Strickland’s Glen

Photo @ Raina Flynn Naidoo / Eilís Phillips – Strickland’s Glen, Bangor, N.I.

The waves crashed up upon the rocks in a rushing swell. The sea was an open wound bleeding foam, the sky a kind of gunmetal. I was blown along the coastal way by gusts, questioning my choices. Hands soggy, my hat in my eyes, I kept walking along the path and tried to greet the very few dog walkers I met along the way, whose pups galloped, their coats shining with rhinestone beads, the drops of water they had collected from the journey.

“She’s wile fresh!” Jim called to me as we passed. His dog, Buster, an old chocolate Labrador, squinted up at me and shivered. Dewdrops cascaded away in all directions, discarded gems.

“Where are ye for on a day like that?” He asked me as I petted the dog.

“The Glen for a bit,” I said, “Just to get out.”

“Some day for it! Hah, we need our heads examined!” We both laughed.

“I’ll see you round – take care now!” I watched them trot away round the corner, that bend where you can suddenly see the whole bay as the cliffs fall away beneath, and the golf course rears into view.

The bay was choppy and split open by dark rocks. A few gulls coasted along on the rough waters but most were dark shapes wheeling overhead. I walked out to the crags. I stood a long time, my coat pulled as tight round me as it would go. The path was empty; there were no more walkers in sight. All the better, I thought. It was about 3.30pm and the sun was sinking. I stood at the water’s edge and brought out the parcel, wrapped in silver tissue paper. It was heavy and cold. I ran a finger over the mother-of-pearl and thought about opening the clasp, but I knew my instructions. A sigh escaped my body as I held the thing in my hands and gazed out at the waves. Now was the time though. I pushed my arm up high. I hurled the box into the bay as hard as I could. It was caught with two pale hands. It was accepted by the water. A shudder cascaded over my shoulders and I turned swiftly.

Behind me lay the old Glen. I was facing it now, the road empty still. The little river marked the entrance and wound its way through the mass of tangled branches and a thick carpet of mulchy leaves and twigs. Shapes rustled in its folds. The wind caressed it. I walked towards the entrance and became aware, as I did every time, of the voices. I saw them only as patterns, not sounds. They were the sounds the trees made without speaking. They were not the sounds of the wind, or the birds or foraging animals, not the sound of the river burbling, or gulls overhead. Not the crashing of the waves or the barking of dogs or the tread of my feet, or even of my own breath. They had a pattern completely unlike any other I had seen in my mind’s eye. The first time I noticed it was as I had been leaving the Glen. I think I became aware of it because suddenly all the other sounds fell still. I could see no other vivid patterns, or shapes. Only this, a signal, repeated over and over again with variations. To see it written it might look like Hebrew or cuneiform. If I stood very still, and listened closely, I would start to see the pattern emerge. It moved across my field of vision like morse code. It was boxy; formed from an alphabet of white squares with black dots and dashes. Some boxes were broken, some underlined. It was continuous, but never uniform.

Once inside the Glen I followed the voices up through the winding path which twisted and turns as the river does. At the place where the branches completely overhang the path I stopped. I saw the small waterfall churning to my left, and the little bench up ahead. I waited. Presently a shape appeared. It flickered in and out of vision, not like a neon light, or a bathroom bulb, more like fireflies through smoke. A man with wide eyes and skin covered in cloth like bark became manifest, obscured in a kind of haze. He had long hair the colour of hazelnuts and his forehead came to sharp points at the temples. I came towards the bench and sat close to him.

“I found that box under the bench in Jenny Watts,” I said to him. He only nodded and smiled.

“Why are they compelled to return these lost things? How do you make them do it?” I asked him.

“I am an arbiter of balance” he said to me, still smiling. He looked slightly sidewise at me, with eyes like the ivy, emerald, shot through with silver. “Only certain boons can be called back, the things that are made with a set of hands: gifts stolen from broken love affairs, human things. They must come back.” His voice was a song. He turned to face the woods again.

“Why does the sea take them?”

He put a long thin hand up to his face then, as if stroking an imaginary beard. He was mocking me, but kindly. He had been my liaison for several months now and we had grown strangely fond of one another. We had established a confidence, a rhythm of speaking and listening and knowing one another.

“And so, the sea. I would love to see it again. I was once of it.”

With each meeting it seemed I gained a new piece of his story, as valuable to me as the other gift I had received each time we met.

“What happened to make you as you are, not of the sea then?”

He looked at me and became forlorn, a playfulness melted into pathos in his forest eyes.

“The winds changed…you’re part human, I’m sure you can understand that feeling, that experience, of change. It happens with us, with nature, but there is a ritual to it. An inevitability. Cycles within cycles of change, and continuity.”

“Human change is inevitable and diverse too, just like that.” I said.

“So it is,” he said smiling and nodding as if caught out, “so it is.”

I shivered with the cold and shuffled nearer to him. His bark gave off a heat, a kind of glow, a fire without burning. His voice changed as he sniffed the air, he was paying close attention to it, he gave me my instructions.

“An old guitar. Mahogany, Maple, beautiful woods, hand crafted. Left in the bus station, in the female toilets. You’ll find it in the last stall if you wait until the last train arrives from Portadown 6 days from now.”

“Alright,” I said. And I wrote the information down in my little book, the pages bound open and shut with a length of twine and a thick leaf.

“But I can’t give that to the water.” I said. “That doesn’t seem right”.

He smiled, still looking out at the Glen.

“Bring it here. To me. The sea can’t have everything you know. Sometimes, we are rewarded too. Things of wood must come home. Heavy things of metal, the sea takes. Like your modern ships.”

“The sea has always taken ships,” I said, thinking of my grandfather then, and he seemed to feel my mood shift suddenly because he placed a bark-like hand on my knee gently, and said to me the closing words of our own ritual.

“You are the one who loves the sea and woods together, who sees the trees speak. Are you ready to receive your reward?”

I nodded and smiled. We faced the woods. He spoke something in his own language which came out only as patterns which floated away into the air. In those moments I always felt a kinship with him that I could not find elsewhere, among humans. I watched the patterns. I felt that longing that struck me everytime I came to the woods to see them speak, that desire to be there always, to become a part of something finally, and not be a separate thing alone.

I can’t recount what the trees said. Their speech is not narrative. It can only be felt. It is an intuition. It is a gift I can feel upon my skin which crackles when the wind changes. Sometimes I have come to know things no one else knows, because the trees have told me. Their patterns follow me everywhere I walk in the forest of my life, down to where the sea breaks itself upon the land, and heals again with each great thrust.

A heavy dusk had descended on the Glen, as he reached forward to grasp my hand; his was as light and firm as a thundercloud. I saw the woods at once light up as if the Glen had been draped in a diaphanous sheet of starlight.

And the trees sang.

#34 The Lighthouse Men

Image courtesy of prozac1 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

ID-100230971

A face has been cut into the rock on the walls of the lighthouse, battered by waves since before my grandmother was alive. She would stoop a little once we reached the spot, and run her hands over the rough surface of stone, when the tide was out, and the sea was calm. As we stood watching the moon rise over the rocks she would say to me,

“This is where I’ll always remember him, just like the first time I saw him, standing tall under a winter dusk, and all the stars coming out. He always smelled so good to me then, how I drank him in! He was warm and wild. Standing here, it’s as if I can still feel the salt from the wind off the sea all caught up in his thick, black hair.”

We crossed over to our sitting spot, and there I laid a blanket. On the hard ground of the jetty we ate cheese and pickle sandwiches. My grandmother stretched her shins out in front of her and caressed them roughly with her hands as if trying to rub the stiffness out.

“You don’t believe in curses do you, Herrie?” she asked me. The wind was whistling over the cliffs, making the jetty boards creak, and the gulls squawk and beat their wings.

“Do you, Herrie?” she repeated.

I never answered her, preferring instead to just let her talk. Let her have her visits, three, four times a year to the lighthouse. She came here to relive the same experiences whenever the seasons turned. Now, the wind had slivers of ice in it.

My grandmother looked out to sea. I waited for her to begin the old story I had heard since I was a child. This was how she began.

“He was the lighthouse keeper. He had beautiful seashell eyes, grey-green eyes with flashes of silver. They were shot through like marble, with those thin, silver trails. He had a boat he would take out, and would catch crabs and little fishes to sell when he could. His hands were rough from pulling on the ropes, wet and heavy from the saltwater. I used to bring him a salve I made myself, full of fat and beeswax. At first he scowled at me when I put it on him, but after a while, you know, I think he liked it. He didn’t have anyone. His father had died years ago, and as for other family, aah, I don’t know that he had any. He was gruff and didn’t talk much, and I thought he was the most sophisticated man in the whole town. He was older than me, by a good stretch, and I thought that made him sophisticated. He always looked like he had seen something of the world, things that he didn’t care to talk about, and I liked that. I was entirely enchanted by the mystery of him.

“That night I saw him, he was down by the water and struggling with something. I ran over to him and wanted to help but once he heard my shoes clacking on the wet boards he whirled round and waved me away. Do you know what he had caught in a net that night?”

I did know, but I waited silently for her to continue. She swallowed, and swept a long, steel strand of hair across her face which the wind had caught and played with.

“Well, the thing bit him.” She said.

“I saw it jump out of the net and snatch at him, and he cried out and tried to beat the thing back. Now you know that I’m tall for woman, Herrie, and heaven knows I was stronger then, I went rushing to him. I took a plank of broken wood and I beat at that dark thing until it let him go, and slipped back down into the water. But, before it went, I looked into its eyes, and it saw me. They were like great, white, shining saucers with burning red coals at their heart and behind the redness, a blackness. A darkness without any kind of life at all. It saw me as me as it slipped back down into the tide, with the water gushing into that awful gaping mouth.

“I half-hauled him into the lighthouse, but when I got him to bed, I saw that the wound in his leg wasn’t bleeding at all. He saw it too, and he looked up at me with these sad eyes and pushed my hand away. I tried to put my salve on it but he told me that there wasn’t any use trying. I just didn’t understand what he meant by that.

“Over the next few hours, with me holding him, he changed, of course. I watched it happen. I couldn’t get my head around it, but he knew all about it because it he was a lighthouse man. All I could do was to try and make him comfortable, but it was hard to watch him twitching underneath the blanket of the bed. I loved his face so much.”

At this, my grandmother put her hand up to her face, she covered first her eyes, and then her mouth. Then she spoke again,

“Before the change took hold, he had shown me a book made by someone in his family. It was the old lore I suppose, barely legible, of the lighthouse men. That thing must have taken his father too I suppose. He never had children, or so he thought, but you know what nature is like.”

Tonight, the telling of the story seemed to be affecting my grandmother more than usual. In the moonlight I could see the trails her tears had just taken down her cheeks. She said,

“I took him down to the water, like he had asked me. As I said, I was a strong woman. Still, it was so hard because my heart was broken and I wanted to jump in there after him. Instead, because it was what he wanted, I let him just fall out of my arms into the sea. I barely recognised him. He had become a sleek thing, with a long mouth full of sharp teeth, jagged like rocks, like razors. But his eyes never turned, never became like the one that bit him, because in his heart, he couldn’t be evil. He had a strong soul, and it stayed with him the whole time he was changing and even afterwards. I saw it there in his eyes as I carried him. I couldn’t hold back my tears, knowing there would always be a bit of himself that was left inside.

“He sank out of my sight. My hands were slippery from holding him and I cried all night, and into the next day. When my father found me I was soaked through. They put me to bed for months, and I refused to speak to anybody. Now, here I am, an old woman, and here you are, and I think, out there somewhere, he is too.”

Perhaps because there was something a little different about the way she had told the story that night, I asked her for the first time,

“Did he drown grandma?”

My grandmother just laughed. “Men like that can’t drown,” she said. “Neither could you, if you went into the water.” She looked at me so fiercely then that it made me uncomfortable.

“Promise me something,” she said, taking one of my hands and placing it in hers. “Promise me you’ll never take your father down here.” She gave my hand such a squeeze.

“Okay,” I said, but she worried me, there was something eerie about her that night.

“I love you Herrie.” She said.

We hugged for a while, and she patted my hair, and her tears fell in warm droplets on my cold cheek.

“Now go on to the car,” she said, finally.

“I want to watch the moon rise up over the lighthouse.”

The moon had climbed while we had been talking. Tonight, it was about as large and white as I had ever seen it. I stood watching her for a while as she made her way towards the lighthouse. Her hair flew out behind her, and she raised her hands to catch the wind, making her shawl billow around her tall, frail body, but as I watched her, my vision was torn away towards a shining object in the sea. I thought I saw something flash amongst the waves, two bright orbs of iridescent light shone like other moons in the water. In an instant the orbs had slipped out of sight, making a smacking sound as they vanished.

I saw now that my grandmother had lowered her arms and was crouching down towards the water’s edge. I turned to go back to her, but then I had a sudden change of heart. It had only been an old wives’ tale she had told me after all to cover up some love affair of her youth. The thing I had seen in the water must only have been a trick of the moonlight. I decided to leave her in peace.

Then, I heard the splash.

When I turned back there was no one at the base of the lighthouse. I ran as fast as I could down the jetty. I called her name and gazed out into the water, now rough and rolling in. Somewhere out to sea I thought I saw a shape being dragged away into the darkness of the water. I put my hand on the rock of the lighthouse wall to steady myself, but the sharpness of the rock snagged my skin. I pulled my hand away, I was shaking all over; there in the lighthouse wall I saw it, the face peering out at me with eyes fathomless and empty, utterly dwarfed by a long, gaping mouth like a void, and within it, the rows upon rows of jagged teeth, like rocks, like razors.