‘Persephone’ – Robert Minhinnick

 

Vipers

Black pantherskins. That’s what she saw.

In broken sleep while Ffresni sang to herself, while the child murmured through the hours before dawn and the shadow of the moon-and-stars mobile played over her bed, Nia dreamed of snakes. The bodies of black vipers.

These had been brought out by the weeks of hot weather. So much had been encouraged into the open, adders and orchids unseen for years. Orchid blood on the chalk. Adders dark in her delirium.

Her dream was of vipers. Two fighting snakes were wrapped around one another, two black vipers with tracings of diamonds on their backs, black diamonds on black snakes. Intent and vicious, those vipers.

An Eel in the Fist

Millions of gallons a day, said Nia. And that’s not to mention the other resurgences. But where does the water come from?

Some of it riverwater leakage, said Ike. Some of it springwater. Vexes the experts. Hey, I love that word. Vex! So I’m not ashamed to say I’m not sure…

Hallelujah, said Nia. Magic water. Or, water is magic.

I just like the mystery, said Skye. Please don’t explain.

We all have to know about this, said Ike. Life and death…You know that Skye.

Of course. I’m taking it seriously. Yes! But I want photographs of somewhere that’s never been shot before. We all know safety’s vital.

What I meant, said Nia, was that there’s enough water. That’s for sure. Six million gallons a day usually? And still a lot even in this dry time. That’s what I thought when I was in the caving club at college. There’s a world we don’t see. And it’s real. Supporting us. We’d be nothing without it.

They’d reached the new harbour. Serene was ahead holding Ffresni’s hand. The pair were finishing a peanut-butter-flavoured ice cream Ike had bought in the fairground. Extra-crunch.

Below on the boardwalks of the jetty a party of anglers was unloading their catch. Already they had the harbour scales outside, plus a measuring tape. Two of the party were holding an enormous fish between them. One of them in waders was putting something in the fish’s mouth.

Think…No. Yes. That’s a conger, said Ike. Jesus Christ.

They moved down steps to the new quay. Nia told Serene not to bring Ffrez near.

Where’d you catch that? asked Ike.

One of the men looked up. Spat. He was adjusting the cigar he’d positioned in the eel’s mouth.

On the reef. Been fishing there thirty years.

Well known, said Ike. Perfect for eels.

Tell us about it, said the fisherman, I’ve been hearing people talk all my life about one like this. In the end we reeled it in. So far. Then I stopped the boat and we walked it in. Walked it in, I tell you. Top of the reef. Above sea level! It was out of the water, the slimy bastard. Unreal.

I’ve been over there once, said Ike. There’s that lagoon. And the ship’s boiler, you can see it from shore. When the sun’s on it. Copper, I think. And those caves…

Lot more besides, said the man. My son’s a diver and says it’s a maze of tunnels under the reef. All unmapped. Perfect for eels. Too narrow for a man…

What about a woman? asked Skye.

Welcome to it, love. Need to be a skinny piece. No turning round. Once you’re in you’re in.

He and the other angler now had the conger gaffed and chain-hung. Seen this way it was bigger. Maybe ten feet long.

Look at this cunt. Might be forty years old, Teg says. He’s over in the office now…

Surprising, said Ike.

The man paused. Gave me a fuckin surprise, I can tell you. We got the daddy here. We got the king. Well, the queen. I’ll open its mouth for you. Don’t worry, we’ve finished it off. Can lose fingers, see. Blokes I’ve known. Or hands.

Smooth, isn’t it, said Nia.

Look at those teeth. Jam it open, I will. Jaws on that? Like a cobra. Dislocates, see. Dislocates itself. My son’s bringing the other camera. Should be here by now…Be in the papers, this will…This is the daddy.

Maybe female, said Skye.

Well, yeah. This is female. So big, see. Big ones are always…

Yes, said Nia. I’ve heard the stories…But never thought…Ooh, look at those teeth…

Like the limestone on the reef, said Ike. Daggers.

Just when we copped on, said the fisherman, Teg was talking about the weever fish that’s around now. Hot weather, see. Now, they can nip. But nothing like this thing might.

Nia had noted the resurgence of anglers in the town. Yes, it was the extraordinary weather, she thought. And remembered John Vine talking about garfish. Those green garfish on a barbecue near The Horns. Sucking a green bone. Caught in the eelgrass, John Vine had said.

What’ll you do? asked Ike.

Sell it. There’s no fishmonger around here with a slab big enough. And the scales is too small here. So supermarket boys. Not that eel is popular. Nobody wants eel. Ever bought eel in a restaurant? Would you eat that thing?

Why d’you catch it then? asked Nia.

The fisherman ignored her. Don’t worry. It’ll go somewhere. They’ll cut it. Some kind of fish stew. French name. So we have to take pictures.

The man had put his balled fist into the eel’s mouth. Charcoal-grey, that eel. Cold as a lid of ice on a dune slack. Cold as water from The Shwyl. Blood had run out of the conger’s mouth. There was a pool of blood on the boardwalk.

With her forefinger Nia traced the eel’s skin pattern. There was a glistening brown mixed into the grey and black. Its belly was paler, sulphuric yellow. Or like bark, she thought. Bark of a young tree. More intricate, that pattern the closer she looked into it. Infinite, she thought.

Wish I’d had my bolster, said the angler. Just sharpened it on the grindstone. Could have done with it on the reef.

Something…mythological about this, whispered Skye.

Supermarket? asked Nia. Get an eel in the fist and that’s money.

Fist? asked the fisherman. This could have taken my arm off. Still counting fingers.

I mean money’s hard to keep hold of. Like an eel. But this is an enormous eel. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Fuckin right, it’s big. Maybe the biggest. But it was always there. Waiting. It’ll be a YouTube, the boy’ll see to that. Be all over Facebook. Filmed it, see. Till it got a bit hairy. We needed every hand free…

The man considered.

Teg’s got a lump hammer he uses for sharks. Fuckin four-pounder. Lovely heft. Or fathead, even. Ever seen a real fathead? That’s cod to you.

I know, said Nia.

That one the hurricane blew on to the golf course. See that? Showed people how big cod can get. That was on telly.

I was away travelling then, said Ike.

Thornbacks can get biggish, the man continued. Smooth hound the same. Course, that’s your small shark. Sea’s full of small sharks. Small sharks trying to be big sharks.

But this isn’t a shark, said Skye.

Dogfish get big. But never like this. Wait till they see the film in the pub…George’ll put it up on screen. Framed picture of me and the boys too. With that thing. I’ll make sure of that.

How far you think those tunnels go? asked Ike.

No knowing, is there. Reef seems to be a real mess of gwlis. It’s a maze down there. Christ, where’s that fuckin camera…

Wouldn’t want to come face to face with this, said Nia.

Give you a kiss, love. Pucker up. Nah, they’re more scared of you. That’s what people say, anyway.

Well…said Nia.

But you’re right. Not for me either, love. Wouldn’t fancy it at all. Too many corners for me, down in the coldwater coral. I’d rather go shopping than dive under that reef.

You get used to it, said Ike.

Well, Teg better be back really soon. Or this fucker will have smoked his cigar.

The Flying Fox

Isaac Pretty scooped away sand for his shoulder and hip. But he didn’t lie down. Instead he threw another driftwood knuckle on the fire. Then a spar, after cracking it in half. He could smell the salt in the wood. Sea pollen, Nia called it.

Some people, he said, referred to it as demolition. Others, the scrap business. Yeah, I was a scrappie. A tatterman. Big things. Enormous. Once I worked on an aeroplane. All that insulation, all that plastic. Up in smoke. Incredible. Couldn’t do it now…

No, said a muffled voice in the dark. It might have been a question.

And a ship once, not far from here. Maybe one thousand tonnes, that ship. Where those scrapyards go down to the sands. Orchard Levels they call it. And we were taking that ship apart. Eight of us unscrewing, unbolting. Unriveting when we could. Boy, the size of those wrenches we were using. But if the rivets had seized we’d cut.

And four, just four, with cutting gear. I loved the lance they taught me to use. Yeah, that oxyacetylene lance, its flame from yellow to invisible. That was when it was hottest. Could cut a man in half and no one would know. Yes, hottest when it cut through the thousand metal bits we needed to…dismantle. Down in the hold in the dark. It was a cave in there. Dripping, dank. A real cave, that hold.

Then I’d climb below the hold. Bilge sludge under my feet. Thick on the walls. Oh yeah, the cave under the cave. Those taps and pumps. We cut them all out. And just the eight of us, taking a ship apart. That oxy smell in my hair and clothes. And always in the air. Never got rid of it.

Sometimes it was just me. Down there, I mean. Weird shadows. But mainly pitch dark. And my own shadow in the spotlights. Just him and me. Like in this firelight.

And weird echoes. You know that hollow sound at the bottom of a ship? Sometimes I slept there to save money and time. Used to fall into my blankets, big suck of whisky, and it would be morning. Time to start all over again. With another slug if I could stomach it. I was at it by four. No, five most days. Because sometimes I had two sucks of that Jura. Yeah, always Jura. Thought it tasted of peatwater. And hot as hell, burn of a burn. Kept me alive. And music in the bilge. Deep under the deck with a stack of old cassette tapes. Ever hear the MC5? Hey, anyone? Out there?

No, said Skye’s voice.

Discovered the MC5 from this bloke who was with me on the oxy. Used to turn the tape to max and play one song over and over. Kick out the Jams, Motherfuckers. Heard it?

No, said Skye. Thank God.

Mad music. Madmen’s music. Just us down in the dark. In the bilge. Spotlights like I say giving these shadows and that song echoing off the metal walls. And me and this real head case, this real motherfucker, screaming down there in the dark. He was older than me. Sinbad they called him. He was a punk rocker, no, a real one, knocking on a bit, yeah, but his hair was still dyed manky red. Yeah, Sinbad. He was earning a fortune, must have been. Told me I was lucky to be working with him. Learning off him. Now I know that was true.

You know, sometimes it felt like we were a mile underwater. Just me and Sinbad. Us and the MC5. That Fred Sonic Smith, now there was a guitarist. Greatest recording studio ever, that hold. Fred would have loved it. His godalmighty racket bouncing off the bulkhead. Died of cancer, didn’t he?

Shame, said Skye’s voice from the dark.

Once, Sinbad and I went to the Red House. Think it’s closed now. The Red House?

No idea, said Skye’s voice.

Now Sinbad, he took his work seriously. But every now and then he’d fancy a break from routine. And Christ, you should have seen what he could put away. Got into an argument about music in the pub. Didn’t like it, did he? Other people’s bad music in public. Thought it said something about a man. Badge of honour. Like your soul was on display.

Probably got an iPod now, eh? murmured Skye.

If he’s still with us. But MC5? That says it all about Sinbad’s taste. Not a man to cross.

Obviously.

Glaswegian. Came from a place called Auchenshuggle. He spelled it for me. Born on the day the last tram ran. Never understood a word he said…

You were probably deaf.

Yeah. That was Sinbad. Piercings all over his face. His fishooks he called them.

Takes all sorts.

Just us with those lances. Cut you in half, those burning bars. Their invisible flames.

Charming, said Nia. What’s the word?

Catharsis? said Skye.

Don’t knock it, said Ike Pretty. Had to be done. I’d never used oxy before. Got the scars to prove it. Christ, we broke every rule. And one rivet at a time, remember. That’s when I got used to masks and breathing through tubes. How I learned not to be scared of the dark. And if you’d been in the bilge for two months with Sinbad you…

Sounds like a prison term, said Skye.

As I say, I learned. Never stopped. Then later, it turns out I’m in a cave in the Philippines, just looking, only looking, and the guide, a local kid, points out the flying foxes roosting in the roof.

Foxes? said Nia from the dark.

Kind of bat. Big buggers, those flying foxes. Very big. Wings like funeral crepe.

Won’t be any in…

No, course not. Might be bats, though. That’s normal for caves. Thick as soot, bats. And think of their shit. Thousands of years of batshit. But it all came back to me in that cave in the Philippines. The ship was called The Flying Fox. Sinbad’s ship. Don’t know why. Strange name for a ship, but it made me think…

About? asked Skye.

About how everything comes back, said Ike slowly. No matter how far it travels. Look, here’s me, back on The Caib. After I swore it wouldn’t happen…

But you had to go first? asked Nia. Didn’t you? And now you’ve been everywhere….

That’s why you’re invited, said Skye. We feel we’re in good hands…

Robert Minhinnick is a prize-winning poet, novelist, short story writer and essayist. He has won Wales Book of the Year and the Forward Poetry Prize. He has read at literary festivals around the world. His latest book is Diary of the Last Man.

‘Persephone’ is featured in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

Copyright © Robert Minhinnick, 2017. Image & Author Photo © Jo Mazelis, 2017.