.  Behind her the young man shifted uneasily and nestled himself into his dreams, his hands pulling his coat to hold in the warmth.  Outside the hut , the North West Wind blew around the brick, under the door, down the chimney and through the cracks.  He came to return the stolen voice, which he had kept to himself all these years.  The skeleton woman held out her hands, fingers cupped, and received the voice that had been stolen from her.  She threw the curling sound into the air, tilted back her skull and swallowed in the song.

From that moment the bones began to sing and as they sang they danced to the music that they whispered into the quiet of the fisherman’s hut.  The bones sang of the making of flesh;  they sang of sinew and muscle; they sang of nerve and vessel and the blood that coursed hot through a living body.  The skeleton danced and as she danced her hands wove the shape of womb and belly; shaped the heart and sketched out the skin to cover it all.  The song and the dance knitted together  the body that had been lost, until all that the sea had stolen was returned.  Now a fully fleshed woman stood in the centre of the fisherman’s hut.  The song was silent and the figure was unmoving, her face tilted upward.   Still the North West Wind stole around inside the hut.  Finally he swirled up around the figure of the woman until he reached her lips; he kissed the cold mouth and in doing so passed back the living breath he had taken from her all those years ago.

With a gurgling, gasping intake the woman sobbed in air for the first time in a century.  At this sound the fisherman started and woke.  He could not credit the sight before his eyes for there (in the centre of his wooden floor) was the crumpled heap.  Not of the bones he was dreading but of warm flesh and blood.  Without questioning the changes he took his coat and laid it gently over the weeping woman before him.  Knowing it was not a time for words, he went and fetched what water and bread he had and put it onto the rough wooden table.  Gently lifting the woman by the arm, he led her to the chair and gestured towards the food.  Then he quietly backed out of the hut, understanding that he was an intruder in a moment of rebirth.

 

What of the aftermath?  The fisherman  continued to take out the boat every day, realising that his strange visitor would need to learn her life again and that the best way to do that was in solitude.  He brought her wild flowers, to brighten the hut; he brought her cloth to sew into clothes and food to strengthen her body.  He told her of the brightening skies, silver seas and the journeys of the seabirds.  To him she returned only a smile.  Until one day, returning with a rich catch, he burst into the hut only to find it empty.  Sadly he searched the room for signs of her, hints that she had not left only slipped out for a while.  But there was nothing of her left but a scent in the air.  For she had given her heart and lost her voice and breath once and would not do so again. 

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. I love this story of the skeleton girl in the water. So many descriptive passages in it catch at the imagination. This one particularly stays with me:

    ‘Each tiny nibble and kiss stole piece after piece of her until all that was left was the ivory bone and slender form of her skeleton.’

    There’s much here to consider. I can see that the demands on it as a story given in the oral tradition make for a different structure to what might be required for publication. An alternative telling might be constructed in which the origin of the tale… that first scene of the girl’s death… is withheld until later in the narrative, so that the story begins with the haunted bay and the ghostly cries of a dead girl in the throats of sea-birds. When the young fisherman who trawls her bones in his net later resurrects her through the medium of his dreams, the girl could reveal her history. I offer this only as a an alternative consideration, not because I think it would be better, but as a means to create a mystery at the outset.

    I can see that the story greatly benefits from her being knitted back into wholeness, though I wonder if that would be better suited to a story with a happier ending. In visual terms (and probably in emotional terms too) I like the idea of the girl remaining in her skeletal form, dressed by the young fisherman and tended by him. I like the idea of his attachment not to a living, breathing, beautiful girl… which would be understandable… but to a skeleton girl, crowned with seaweed and flowers in a simulacra of life, hidden away in his hut because this is a secret love, and one doomed to fail.

    1. I love the idea of playing with it that way. In the ‘original’ version she is thrown over the cliff by her father and rescued by the fisherman, becoming his wife. Very much a story that can be read as woman not existing without the ownership of a father or husband (at its bases level). It can also be read as each stage of a woman’s life is a death and rebirth; loss of maidenhood makes her dead to her father. I retold it this way, initially, as a story for the children at school, changing the ending as I didn’t want her to have to get married. But I do like the ideas you have, especially of the idea of the man being doomed to pretend to love, particularly as he is cast as the outsider, foreign to the village and therefore barred to their women. I think this is what I love most about traditional stories, they have so many ways to be read and played with. Thanks for such in depth commenting, it makes it more fun.

    2. Simulacrum! I meant the singular simulacrum, not the plural simulacra.

  2. It crosses my mind that in this suggested version, the lovely passage you’ve written describing the girl being re-formed over her bones, would be lost. But maybe some of that material could be woven into the description of the sea unravelling her, because in a way that would be a more heartrending place for it. The description of all that promise being washed away is deeply moving.

    I apologise. I’m probably offering far more here than you anticipated or want. I’ve just rather been swept away by the idea.

    A few years ago the artist Graham Ward offered me a true story that a friend had shared with him about a drowned boy, because he believed I might make a painting of the subject. I never have, though one day I plan to. This story of yours struck chords with that. The idea of the sea dissolving the corporeal body is at the heart of it.

    1. Hmm. I rather like the idea of dancing away and undressing the girl. I can feel re-writes coming on.

      I think the sea calls and repels all of us, a very democratic taker of souls.

      1. I’ve written a little about this at the Artlog. Hope that’s OK with you.

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