His name was Sir Clowdishley. He was once a royalty man, an astronomer to the king. He surveyed great kingdoms of heaven and charted the progress of the stars. He named whole galaxies after his two children and wife, but his family were now all dead, outlived by their celestial counterparts, lost to the sea.
He stalked the ocean, walking the shores of England’s beaches, from Land’s End in the north to John O’Groats in the south. He lived off tubers and seaweed, jellyfish he found rotting on the sand, husks of old cod half-desiccated in the salty winds. He was emaciated, where once stood a proud and hefty figure. He slumped along the coastline, ragged and draggle-haired, hefting his hundredweight chain like a penance behind him, picking his next sortie with the utmost care.
Sir Clowdishley warred with the sea. He battered it with his chain. He lashed it endlessly, striking foam from its ragged edge and beating the surging tides with all his strength.
Image by Caspar David Friedrich.
It was an overcast gray February morn when the ocean finally turned its colors and offered Sir Clowdishley terms. At first it was a thin sliver of tuna. It slopped in the briny water, rested slimy at his feet, and spoke in a high whine.
“Enough sir,” it called. “End these hostilities.”
Sir Clowdishley mashed it beneath his heel.
The next day, as the sun rose and the old man roused himself from a lean-to heap of driftwood and wrecked cargo chests, the sea breeze called out the ocean’s terms. “I will vestige you with pearls,” it whispered, “and you shall be granted safe passage wherever you might go.”
“Liar,” cursed the old man. “You suffer a most disharmonious nature, slave master of my family and me. Your promises are as fickle as your tide.”
“I am in harmony with the moon, sir,” breathed the breeze, “as you once knew. This violence is long past madness. I implore you to stop.”
“Return my family to me, then we shall speak of terms.”
“That is beyond my power.”
“No. You are intemperate and you were born to lie. You are the grand deceiver, stealer of men’s souls, and I shall not abide such inveigling transgressions!”
“It is beyond my power.”
“It is beyond my power to slake this vengeance unfulfilled. So we are at odds, sir.”
That day Sir Clowdishley lashed the ocean one thousand times. His chain, rusted anchor links cut from the same anchorage that sank aboard the Salubrious all those years ago, sparked rust from the foamy tides and specked the ocean with brittle nuggets as dark as dried blood. He fancied he could hear a tiny cry as every lash fell, as if the ocean itself would any second give up a sigh and drop out of existence.
That evening he found himself sore and sorely tested. His palms were worn with blisters and his mind adrift with the screaming of the sea. He slumped into the dunes and found his bed a raft of scrub grass, itchy against his stalwart old skin.
The sea launched its first attack that night. Sir Clowdishley woke to the cawing of gulls and a blow to the fore of his head. He vaulted alert to his feet, saw by the wan light of the gibbous moon a sky crowded with the heartbeat flapping wings of an army of gulls. He felt blood trickle down his cheek and saw the first gull lying twitching by his feet, its beak smashed and bloody, its neck twisted in its death throes.
He snatched up his chain, weary though he was and the light weak, and prepared to hold his ground. “You will not take me!” he cried to the skies. “I will not go down alive!”
The gulls only cawed and chattered. The sound was as thunder, so rolling and vast. The moon was blotted with the living bodies of seabirds.
“Come for me!” cried Sir Clowdishley. And they came.
He whirled his chain about his head like the blades of da Vinci’s heliopter. He felt he might ascend into the sky at any second, but for the torrent of feathered flesh descending upon him. They came and they came and their coming seemed endless. The chain slowed as it ground them beneath its crusted weight. Soon the sky was raining not only birds but blood, as the injured bodies struggled to gain height, and those that fell left their life’s essence slicking the chain to dribble down Sir Clowdishley’s arm and into his hair.
The salvoes rang out for most of the night. Sir Clowdishley like a beacon tower remained erect, though sometimes bowing under the pressure of the sky falling on his head, Atlas under the stress of the oceans fury. He whirled the chain and screamed with all his might “You cannot take me. This is my land. This is my England. Britannia rules the waves!”
Come morning the gulls had retreated, and the siege of Clowdishley’s sand dune had abated. Some circling birds remained, cawing raucously down from above as if a stern reminder of their brethren and their weight of numbers. But Sir Clowdishley was unconcerned. He greased down the length of his chain with the sap of broken marsh grass, dined on raw gull flesh, and continued on along his battlements, seeking the next sally with his foe.
It came at noon, and the acid ball of sun was high overhead and wilting the corners of Sir Clowdishley’s waxed moustache. The sea dared to lick at his boot, and he was sent into a paroxysm of fury, and the lash descended another thousand times before he was spent. It was eventide when he relented, and he knelt to his God with his back to the widow maker, praying for guidance and strength. That is when he heard the voice of the whale.
“You punish us all,” it sang, high and melodic and beautiful beyond measure. For a second the old man was afraid to turn. He wondered to see some old Poseidon, trident in hand looking every bit the king of the most rapacious nation on earth. But rather, there was only this gray mountain of body, one huge eye beading on him as final rivulets of salt-water scurried over its vast iris. “You punish us all for your own misdeed.”
“You are all heathen,” called Sir Clowdishley. “And I will punish you into hell for your theft.”
“I was but a child,” sang the whale, “those long and lone 25 years ago. I swam with my parents and their kin. We sang the long low ocean songs and I learnt the laws of my place. I must eat, and others will die so that I may live. When I die, others will eat from me. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. It is a freedom you will never know.”
Sir Clowdishley shook his head, the fire of his righteous anger burning within. “Your freedom is a lie, sir. It is granted by him, and he is a fickle master.”
“I have no master,” sang the whale. “I am more free than you can know. But I am dying. We all are dying. You slay us, and we will die. Is this what you truly want.”
“Yes,” spat Sir Clowdishley. “It is what I truly want,” and with that he scythed the great chain through the air and into the eye of the whale. It burst. The whale said nothing more, and did not move, did not quiver, only held still.
“I am a sacrifice as your family were,” it sang, its great voice steady despite the flailing blows the old man beat against it. “I am an innocent, as your family was. You are the carrion beast that you so decry.”
Sir Clowdishley beat it until it is silent. He beat it until the blubber lay in reeking rent trails down its sides, the skin torn and ravaged by the barnacled rust of his chain. It still lived though, somewhere inside, enduring the pain silently, and he beat it until he was sure there was nothing left. He climbed atop it, yanking handholds in its still beating flesh, and beat its geyser hole until the breaths stopped flowing. He beat its eyes until they were runny as eggs. By dawn it gave up the ghost, let out a long final sighing song, and died.
He ate handfuls of gobbety flesh, choking it down with a river of warm blood, then he moved on.
He walked through the night, anchor chain dragging behind him, cutting a wake through the hard rain-packed sands of a Somerset beach. He looked over to the town, whose docks he would soon have to pass, and wondered about the lights therein. He knew there must be people, warm and flesh and living. Drinking and eating, talking. It filled him with the fires of revenge, the memories of his once full and perfect life, so that when the flying fish trailed alongside him, heads bobbing in and out of the water, racing the current and keeping pace with him, he was mostly warmed against their diatribes. Their flashing scales like a thousand diamonds under the moon, leaping, falling, leaping, falling, none of them served to distract him. He only vaguely heard their chorus.
“We are all god’s children,” they chanted. “We are all God’s children.”
Sir Clowdishley ignored them, slept in the hollow of an old beach hut, wood sanded down to the grain and white with bleached salt crystals.
He slept through the day and the following night, a cold mid-summer breeze cutting across his bare cheek, and that is when the jellyfish came. He heard them slopping up the sand, stingers flopping like alien crucifixes over their heads, tendrils slapping the sand, wheezing air in and out of their pustulous body sacs, like a horde of slimy insectile eggs come to life, heaving with the pull of muscle and boneless sinew.
He heard the soft slap that marked their approach, and he waited. The first stroked his face and sent an electric shock ringing through his nerves. It was the devil speaking to him. “We only want to be loved,” it said. “Touch us. Love us. Hold us close.”
He almost reached out, stroked the poisoned flesh, but at the last second the dim memory of his son, sinking beneath the rough waves of a storm-tossed October ocean 25 years ago and beyond his reach, pulled him back and filled him with the fiery fervor of his righteousness. He leaped to his feet and pounded the lake of jellyfish surrounding him. He crushed gelatin bodies beneath his bare feet, and lids about him with the chain `til the air was rinsed with the white slops of jellyfish feelers and his feet could dance no more, stung to shreds by a thousand spiny backs.
“All are guilty!” he cried, as he danced. “All are punished!”
“Hold us,” breathed the jellyfish. “Love us. We will be your son. We will be your daughter. We will be your wife, Love us.”
“All are punished!” he cried, dancing whirligig in the wreckage of life. “All are punished!”
The next day the sea retreated. Sir Clowdishley came aware as his feet stung him to wakefulness. He could not hear the sigh of his old enemy. He rose and stared out at a desert of endless beach. There was no silver line on the horizon, no tide line to mark the ocean.
He turned, saw people flooding from Southampton, scurrying in their droves to see the sight. He could hear the distant cries of fisherman. A child hurried up beside him, staring at the slaughtered jellyfish.
“What happened here, mister?” he asked, sandy blonde hair with a dirty face and smudged cotton trews. His burlap scrimping bag lapped against the skin of his calves, and for a second Sir Clowdishley mistook him for his old foe, raised his chain, and the child skittered away.
“There was a battle,” said the old man, long after he has gone. “A great battle.” Then he set off over the beach after the fleeing ocean.
Sir Clowdishley walked through the day. The sun rose hot above him and slowly the desert of beach gave over to the drying detritus of seabed. Great tangled clumps of seaweed piled over underwater weeds and grafted coral statues like a fresh blanket of stinking green snow. There were fish dead and dying, slapping sadly on the drying sand, their skin leathering as they forgot the touch of the sea. They called up to him in their death throes, along with sea worms, limpets, mollusks, crayfish, sea snails, and all the microscopic life of the sea. “We will die now,” they cried. “There are millions of us, and we will die. Is this the price of your revenge, sir?”
“It is not my price,” he said. “Though I pay it gladly.”
Come nightfall he found the remnants of his ship, the Salubrious. It had been 25 years. Her beams and body were wrecked, and she lay sunken in the bed of the sea like an overgrown corpse. Walking closer, he saw her name was still marked in faded blue on the warped hull. He entered her splintered ribcage, looking for he knew not what. Bodies. Bones. Memories.
He found nothing, it was a gutted shell. He moved from cabin to cabin, all empty and sad. He remembered the screaming from that night, it seemed to echo round the dead ship, out into the sea’s alien landscape beyond.
He moved to the bridge, boards creaking under his feet, and found the great oaken steering wheel intact. He runs his fingers over its ocean polished spokes. Then he took his chain, looped it round his body, and clanked it shut and locked round the wheel. Then he rested his gnarled hands on the smooth wood and began to steer.
At first there was nothing. The wheel would not give, the rudder was locked in sand. But as it grew dark, and he pressed harder, it gave a little more, until the rudder sailed free, the ship slipped loose. He fancied he could hear the bellowed cries of his crew, seaman calling around him, taking to the riggings, crying out depths and dead reckonings. The Salubrious sailed the desert.
By dawn light he reached the heart of the ocean, and let the boat rest, the invisible wind cutting out of the invisible sails. He stood proudly before the emerald heart of the ocean and laid down his demand.
“Return what you stole from me, sir.”
The emerald heart whispered and sighed, lapping and alive and every breath was a thousand lives and thousand deaths. “You ask the impossible of me,” spoke the heart, its voice without sound and without time, meaning spilling from its edges like an overflowing bucket. “You bat at my fringes and my children die to ebb your pain, but you ask for something I cannot give.”
“I will fight you,” said Sir Clowdishley, “as long as I breathe and beyond.”
“To no avail,” breathed the heart. “I am unable to give you what you seek.”
“Then I shall slay your children until my dying day.”
The heart of the ocean sighed. “I have brought you here for that very purpose, sir. You will die before I see more of my children slaughtered for your appeasement.”
“Then come for me,” called Sir Clowdishley. “Heathen beast, I decry thee! Thou art a purveyor of deceits and the great wellspring of obfuscation. I deny your right to existence!”
“And I yours,” breathed the sea, and rose. It rose until Sir Clowdishley was nothing but a speck before the great wall of water, rising up sheer and dark and casting a pall over the land, eclipsing the moon. Then it descended.
There was the roar of a thousand cannon blasts as the wave crashed down. The earth trembled and the skies darkened. Lightning flashed in the clouds above, and a driving rain scoured the bitter waves. For a time, there was only the roar of the sea, and the wash of froth and foam. Then Sir Clowdishley emerged. Rising out of the chaos, mighty chain whipping the water from him, screaming into the storm.
“Give them to me!” he cried, tears coursing down his face, beating the foaming ocean in a frenzy. “Return to me what you once stole!” The sea sighed, and every lash that the bony old man dealt out released a pent up sigh.
“I cannot,” sang the sea over the rage of Sir Clowdishley. “I cannot.” And the second wave rose.
The people of Southampton watched the storm rage at sea for 3 days. Fearful whispers spread from the docks and the drinking houses into the houses of the gentry and the pulpits at church. God himself was angry. God himself had called back the sea so he could cast judgement upon it. The good folk of Southampton feared for their lives, for their God, and for their livelihoods.
Fishermen waited, nets in hand, their boats firmly tethered to the harbor walls, and prayed for the storm to pass. Merchants sat at their market stalls and tried to peddle 3-day-old fish in brine, squid, penny-catch loads of cankles and periwinkles scrounged from rock-pools, alongside the shelly white flesh of carved out coral. A pall settled over the town, and a fine rain drizzled day and night.
Scrimpers went out to scour the beaches. Shells were brought back but the pickings were slim. The life of the sea seemed to have retreated along with the ocean, as if it had sucked itself into one mass body to combat the heavens. People shivered and went hungry, and in their cold beds at night they wept and prayed desperately to God to relent.
The sandy haired boy was scrimping near the rotten and foul carcass of a beached whale when the weather broke. It happened in a matter of seconds. The rain abated, the clouds cleared, the distant sea settled and the sun shone out of a blue sky. He was amazed. In his hand was a wriggling plenty of sea worms and limpets.
He watched as the sea returned. He could see its blue line on the horizon creeping closer, and within he fancied he saw figures, marching up from the tide lines. At first he thought it was the mad old man he’d seen before the storm, the man with the anchor chain scythe, but soon he realized it couldn’t be. This man was young, though he wore the same clothes and carried the same old chain. Around him ran two children, laughing gaily in the sudden summer light, and by his side walked a beautiful young woman.
He called out to them but they didn’t reply. They walked straight past him, and he figured something odd about them. The light didn’t quite shine right off them, and the sounds of the children’s laughter had already begun to fade.
“Hey!” he called. “You wanna play?”
But the children ignored him. They danced about their parents, walking away from the sea without looking back. They walked by the boy, and with every step they seemed to fade like a bone bleaches whiter in the sun, until he was sure he could see right through them to the town beyond.
The man paused by the desiccated whale, touched its great jellied forehead with his paling fingers. Then he took his wife by the hand, his children alongside, and whooped with joy, led them at a run to the dunes, up through the rushes, over the top and down the other side.
The boy followed but could not find them. He searched and called until it grew dark, but they were gone. Walking home along the returned shoreline a piece of driftwood floated up and nudged his foot. He looked down and saw an old salt-worn board with a word painted in faded blue across it. He read it by the light of the moon. SALUBRIOUS, it said. He picked it up, put it in his empty scrimping bag, and began the long walk back to town.
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