Sometimes the stars are static particles on a map of vectors. Closing your eyes, the dark sweet smell of chemical pastilles fills the air you breathe, more fully inhabits your senses. There’s the crinkle of plastic, the slow emanation of sugar dust, of squishy gelatine fruits. A promise of comets, the bleed of ink through pixelated screens. The miasma of colours combines to several lines of tangled sound. A plasmid comes in circles, endlessly replicating. Once there was a boy who knew Jupiter, could point it out on a clear night’s sky, even with a headful of whisky.
The evening is beckoning. Sitting out by the river with the smokers; the water turns its swirling cola, the rain fizzes sadness saccharine into each deep cleft. A few drinks later, the sky will have cleared, the rain will have left. Its mist still clings to her hair. The moon is a sliver, thin as a curl of sebum scratched from her scalp. Across the sky, it drifts like an errant fingernail, floating atop someone’s bathwater. The sky is more beautiful when she is drunk; this is why he ploughs her with alcohol. She’s not there yet.
There’s a sombreness to the bedroom. Moonlight through the skylight makes her dizzy. The three of you sit with the radio on, its dull vibrations flickering beneath each surface: skin, wood, sheet, word, window. The limbs are creeping, seeking to melt the numbness that comes without heating. He offers little in the way of hospitality. The radio spits static about sport, a match he’s missing; that his dad is at, 500 miles away. She thinks of the distance to the moon and back. How far he is, shadowed in silence. The sound of the commentator grates her bones.
Soon the shivering will begin properly. She misses the packets of sweets, the cola-dark river, the clearness of gin. He spreads the map out on the bed, struggling to flatten the creases. If only we could preserve this in amber, someone says. A movement. The colours of Jupiter flash on the brain. Fingers trace the fault-lines of the city, demarcations of space and place, angles and ridges and emptiness. The central road that leads northwards, the old highway going westwards. Little symbols for houses and trees. Green shapes, edges that smooth the land serene. She sees his forehead still, its clustering rubies of acne. What of that suspension? The radio growls deep in her stomach, its own pale desire. Sailing By…she finds herself snagged on the shipping forecast, its mutterings reflecting distances and darknesses far away. There can only be now a crumpling of the map, the gesture, its replication meshing in lunar equations…
Lucy had a secret. A secret she hadn’t told to her father or mother or even her best friends.
She knew a magpie that came to see her almost everyday. She had a special connection with this magpie. She would feed it scraps of bread or handfuls of seeds, and in return, every now and then, it would bring her little treasures. Sometimes it was just a paperclip or a pin, but Lucy’s magpie had also brought her marbles, tacky rhinestone bracelets, a plastic heart charm, a set of silver keys, a heavy metal screw, chain necklaces and once a solid gold wedding band. Such a magical time it had been when the magpie brought her that wedding band; he had dropped it in their hiding place behind the garden shed, where it glinted happily amidst the filth and compost. Scraping away the crumbling mud, Lucy had tried on the ring. It was beautiful and heavy, though somewhat too big for any of her fingers. She had not stowed it away in her special drawer along with all the other gifted trinkets, but rather wore it on a rope of string around her neck, hidden beneath her t-shirt. A few days later, she had heard her parents talking about an advertisement for a missing ring in the local newspaper, but Lucy had not said a word. The ring was hers and while she wore it she felt safe; she knew she had the luck of a magpie’s love.
The magpie had been coming to see Lucy for years. At first she thought it was just chance that this bird decided to reward her efforts at sneaking food from the kitchen, but she had entered into a psychic relationship with the creature. She swore to herself that she could read its thoughts. Really, the magpie wanted the same things as her. A secret, special friend. The magpie never came to the garden in a pair, unlike the other birds. He was always alone.
Even in these winter mornings, Lucy would get up early to wait in the garden for the magpie. She would leave piles of crushed-up crisps or cereal out on the tree stump at the back of the garden. A little chaffinch danced on the branches of her mother’s apple tree, tentatively shuffling its wings as if deciding whether or not to fly. Nasty, pecking blackbirds would often swarm upon the lawn, digging their sharp beaks in the dewy soil for worms. With the wedding band thumping against her chest, Lucy had to chase them away so that they would not eat her magpie’ s breakfast. For the magpie was truly her soulmate, and she would not let other birds pillage her precious offerings.
One evening Lucy was returning to her room from brushing her teeth when she saw on the wall above her bed a massive spider. It was obviously a remnant of the winter spiders, who occupied her parents’ house from September to March to find shelter from the cold. It was late at night – too late to wake her parents – and Lucy could not go to bed with such a thing in the room. It was a horrid blot upon the perfect cream of her bedroom walls; a blot that unfortunately was often moving. She watched with disgust as it extended its creeping legs, wiggling the black mark of its body. Sometimes, the legs lifted and bent and lifted again as if they were pincers. Lucy was really starting to feel quite sick.
It was too high up to catch in a jar, and there was no use throwing something at it because it would only fall straight down and bury itself in Lucy’s bed.
So she clambered onto her windowsill and pulled open the heavy window. The night smelt fresh and cool, almost like a summer night, though those were still far away. There were the usual suburban sounds, the glow of other windows; but nothing more, nothing more at all. Underneath her nightie Lucy stroked the ring for comfort, beginning to sing her favourite song. Her voice left the house slowly, the haunting melody travelling through the night like a fly struggling through thick black molasses. There was a thin moon watching her. It was the only thing in the universe that knew that Lucy was calling, calling out for her magpie familiar.
And it came. It landed on the dark grass and looked up at her with its flashing amber eye.
“There’s a spider in my room. A nasty wicked spider. You must kill it for me, Mr. Magpie.”
The bird screeched with its habitual rattling cackle. It tilted its head just so.
“Please Mr. Magpie,” Lucy called out. She held her arms out to the dark night and with this beckoning the magpie suddenly swooped up and flew right past her into her bedroom. Squawking loudly, it flapped about with an air of mania until Lucy switched the light on. She pointed to the slowly-moving spider on the wall.
“There,” she whispered. The magpie seemed reluctant at first. It turned its head to gaze at Lucy. And how could any human being fathom what that strange bird was thinking; what lay behind the opaque brilliance of those amber eyes? But Lucy knew; Lucy knew her magpie would do whatever she asked. She watched as it raised its wings and soared into the wall, clutching the spider in its gnarled claws and crushing it into a tangled ball. Lucy watched with a kind of horrified delight as the magpie shrieked triumphantly, before swooping through the window again and out into the darkness, bearing the spider with it. Trying to stifle her laughter, she slammed down the window and admired the lovely canvas of her clean wall. Not a trace of death; not a trace of the spider. She climbed into bed and slept like a baby, oblivious to the distant rumbles of a gathering storm. In fact, only once did she drift from her slumber, seeing her window lit up with fiery lightning; but quickly she fell back to sleep again.
In the morning, Lucy awoke to mellow sheets of sunlight pouring through her window, and the sound of her mother knocking on the door.
Her mother entered and handed Lucy a glass of milk.
“What was all that commotion in here last night?” she asked, her voice tinged with a hint of dread.
“Oh, what commotion? It must’ve been the storm,” Lucy said innocently. She drank the milk hungrily and wiped the traces of it from her lips.
Once she was dressed, Lucy headed into the garden to put the washing out for her mother. The storm had left behind a perfect day, with fair blue skies and the twinkle of birdsong and blush of hopeful crocuses. Spring would be coming soon. In her bare feet, Lucy stepped across the grass, which gleamed lushly with beads of rain and felt soft against her skin. The sun was warm on her cheeks as she pegged up the damp scraps of washing.
When she had finished, however, she noticed a scorched patch of grass and something dark at the back of the garden, by the shed. Perhaps the ground had been struck by lightning in last night’s storm. But as she crept closer, Lucy’s heart seized up like a frightened animal. Just there, lying on the grass beside the burnt patch, was her magpie. For the first time she noticed the fine jewelled beauty of its feathers: the blue, green and burnished red that gleamed in the sun like powdered sapphires. The glossiness of its black and white body, the marble jewel of its knowing eye. With shaking fingers, Lucy lifted back its wings, and alas it did not respond to her touch. She was certain it was dead; but that was all she knew. A bead of a tear escaped her shining eyes. Kneeling down, not caring now that the neighbours might see her, she took off the necklace with the wedding-band. Carefully, she placed it beside the magpie, and turned it gently over to face the sky. As she did so, a tiny spider crawled out from underneath its body, scarpering out over the scorched soil.
And there was nothing or nobody to hear Lucy’s frightened cry.
When Jacintha was still quite young, J.C would take her walks along the shores of the Camus. One brisk day when Jacintha was throwing stones into the choppy waters of the sound of Sleat, she found a strange stone. Pretty soon she realised it wasn’t a stone at all.
‘J.C.! J.C.!’ she shouted excitedly. ‘LOOK!’ J.C. took the yellowy object from her daughter.
‘Well well.’ she said, examining the object. ‘What have we here?’
‘I think it’s a piece of amber.’ The eight year old said. J.C. felt the object.
‘Hmm …’ she said. ‘I think you’re right.’ The object was scuffed and worn by being immersed in the sea but still very hard.
‘We’ll take it home and polish it. There may be something inside.
‘You mean like a dinosaur?’ Jacintha said excitedly.
‘I don’t think you could QUITE get a dinosaur in there.’ J.C. smiled, ruffling Jacintha’s hair. She put the piece of amber into her pocket.
They walked along the old path and back to the level crossing at the pier. As they arrived the 1535 ‘Company’ was rattling over the crossing, the gates closed against the road. ‘Billy the Fish’ was driving the Class 37 as it rattled past. He waved at them as he flew past with a train of alumina hoppers in tow. They watched the last wagon vanish through the little single platform station and disappear through the cutting and across the machair. Flo came out of the little hut and opened the gates. She exchanged greetings with them as they walked across the tracks and into the house which was the second from the crossing.
‘Round the back and get your boots off.’ J.C. said and opened the door that led to the rear of the large house she shared with her partner. She put the kettle on and took her jacket off. Before she made a pot of tea, she threw another couple of peats on the fire.
Will you polish my piece of amber, J.C.?’ Jacintha asked excitedly.
‘Later.’ J.C. smiled. ‘Let’s get warmed up first.’
J.C. poured boiling water onto the china teapot.
‘Let’s see what comestibles Sian has left lying around.’ She said, beginning a prowl through the cupboard for something to assuage the hunger that a brisk walk in the cold had generated. She found a tin of freshly baked rock buns and, handing one to Jacintha, she took two for herself. She poured two mugs of steaming hot tea and they sat by the fire.
‘Don’t forget my bit of amber.’ Jacintha said
‘Hey, It’ll still be there when we finish our tea,’ J.C. said with a smile.
Later they went out to the boat house where J.C. polished the little object.
‘LOOK!’ Jacintha said excitedly. ‘There IS something in it.’ J.C. looked through a magnifying glass.
‘Some kinda creepy crawly.’
‘Is it a terry dac-till?’
‘I wouldn’t think so; a pterodactyl would fill this boathouse. It’s some sort of fly. Looks like a big bluebottle only it’s green.’
‘Do you think it’s alive?’
‘Again, I wouldn’t imagine so. It’s been in there for umpteen million years.’
‘Oh well, maybe not.’
‘There you are.’ J.C. handed the amber to Jacintha.
‘I’m going to take it to school tomorrow for show and tell.’ She said proudly.
Coll raced eagerly towards the foamy water’s edge, his tattered tennis shoes leaving chaotic tracks in the grainy sand like contrails blasted from a jet engine. He flicked auburn strands out of his keen eyes, devouring the landscape in front of him; shrewdly scanning for a flash of pale orange, a golden glint. Gulls swooped in swift silver circles in the blossoming rays of the early morning sun, their dull shrieks echoing against the vast undulating expanse of water. As Coll watched the waves began to thaw; pallid icy crests morphed into slick ribbons of royal blue as beams of warm light broke lazily through a supple blanket of misty cloud. The boy inhaled contentedly, tangy brine clinging to his taste buds and cleansing confused webs of dreams and dust from his groggy mind.
His father had been a fisherman: a master of the waves and all that they held. It had been in his tanned, weathered palm that the boy had first laid eyes upon one of the golden fragments, smoothed through the eons, which the water occasionally offered to the shore. That particular evening his father had sat with him, two figures shrouded in warm woody smoke from the crumbling stone fireplace, and shared with him the secrets of time.
Following his death, Coll had taken to combing the intricacies of the coastline ever more frequently in search of amber. On the occasional days he came across a shining nugget nestled in the soft viridescent caress of an arm of seaweed, or buried half forgotten in the soupy sand, he felt as though he were reclaiming a small piece of his father. The amber contained a molten oblivion of long lost mysteries, nourishment for gluttons of the past; a lense to previous worlds. The boy reasoned that he too should be able to immortalise memories of the man he had adored in such a way: his collection of the ochre gems served as souvenirs of times gone by, proof that memories need not be eternally buried. For he too would die one day, and he feared that his recollections would wither with him.
The sun had risen fully now and melted away the last wisps of moisture so that the sky stretched an uninterrupted azure. Coll had neared the end of the beach and began to pick his way carefully over jagged limpet-spotted rocks, climbing round an outcrop that jutted over the serene waters below. Here the rock pools were thick and close together, full of animation. He crouched and watched tiny fish flit between cracks in the rock, to which clung a motley collection of coloured anemones swaying eerily in a non-existent breeze. He had always wanted a fish tank, to possess his own tiny marine world, but his mother had refused. She didn’t like the sea.
Examining the smooth line of the horizon the boy contemplated the memories he was so desperate to maintain the vitality of. He remembered the first time that his father had taken him out on the ocean in a small wooden boat and cast a line into the swell, illustrating to Coll how to delve for the living treasures of the deep. Each time he was successful the boy made him cast the fish back into the water, unable to watch them turn limp and lifeless in front of his young eyes. Turning back to the rocks he caught a flash of the colour he had trained himself so ardently to hunt for, the only one in his mind worth noticing: forget the blues and the greens and the greys.
In a glassy pool right on the boundary of rock and sea, there lay a small chunk of golden amber winking up at the boy. Slim fingers dived into the salty coolness and snatched it up. He held it up to the sunlight, examining its smooth golden contours; evidence of a time long past but not forgotten. He would not forget either.
What were your prompts?: evidence, underwater, amber
Brooks took a deep inhale, drawing his thick steady hand away from his gruff lips. The smoke clouded around his face shrouding his pensive stare. He watched the divers crawl from the bank of the river dragging with them the limp white remnants of a young woman. The girl was barely clothed but for clumps of glitter and sequins hiding her modesty. Her long hair (most of which was undoubtedly synthetic) was matted across her face almost conceal the heavy purple blotches. She had one pink heel on her right foot, the left was bare but for the chipped polish and the daisy chain tattoo, the rigor mortis had set her toes in an awkward curl. Arnold approached tentatively with his hands logged uneasily in his pockets.
“Not got the stomach for this kid?” Brooks tossed the butt of his cigarette to the ground mashing it in to the sodden ground beneath his feet.
“First person….well.. body I’ve seen.” Arnold ran his tongue along the back of his teeth, they still retained the faint taste of his own vomit.
“Corpse.” Brooks grunted as he approached the sprawling form with its limbs warped strangely as if clinging to the ground. He knelt down pulling back the hair. Arnold gasped feeling the sudden resurge of bile in his throat. The girl’s eyes were open but the water has caused them to swell giving her a hauntingly powerful stare. The left side of her face was entirely purple and black and decorate with a large gash that ran the length of her skull.
“Ah recognise this girl,” Brooks muttered.
Arnold nodded attentively but refused to break his position.
“Dancer in the Golden Swan a few miles from here. The boys had her in a few weeks ago, apparently one of the punters got a bit handsy so she punched him,” Brooks smirked to himself. “Scumbag dropped the charges though. Her names Amber,” he said rising and turning to face Arnold.
“Well at least her stage name is in any case.” Brooks slid his hand in to the inner pocket of his jacket and withdrew a fresh cigarette.
“What was her real name?” Arnold asked shakily, his eyes fixed on the battered girl’s delicate thin lips.
“Not much difference anymore,” Brooks shrugged. “Get her bagged up. She’s evidence now.”
She washed up along the riverbank just as the sun was setting. Amber light flooded the forest and the water of the stream was like molten bronze, the white spray, as it tumbled over rocks and fallen branches, rendered in brilliant gold.
Her body moved remarkably elegantly, twisting and turning as if she were in the throes of a fitful sleep, nothing more. Weeds and dead leaves were tangled in her golden hair, and her skin was grey-white. Her eyes, glassy, staring up at the heavens, seeing far, far beyond the sunset and the sky streaked carnation red with black clouds…out there, beyond where no one on this earth could see even in dreams and visions…
Though there was a lone figure, following her slow progress, hidden by the trees, waiting for a chance, a passing group of hunters found her first. A group of green lads from the town, trussed up in leathers, with their prey strapped to their backs, and strapping smiles on their ruddy cheeks, at first they had thought themselves lucky; they had stumbled on a maid, bathing in the stream – it was not such a rare sight, on a midsummer evening, after a scorched day such as this. It was only when a crow came to settle on her shoulder, and worry at her open eyes, that the boys grew alarmed.
After much deliberation amongst themselves, it was decided that they ought to bring her to the nearest village, and the sheriff there could deal with the matter properly. The two oldest, largest boys carried her between them. Though they were still a little addled with ale, a very sober silence came upon them during this walk. No one uttered more than a sigh, or a shudder as the evening chill descended on the woods.
It was midnight by the time they arrived. The sheriff was roused, and soon after a crowd emerged, and the empty market square was lit by many hands carrying candles, lanterns, torches. The girl’s pale body was surrounded by a flickering glow, and a low murmur of anguished voices.
“She’s not from here.” An old spinster said, making the sign of the cross. Relief was in her voice.
“Perhaps she was washing clothes in the river and slipped?” Another offered.
“She looks well bred, perhaps she was a noble girl, a runaway…”
“Running away from her marriage, perhaps?”
“Or a terrible crime! Perhaps she killed her child!”
“Now, now, let’s not condemn her – she might have been murdered.”
“Oh, God forbid! Drowned! The poor creature…”
“But how shall we find out who she belongs to?”
“Enough!” The sheriff boomed. “Go back to your beds, the lot of you. This will be dealt with – she’ll be gone by tomorrow and given a Christian burial. If her family can be found, that’ll be a blessing. But regardless, she’ll not be left out to rot in this heat, so you can all sleep with a clear conscience.”
The crowd grudgingly dispersed, save for a lone figure, who had slipped into the village on the tail of the group of hunters. She was hooded, but beneath, a braid of corn-yellow hair was hidden. The sheriff would not leave the body unattended, she knew. There was no chance of getting back the necklace now, the one containing the lock of jet black hair – her lover’s hair. No doubt the river water had washed it of all its wonderful scent…
She shed a quiet tear, not for her dead twin, nor even for the lost locket, but for the fact that her own life was over now. For, if all went to plan, it would be ‘her’ that they buried tomorrow. While ‘she’ would return to ‘her’ loyal husband, in tears, to tell the news of the bad sister’s death…
The parasite has been sitting in glassy stasis for a few million years now. It is a gangly, disgusting creature, rendered in the pallid glow of a piece of amber. The faint buzz of an ancient jungle lingers still in its static wings.
I turn my attention to the other exhibits. A parade of remnants, each given its chance to leap and roar as it once did on lost fields. The gallery of ghosts continues on and on through musty air, passing one horrible epoch after another.
I stop by a monster, a mouth set for cleaving skulls and crunching ribs. Those grand, vacant sockets seem to be watching me. An irrational fear, thankfully. The old beast roams only in shadows and primal memories.
Regardless, I give it one last look before moving on- Just to be sure.
The people in the village say that amber is best gathered after a storm. You must wait until the waves have calmed and the clouds have cleared the sky. On the island, there isn’t much for us to make money from. There is the coffee and the rum and the plants they trample to make cocaine. The men that arrive from boats once a month at dawn: you see them pull up in the Western Cove and the villagers rush to meet them, their faces hidden with scarves. You can take tourists into the Fairy Caves and maybe they will tip you a handful of silver; or maybe they will steal your soul, down in the dark pool where stalactites drip, every plop echoing on the rock. The Caves are very deep, and no-one will hear your screams.
Mother told me to wait till I was eighteen, and then, she said, I could find a tourist to take me back to the mainland. There will be work there, she said. I can’t do much, but I can paint and draw. I can draw the veins of my wrist, the radiant innards of a jellyfish. I stole my pencils from school and I make paint from the island’s secret spoils: red shellac of insects, green of spirulina, blue of iron oxide, chipped from the walls of a cave. I long to make cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine: the pigments of the sky and sea; crumbled to dust, smoothed to a sheen.
There must be people elsewhere who dream as I do; who see the same colours cast across their sleeping brains. I will leave one day and see. Mother says with luck I will sell my paintings.
A day in the blistering fire of July, and Stephen takes me down to the shore – just as the sun is setting. The humidity is a million insects sucking your every pore. Stephen’s touch is misted, dewy; not clammy exactly. When I kiss him he tastes like coconuts, and his eyes glitter the way a bead of oil glitters on your skin. I tell him that soon I will be going far away, and he laughs and says there is a storm coming. I will take off my clothes and run down into the water. We will go, he says, into the Fairy Caves and take shelter till it’s over. Over the mountains behind us a spark of God crackles and there is the grumble of thunder. The sun is melting, melting like a solvent of gold ore, pouring its lifeblood across the sky. I cannot take my eyes off it. I will go there, I whisper to Stephen. The lightning forks and hisses steam upon the ocean, distant and brilliant. He grabs my hand. Colours are running everywhere, but I am not afraid.
We pass the night in the Fairy Caves, our bodies quivering to the sound of the sea hurling up against the sand and stone. Water pours in through the catacombs and the air is thick and dark like treacle. When we are in here we could be anywhere. The candle wax leaves a trail across my bare chest, and every whisper resounds along the walls. If you look up, you see the illuminations that gave the Caves their name. The villagers say they are fairies, but I know the real name for them. You say it with a softness of the tongue: phosphorescence. The lights shift from green to white to blue and you close your eyes and still you see them, shimmering. This flicker, Stephen says, is what it’s like to live in the city. I don’t believe him.
In the morning I slip underwater and escape to the fresh cool sky, alone. A new world has settled over the ocean, and the island is born again. I am breathing the same air as the swaying palms exhale.
On the beach I walk along the seaweed and shingle tossed up by the storm. I find a piece of amber, rippled with gold and orange and smoothed by the sands of time. Inside a little insect hangs: trapped, staring out at me with all the knowledge of its eternity. But I will not sell this amber; I fling it back into the water. It doesn’t make a splash, just dissolves into nowhere. I know that one day, too, I will go there. Still and silent and sylvan: I will keep this vision.