Songs of the Archipelago – excerpts

My novel in progress is Songs of the Archipelago. Here is a short excerpt. You can read more about the novel here.


Songs of the Archipelago

The day before Rebecca sent me away forever we sat on the pontoon at Trevaline Sings watching the sunset flood the bay with flame-coloured light. The coruscating light on the water is beautiful but deceptive, she said. Take care, Little Fairy. The sea can burn. I didn’t understand what she meant, but that was how she liked things. I looked up coruscating in Rebecca’s musty dictionary, but was none the wiser.
That night the wind gusting in off the Atlantic sounded like it was calling my name and Rebecca turned pallid in the amber light of the kerosene lamp. She hauled me out of bed at daybreak, bundled me sleepy and recalcitrant along the pontoon. The Merrow’s fairy lights winked across the flinty sea. Rebecca was a sculpture of rage in the wheelhouse, her pale hair unfurling like a wave. I looked back at Trevaline Sings for the last time, The Merrow dancing with the swell as a dark, beautiful storm rolled in from the west.
Today, the sea is calm. Oppressive tranquillity stretches out in all directions to a silvery horizon. The only movement is the skein of froth ploughed up by the ferry as it carries me back to my childhood. I climb onto the safety barrier, lean out dangerously far, metal digging into my thighs. The calmness was deceptive. In the shadow of the ferry, the sea is alive with jostling wavelets. The ferry creates its own weather; wind pummels my face, unravelling my ponytail, blowing hair into my mouth. I taste salt and Pete’s supermarket shampoo. Jess whimpers, nudging my ankle with her nose. I clamber down and scratch her ears, but she retreats to her hiding place beneath a row of plastic chairs, pressing her trembling body into the deck. Jess does not do boats.
I slide my laptop out of my backpack, wedge my feet against the adjoining chair and balance the keyboard on my knees, angling the screen away from the sun. I open the folder named ‘Encyclopaedia drafts’, type The Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) has tooth-like plates on its tongue that it uses to file through the flesh of its prey. Before spawning, the hagfish creates a shallow nest for its eggs, tenderly excavating stones one at a time with its mouth, the bright red cylinder of its body curling and skimming on the tide. The last sentence reads like a bad novel, like something Rebecca would write. Twilight of the Hagfish by Rebecca Fernandes. I block out the offending text and delete it. The hagfish emits a slimy residue. It has been hypothesised that this is a tactic designed to confuse predators, but the theory remains unproven.
            Pete bought me one of her books, as a graduation present. Satan’s Garden. He handed it over with a self-congratulatory flourish as if I ought to be grateful. I hid Satan’s Garden away on the bookshelf in the spare bedroom in between Molluscs of the North Pacific and Sexual Dimorphism in Cetaceans. I didn’t think about Satan’s Garden, didn’t think about Rebecca, for a year. It fell off the shelf when I was cleaning, lay on the carpet with dust coating its edges. I dusted around the stacks of biology textbooks. The empty rectangle on the bookshelf gleamed. I picked the book up by the corner, between my thumb and forefinger and wiped the duster along its spine. I clicked the bedroom door shut with my back, sat on the bed, pulled the duvet over my knees. The book fell into my lap, pages unfurling with a pristine, new-paper smell.
Satan’s Garden was about a girl who sold her sister’s bones to the Devil in exchange for eternal beauty. She tore the flesh from her sister’s bones with her bare fingers, scraped them until they were shining white and laid them in a neat line between the oleander and the apple tree. Crows bickered over the warm, wet scraps. The apple tree flowered as the bones sank into the earth; fruit fell, red and heavy. This was what she had been waiting for. Juice stung her lips, her throat. She sat in the garden and ate the apples that grew fat from her sister’s bones. Her skin became translucent, her body a wing of lace shuddering beneath the light of the stars.
I finished the book in one sitting and put it in the charity bag.
          The hagfish is a boneless animal, its body supported by a cartilaginous notochord. It breathes through between five and fifteen external respiratory openings located along each side of its body. It attaches itself to its prey by means of tentacles that surround its jawless mouth. I look up from my laptop and now the expanse of the sea is broken, the horizon scattered with fragments of coastline and memories.
The ferry banks to starboard to skirt around the rocky outcrops of Brengy, St Arzhel and a rash of other islets the names of which I can’t remember, or never knew. The razorbill colony on St Columba is a jagged stack of rock slicing into the sky. The disused lighthouse, known locally as Gisela’s pillar, slides into view, perched on gunmetal rocks east of Lugh. The colour of the ocean softens to slate-grey and then a deep, jade green as we draw nearer to the shoreline. Long, low waves push into shallower water, slapping against rocks and unfolding across coves that skirt granite cliffs. I coax Jess out of her hiding place and she crawls into the gangway on her belly, swishes her tail across the deck and wobbles down the narrow stairway to the passenger lounge. I glance up as Lugh Harbour comes into view, rows of brightly painted cottages huddled together on the quayside.
It’s nothing like I remember.


© Annie Kirby (2012)

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