The Turtledove

The turtledove at my window cries and cries and cries. I can still picture when I first saw the bird, it’s doll eyes staring up at me, a baby bird sitting next to its broken sister. It was frozen with fear and wouldn’t leave its dead sibling’s side until I scooped it from the cold ground back into its nest. That was at least five or six years ago. I haven’t forgotten that childhood memory. How could I when it sings for me at my window every morning? It is a dull repetitive song, no good deed goes unpunished as they say. It wakes me up so I never hear the start of the song and because I throw books at my window to frighten it and go back to sleep – and so I never hear the end. Despite my angry outbursts, it comes back faithfully every morning.

Perhaps it isn’t singing for me, or singing for a mate – but singing for his sister.

One morning, I wake up to the same grey gruelling tune that leaks out from my window and instead of throwing a book it lulls me into a trance and I start to think. I start thinking harder about my own life than I ever have before, with the raw emotions of a painter or poet I cut past the litter and sound that clutters my mind. My thoughts are forming some image but for now all I have is the palette to draw from.

I think about my sister, I think about heaven. I hope she is there and I hope there is a there. I dream about walking the fields golden and green, plains that stretch forever, and rolling hills. Over this hangs the eternal blue sky with brushstroke clouds and the smell of sea salt in the air. This is an image that is hard to hold, so beautiful that it blurs with tears but I can see my sister – as young and innocent as a flower in bloom. The words I witnessed a deacon tell my mother after the tragedy come back to me: “A flower bud has burst on earth, to bloom in heaven.” She is playing with the other children that were taken too soon, they glide over the grass on a summer breeze, flying like a swift, which when it leaves the nest it never again lands. Waving to me, she dances over the meadow. I run to her but I am stopped by a river. It is a raging torrent and I would be swept away but still she waves for me to wade through it. I cannot pass over.

From above an angel said, “Your sister also feared the river of death, but while passing over realised it was only a little brook after all.”

It was true for her it was only a little brook so easy for her to glide over with her tiny cupid wings. My heavy body would surely drown me, I look within myself and see my soul is also weighed heavily. My knees in the water, I kneel and beg, “Free me from the fetters – lust, greed, jealousy – that hang over my neck like iron chains, every day pulling me deeper into the dirt and filth.” I sit on the riverside and cry, my sister wishes she could wash away my sadness, to live like the blessed – over the way, where there is no more suffering for the little flower buds. The turtledove’s lonely song ends, breaking my trance. The vision is lost. I look out the window for the turtledove but only see my own weary reflection.

Did I really see heaven? I like to believe so. Of course, I would like to believe, what’s the alternative? Katherine died of leukaemia and now she lies in the dirt, that’s that – she will never smell the flowers we place on her grave, these words will never reach my baby sister and the only company she keeps is worms. All my life, eye sockets full of worms have haunted me while I slept. But there is no point trying to get back to sleep now, the sun is shining into my room. I get up and write this. Then I regret writing this because unlike the other bird stories in this book this one is of my own life. I have left the comfortable and easy heights of fiction and landed on a limed branch to become some creature’s dinner. If you be that hungry creature reading now, I offer up my heart for you – still beating and bleeding on these now stained pages.

The Puffin (ii)

The sea came into view, but the climb down was even more precarious. If you were to slip you would be killed before your body came to a rolling stop. If you were killed down, it’s unlikely your body would be found before it became part of the land. The jagged outbreaks come from the ribs and broken elbows of careless passerby’s, moss-ridden and turned to stone before they can be found by mourning mothers. My older brother Jon is here among the shattered and doomed, I wasn’t even born when he was killed- so please save your sympathy. Save it for my Mother, who out of hunger has to send her youngest over the same precarious terrain which devoured her eldest. I don’t fear his end, my young feet are nimble and neither does the mule, he has risked his life over these rocks so many times that his fate must be written on a dusty forgotten scroll, fallen behind Death’s desk.

The fear was especially easy to subdue in the face of such a beautiful view. A world cut into thirds – land, sky, and sea. And for me, this division was more than just a view. Within the mountains, under mounds of dirt slept giants that my mother told me stories of before bed. And there the great blue sky, which my father swore was the very same one that Saint Michael descended from to trample Lucifer back into the dirt. I hope that in throwing Lucifer back down into hell that St Michael does not wake a giant – that would bring great trouble for everyone. For a giant rages like no other creature when awakening from its slumber. Who would find victory in that battle, would the angels find victory in one cruel swoop as an eagle snatches the life of a field mouse — or would the giants simply feel their spears as mosquito bite and swat them like a fly. Whoever the victor a clash between those two worlds would sink the world, bring us to the third part of this great view: the sea. You have heard the stories of the land and sky from my mother and father respectively, but the stories from the sea I reserve for myself.

An ice shelf extended from the shore. It was of the purest white that I struggled to search for the perfect fishing perch without squinting.
“Where should I begin?” I asked myself as my stomach rumbled hungrily. Up and down the coast little nooks and crannies looked inviting. But there was one magnificent spot that stood out like a sore toe – in fact it even looked like a sore toe. Here I would fish. I climbed up the outcropping of ice that looked like a giant’s foot that had slipped out from under his warm sod blanket during his sleep. He might appreciate my backside warming his big, so I took to climbing up it, and no sooner than I was up there I started to become drowsy. Something about the coast makes me feel entirely safe to sleep out in the open. Whereas down in the valley when I sleep I imagine the surrounding mountains closing as my eyes do, swallowing me into the ground while I snooze. Out on the coast, I am free and my dreams are also free to wander across the sea. This dream in particular was fuelled by my father’s tales of his adventures the prey of this new modern era: the bird-fish or as they were called in England, puffins.

Mostly I dream myself as lowly things. I’ve dreamt I was a worm, I’ve dreamt I was a dog. There are simply and secret comforts to the lives of beasts. But this dream was different, I dreamt I was with my father in search of the puffins which Europe craved. The reason behind the puffin’s sudden popularity and profitability is a result of Pope Urban III decision. He declared the small critter to be a fish which therefore could be eaten during Lent. Millions of Catholics sick of Fish Fridays rejoiced and a new puffin ventures popped up naturally. My father explained to me his job as the pilot as we walked the deck. “Leif, I am thrilled you are here at last.” I smiled nervously.
“We’ll show you the ropes my boy and you’ll have your hands on a great juicy puffin.” The crew nodded and I searched among them for the familiar smiles of my brothers but couldn’t find them. I was about to ask when a call was shouted from a lookout posted on the masthead, “There she soars!” My father jumped and dashed through the men like a banshee to take the helm. The crew came alive with him all bouncing and scrambling over each other. A great tangle of ropes was untangled from the middle of the deck and then hoisted up, at the end of them was a queer contraption that looked like a combination between a kite and a lobster cage. Inside the cages were fish heads and guts. These cages were promptly thrown off the side and caught on the breeze. I looked to my father who grinned as steered masterfully into the wind allowing the kited-cages to float up. The ship appeared to be a great Kraken with tentacles waving high above the ship- all in pursuit of a great flock of puffins on the horizon.

What a peculiar sight, even for a dream. These images are all sourced from my father’s tales which he swore on his word. And now in this dream, we are upon the puffins who have taken to the skies, safely above the ship away from any spear, net or harpoon, so they might think. Attracted to the fishheads they crawl into the kited-cages but it will be their last meal because they are unable to escape from the inside which is coated in birdlime. With glee these fishermen of the skies pulled them from their lofty prisons, squawking and cawing, I felt their terror and pain – ripping their own feathers from bloody plucked skin trying to free themselves. From behind my father cruelly laughed and I awoke.


 < Part 2 of 9 ->

The Puffin

Often a strange story begins with a strange awakening. My story begins with a strange nap. It was a nap that took me half way around the world, not within my dreams, I truly lived this adventure. I doubt that my imagination could even conjure up a dream as otherworldly as my adventures have been. My odyssey will be but a footnote in history, in fine print it will be written just after the death of Christ and before Ragnarok, on this day Leif Erikson fell asleep and changed the world! Aye, changed the world and all it took was a sickening amount of pain.
I regret nothing, it was a pleasant snooze.

I remember the warm afternoon well, warm for an Icelandic morning anyway. I woke up late and my mother scolded me for not doing my chores on time. The first of these was to kill a chicken for dinner, which I had left too late – the sun was already setting. By my villages tradition, we kill livestock in the morning, the idea being we send the animal’s spirit to rise with the early sun.
I approached my mother cautiously while she was washing clothes in a basin.
“Ah, so you did not die in your sleep as I thought.”
“No Mother, I’m alive and well.”
“Alive and well but hungry, you haven’t prepared a chicken.”
“I was thinking…” I said, “Perhaps I can still kill us a chicken.”
She continued washing, “You know the rules.”
“I was thinking I could kill one and then we invite his soul to stay the night, just till tomorrow morning.”
That made her laugh, “You’re a funny boy Leif.”
“Thank you, you do say that often.”
“It’s a shame you’re only funny when you’re trying to get out of work.”
“I’m sorry, you do say that often.”
She managed to keep a straight face, “Go grab your Father’s fishing rod and be back before dark.”
I gave in.

My father’s shed always felt ominous. As a small child, it felt like I was walking into the jaws of an iron monster, sharp and rusted farming tools jutted out of the walls like ruined teeth. At the very back was his harpoon, unused rusted as the rest of the farming equipment. He was still at sea at that time, hunting a very different beast to a whale. As I walked past it, I felt somehow ashamed by its disuse. I thought of me and my two brothers playing with our pretend harpoons, one would be the whale spurting water of our mouths while the others chased him down with sticks. None of are whalers now, least of all me I thought as I plucked my mighty weapon from its scabbard- a crooked fishing rod. Fishermen may lie about the size of fish they catch to their wives, but that is only because they are jealous of the whaling men who can scarcely measure the size of their catch with three arms lengths. If I could travel back to that moment I would have dropped the rod and ran away with the harpoon to find some wayward vessel and live out my dreams…of course instead I did what my mother told me.

“Take the mule,” my mother cried as she hung up clothes on the washing line. I whistled for for him and off we went. The mule trotted ahead, he knew the way well. He didn’t have a name, my father didn’t want us to get attached in case we had to eat him when times were bad. He was over thirty years old and still didn’t he have a name. We wandered through weed ridden farmland, that turned into rolling hills, which then became crueller in character until they were craggy mountains – where nothing grows but a healthy respect for mother nature. Up and up we climbed, out of the valley which our house sat in. The mule was fitter than me despite his age and wasn’t slowed by the terrain. Maybe he thought that if we didn’t catch any fish by nightfall that we would eat him. He looked back suspiciously as if reading my mind.
“Don’t worry I would never eat a dear a friend,” I reassured him, “Especially not one as old and chewy as you.” With a snort he trotted away. We reached the summit of our climb and I took a rest.

Though I had no idea at the time, those few moments I spent on the mountain top would be a final farewell to my childhood. Looking down to my house I could just barely see a human figure in our garden, my mother. She was surrounded by radiant white sheets that blew in the wind, they lit up her blonde hair which humbly danced with all the trees and bushes around despite outshining them all. What a beautiful scene, she could have been Venus herself in that moment.

I reminisced about the clothesline. That was the same clothesline I used to swing back and forth on, I used to love that. I remember many a summer day spent being pushed back and forth by my brothers. Too big and too old for that now. Funny, I guess one day I simply let go of that clothesline and never grabbed hold of it again. The exact moment of that final farewell is lost in a vague blur.

On the contrary, the final farewell with my mother is a very exact moment – it was that very moment on the mountain top. She finished hanging the washing, walked inside, and I would never see her again. I question whether on some level I knew this was goodbye because all the while I wanted to shout and wave like a child – but I resisted and remained silent. I will always be grateful to myself for this, it would have tarnished a comforting memory which I have replayed many times in the ceaseless theatre within my skull. If you were to pry open the red curtains that cover my brain, I doubt you could dissect this memory from me without tearing out the whole stage.

The mule whinnied to get a move on and with a yawn I passed over onto the other side.


Part 1 of 9 >

The Eagle

The ship’s deck was especially quiet, Old Captain Cohen watched the night sky. He studied the stars and made a note of their positions. No romantic notions entered his mind as he completed the task mechanically. What is special about them anyway? The stars have always been above, Cohen reasoned, and they always will be. They had guided his ship the Great Gnesher for many winters now, shipping their cargo from one side of the world to the other and for that Cohen was grateful. But, he mused, horoscopes were for fools and star-crossed lovers.

The first mate William Kidd was posted at the helm for the night.
“Keep your eyes open Kidd, don’t crash into another iceberg or I’ll leave you marooned on it this time.”

Kidd remained silent, keeping his eyes on his course. Captain Cohen, satisfied with the boy’s submission was turning to leave when Kidd made sudden eye contact with him. His black eyes absorbed the light around them, wide and utterly focused on him like an eagle’s on its prey. The Cohen’s ratlike soul, that hide underneath the bravado and cruelty, panicked as he scurried back to his quarters. I’ll find some trumped-up charge to punish him for tomorrow, Cohen decided.

Cohen undressed and nestled into bed. His sleep was restless and full of nightmares. When Cohen woke early the next morning and got out of bed, he immediately thought he was still dreaming as those predatory eyes emerged out of the darkness once again. It was Kidd.

Cohen demanded the meaning of the intrusion which Kidd happily explained.

“A mutiny?” Cohen asked with a squeak in his voice.

“Yes Cohen, the crew took a vote and you’re walking the plank.”

“You know what buddy, there is no mutiny, I quit!”

Kidd shook his head, “We already mutinied you can’t quit.”

“I just did.”

“Grab your heathen candle and get out,” said Kidd. As a warning, he sliced one of his long curls with the tip of his sword.

Cohen spat on the floor at his feet but cooperated and grabbed the menorah. “You know I don’t even want to be captain anymore, you can be the captain like I care!”

Kidd felt disgusted at his jovial nature – not everything is a joke – though it became clear from his jitters that it was the product of a complete nervous breakdown. They marched up to the deck while Cohen sniffed back tears. The crew jeered at him, though he managed to keep a grim face of dignity. Cohen kept his chin up, walked out on the plank and looked out towards the calm sea.

Unfortunately for Cohen he had the gravest weakness a sailor can possess: knowing how to swim. Desperately he prayed for a storm, a typhoon or even a shark. Anything to bring a quick death. He prayed to all the gods he had worshipped. The gods were silent – only the gruff voice of a stranger answered with a shout from behind, “Mozel tof, you bastard!”

A kick to his behind sent him flying through the air in a somersault that seemed to last an eternity until he hit the almighty ocean with a splash. Disorientated, Cohen struggled in the inky darkness before rising to the surface. The ship was already moving too fast for him to grab his aged hands onto. It sailed off into the distance. The smaller it grew on the horizon the smaller his hope became. “Maybe the crew will have a change of heart,” said Cohen to himself but could not help doubt creep into his voice. He pictured the men in his mind but could only imagine their bloody backs as he whipped them into discipline or the top of their heads as they looked to the ground, not one brave enough to meet his eyes – except for Kidd with his demon eyes glowed like hot coals and who’s fiery gaze could melt steel. Kidd wouldn’t have a change of heart -even if he managed to float on these gentle waves for an eternity, Cohen knew that with certainty.

“Perhaps a friend on board will let a lifeboat slip or even a crate to rest on,” Cohen said with newfound spirit. But once again, his imagination failed him, Cohen could picture the man sneaking across the deck to Cohen’s aid but not the face of his friend. Just one face Cohen demanded from himself, but he was simply incapable he could not form a single face that would plausibly help him or even one that he enjoyed looking at. Not just on board the ship either, but across the whole world he struggled to remember a single friend. He had pushed all of them away, betrayed them, or simply ignored them in his arrogance -blind to the kindness of strangers which he had rejected. And now no one was there help him. Cohen felt the guilt in his heart which he had carried for so long, it’s weight seemed unbearable to him now.
“Let this pain hold me beneath the sea!” he shouted but no merciful smiting was given.

The Great Gnesher was a pale dot on the horizon, barely recognisable. Cohen thrashed in despair, she passed over the horizon leaving only the afterglow of her white sails which faded soon after. It was hopeless. A watery grave waited for him. It would wait for him through all his screaming fits, tantrums, and sobs. Nothing would avail that cold mistress the sea from absorbing his floundering matter. Every trace of his existence would be cast irretrievably across the seven seas: his flesh stripped by the scale and claw – his bones whet to nothing and lost forever in the shifting sands.

A hot prickling sensation rolled down from his neck to the bottom of his spine, the sun was at its meridian and shone down harshly on his balding head.. Teeth clenched, he refused to give up. Cohen kept his eyes stuck fast to the exact point on the horizon where the ship had disappeared. Determined to the point of becoming entranced, his focus on maintaining a bearing became a paranoia. He tried to resist it – reassuring himself that he was self-correcting accurately to counteract being swayed by the waves – but the doubt lingered. Cohen was distraught, and he didn’t even know the purpose of keeping the bearing. An illusion of control, he concluded but could not bring himself to forget the idea. It continued to torment him. After all the landscape was entirely identical.

The bare ocean landscape had attracted him the sailing life in the first place. The lifestyle was clean and fresh, the sea air seemed to clean of all the hate and anger which had grown on him like craggy barnacles. Cohen could become anyone he wanted to. Throughout his life, he had been known as Artemis the Egyptian, Quivver the Frenchman, and lastly Cohen the Jew – though he had been born an Oliver in the port city of Liverpool, England. His mother had raised him alone and had told many a story about his father, he arrived on a ship from a far off land, spotted his mother from the wharf, and fallen in love in that instant – due to his sheer handsomeness she fainted and fell into the water, and she woke up cradled in his arms, he having rescued her… That much was consistent but his name, accent and nationality changed on every telling. Knowing not who he was or from whence he came, little Oliver fell victim to his mother’s tall tales and his identity became as fluid as the ocean he was now stranded in. How he wished he could be taken in his mother’s arms again. He was Cohen now, not Oliver, and he had no mother to yearn for.

“Oh come here Oliver, you silly boy,” his mother’s voice spoke clear as day. Cohen turned wildly but found no one.

“Who said that?” demanded Cohen, “A siren whore? You stinking sea witch present yourself!”

His rant was a weak attempt to distract him from the real fear that his mind, not a sweet siren, was playing tricks. Cohen realised suddenly his foolishness but it was too late – he had lost his bearing. The marker was gone, as was the mental stability it had brought. Spinning around in circles his eyes scurried from left to right, navigating his maze: a flat plain trapped between the endless bare sea and the eternal blue sky. In any case that couldn’t have been Mother, Cohen reasoned, she had never talked to him in such a loving manner before. The voice drew out memories. His childhood had been painted in bruises and blood, by various stepfathers. Their easel* was a belt, their brush an open hand, and the canvas his pale young cheeks and buttocks. His mother watched and simply let her various lovers take out their frustrations after a long day of work, an act that hurt Cohen more than the attacks ever could. He wept.

Wave crests whisper to him from below him, “Don’t cry, my love. You know the way out.” Cohen looked to the dark depths to see a nymph-like figure swimming below, she turned to face him and it was wife. Naked and twirling in the darkness below. She smiled at him and opened her mouth to speak. “Hannah…” he whispered in disbelief. Her words came in air bubbles, spluttering and choking though they retained a certain eloquence, as they breached the surface, “Join me. Join me, down here. I miss you so much, it was you who I needed all along.” Cohen’s first instinct was to spit at his wife, or the filthy adulterer as he called her among the other sailors of the Gnesher. The phantasm had yet again taken the image of a woman who had betrayed him. Cohen declined the invitation and shook his head with determination but still she flirtatious danced and caressed herself. “Down here you needn’t cry, you needn’t sob, you needn’t breathe another breath that would only lead you to more suffering. Come sleep.” Still, Cohen declined for a reason unknown to him. A hand reached out from the dark around her waist and pulled her into an embrace with a shadowy figure. It was William Kidd, his vacuousness eyes were unmistakable. Hannah beckoned him to rescue her with her soft brown eyes. Wrath and lust waltzed in nether. He told himself it was a sense of honour that kept him from diving below to take the easy way out. But really it was because it would have meant giving up hope that his real wife still loved him. He would never admit this to himself, hidden under layers of his mind it was a hidden rip that flowed beneath his consciousness. The spectral lovers morphed into a single monstrosity which grew scaled fins on its assortment of twisted limbs and disappeared back into the dark depths.

Cohen admitted to himself the siren had been tempting, a pleasurable escape from this hell, the ringed horizon he was stuck in may as well be on Neptune. He looked for any landmark which his gaze could grasp to and rest his attention upon. Instead, his attention wandered haphazardly. The brain is a device for solving problems and if it can’t find any, it will make some. And so Cohen’s boredom forced him to turn inward. Preemptively he braced for the gut punches his journey down this path would throw. So many lost opportunities, his family that he would never see again and who would be happy of the fact. The wife who he would never be able to apologise to for all the pain he caused. The lies he had spun around their relationship had been such a waste of time and eventually they both were strangled by them. His escape to the sea provided Cohen with a clean slate, where he could build himself up again the supreme liar he thought he was, he was not a miser with a failed marriage sailing the Great Gnesher but a Jewish captain of limitless charm and cruelty. But a lowly rat is a rat whether he sleeps with fleas or under silk, Cohen thought. He clutched his chest and felt the admittance tear a great hole in his heart: his greatest fault had always been pretending to be someone greater than he was. His life had been a tumble -crashing down one disastrous step at a time. Here he was sitting sorry at the very bottom of that pit.

The sun began to set. Golden streams of light hit Cohen’s teary eyes and he wondered if it would be the last time he felt the sun’s tender kiss on his brow. In desperation, he stretched his head as far as he could trying to drink in as much as he could of that last precious sip. Night fell with quiet melancholy. Never had he felt so hopeless and helpless, the sea would not part if he whispered lies to the white foam caps that floated by. No control could be wrestled from the tides, his life was at its nadir and could not sink any lower.

Cohen went limp, closed his eyes, and let his head descend back into the water. For so long he had been fighting, stealing, lying because he was scared – because he thought it was simply the way to survive. And now it was time to pay his dues and so he finally let go and simply laid on his back. Expecting to sink, Cohen instead found himself supported as if by an unseen hand supporting him, swaying him calmly. His mood began to change.

The benefit of hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere to go but up. And Cohen felt lifted. There was no reason to pretend anymore, the ship was gone, the world was gone, and all the people with their judging eyes. It didn’t matter if he went by Cohen now, or Oliver as was known before, or any other name, he was just himself in that moment. This pure and fetterless joy was completely alien to him, Cohen felt he was in the presence of something infinitely gentle. The waves caressed him and he let his mind wander with the tides. His eyelids opened of their own accord, a thousand candles lit flickered in the dark.

“Oh, the stars, the stars,” Cohen smiled. They had always been consistent in his shifting world where his surroundings, his companions, and even his identity were in flux. Out here they danced in unobstructed glory, away from the sot fuming fires and smog of ship and city. The waves had subsided and the now flat sea acted as a mirror for the heavens above.The horizon melted away as sky and sea became one. His world was a satin tapestry pierced with glittering diamonds. The stars which had guided his Gnesher for so many years took on a new life. Flying among the constellations he saw his guides by his wing. Cygnus, the swan – her elegant neck stretched across the cosmos. Corvus, the crow – his watchful eye keeping vigil over the world. Cohen weaved past them. His guide was the king of all, a greater hunter than Orion, more beautiful than Andromeda: Aquila, the eagle. Aquila’s wings were of such enormity and grace that Cohen was drawn under their shadow, spinning and rolling like a tide pulling back out to sea.

Cohen laughed, “Why did I ever fear you? Never did you leave my side, always watching and waiting, I thought you were my hunter- little did I know that it was from love that you stared.”

Not only love, but love despite. Despite his lies, his flaws, everything wrong he had committed and all those he was yet to commit. Under the eagle’s gaze he was filled with courage- not the type of courage to dive once more into the breach, but the simple act of loving despite. Cohen loved music, loved stories, loved to dance, loved to fuck, but these were all very easy things to love. His challenge, which he met bravely, was to love all those who wronged him.

He found love for his family that had abandoned him, his unfaithful wife, and even for William Kidd. All at once a great burden slipped off his back. A great force gripped his chest, Cohen reasoned that Aquila had found him worthy and swooped down upon him from the heavens. Tucked under the eagle’s cradled wings – Cohen smiled, nestled under a starlight quilt, and slept.