“I don’t understand,” she said, gazing discontentedly around the churchyard, “why we always want to hold on to everything, regardless. We don’t even let our dead go, for God’s sake.”
I said nothing, I who had spent a long year trying to hold on to the living, and failing badly. I had an urn full of ashes in my wardrobe, and no idea, none, what to do with it: only that I couldn’t let it go.
Rowan was—well, sometimes I called her my favourite niece, sometimes my goddaughter. Neither was actually true, but she was the first child of old friends and she mattered to me more than blood, far more than belief.
She said, “I want a woodland burial, a woven wicker coffin, no marker. Just stick a tree on top of me and forget which one it was.”
“I could bury you at sea,” I said cheerfully. “Sewn into a hammock, with cannonballs at your feet to hold you down.”
“Hey. Can you actually do that?”
“Sure. I’d need a licence, and I was joking about the hammock, you have to have a coffin weighted with steel and concrete, but it’s doable if you want it.”
She thought about it, as we clambered over the stile into the ninety-acre field; then she shook her head. “Nah. I never did like boats that much. Or fish. Sorry, I know I’m a disappointment.”
“You are that. Trees it is, then. I can’t promise to forget where we plant you, but I’ll make sure your parents don’t put in a rowan.”
“That would be tacky,” she agreed. “Something to grow old and bent and hoary, please. No good for building boats. I don’t want you cutting me down for parts.”
“Pity. You’d make excellent planking: long and straight and lissome.”
I stuck my elbow out, as I used to do. Obligingly, she slipped her arm through mine as we plodged through heavy wet turf in patproof wellies. There was no beaten path between the stile and the sea-cliff. This was cow-pasture; we took a different route every time, veering around new pats and high-stepping over old ones. Even in wellingtons. Even so, there was a mid-point, a waymarker that was hard to avoid. From the stile to the sheepfold, from the fold to the sea: it was native, inherent, absolute. A given.
When she was little, the fold meant a break in our journey, a necessary pause while she clambered over dry stone walls and played king-of-the-castle on top of its walls, hide-and-seek within them, while we made up stories about wizards snared in lonely towers and the brave princesses who came to rescue them. In later years she’d join local kids and visitors in rowdy games of tag or kiss-chase where the fold was always home, safe ground.
Now that she was grown, now that I was far beyond rescuing and she wouldn’t dream of running from a kiss, she laid a hand on the upper coursework and said, “Someone’s been working on this.” Almost accusatory, as though it should properly have been left in the state of half-collapse that she remembered.
A sheepfold in a cow-pasture has no obvious purpose, and more enemies than time; but even so. “People do,” I said mildly. “Every now and then a lad gets interested, wants to know how to wall. There’s always a farmer willing to teach him. This is where they learn. Cows are always rubbing their arses on it, knocking stones off. Sometimes they bring down a whole corner, over time. Well, you know; you’ve seen it at its worst. Then it’s a job of work to put it back up again. But it does get done.” There hadn’t been sheep on this land for a hundred years or more, but the fold was here yet, blunt grey walls in a green field.
She grunted, a little sceptical, and leaned her own trim arse against a hip-high wall as if tempted to give it a nudge, see if she could knock off a coping-stone.
Her eyes on the horizon, she said, “Tell me about Bruce.”
“Tell you what about Bruce? You knew him all your life.”
She said, “Yeah, but I was a kid and he was an old man, and—well, you know. Not at all grandfatherly. He really didn’t want me in the yard, where I had to be watched all the time because of the tools, and―”
“And that took my eye off him and my mind off the work, and he didn’t like either of those, no. And he didn’t want you in the cottage either, because you were too loud and again, my eye off him. It wasn’t you as such, just kids in general. Just anyone in general, he didn’t much like me having friends around either.”
“Right. I didn’t really get that when I was little, but later I did. When I was a teen, I mean, and he still didn’t want me there.”
“And you still came, so bless you for that.”
And she came to his funeral too, by herself, which might almost have been her first truly adult act; and I might have seized the moment to say so, except that she pre-empted me. “It was toxic, though, wasn’t it? He was just controlling your life, and I don’t see how you could let him do that.”
Of course she didn’t. She was twenty, and free in ways that I had never been; and his being dead didn’t change a thing. I said, “Toxic maybe—but people say that about tomatoes, potatoes, just because they’re the same family as nightshade. Poison is as poison does; whole civilisations have been built on potatoes. Bruce was never easy, but he took a feral kid at risk of growing into pond scum, and he made something decent out of me. By his lights, and my own,” which in fairness were entirely of his making, indistinguishable. He’d trained me in more than joinery and sailcraft.
“Oh, you’re better than decent. You are. But even so. You shouldn’t ever have let him dominate you that way.”
“Sweetheart, I’m not even going to pretend I had a choice. That’s how dominance works; you don’t elect it, you don’t get to vote it down. And I remain grateful. Best thing that ever happened to me.”
“The only thing that ever happened to you, more like. You lived the life he chose, and you still do. His boatyard, his business. His cottage.”
“Mine, now. He took over my life, sure—when it wasn’t worth anything, except to him. He gave it value. He gave me everything; which is fair trade, it seems to me, for everything he took.”
She sniffed. “I still think he groomed you.”
“Of course he did. I was fifteen when he took me in. Nothing but clay, ready to be made into whatever he wanted. He was forty,” and the strength in his hands, in his will—I could shudder yet, just at the memory. “Twenty-five years, love, it’s a lethal distance. I never stood a chance.”
“That’s the distance between you and Josh,” she said, eyeing me a little sideways.
“It is—and between you and me, that too. But you were never clay. We took care of that. By the time you were fifteen, you were sharpened steel. As for Josh, well. I didn’t know him at fifteen. He came to me fully formed.” All of twenty, like herself: which was why she’d swallow the lie, because she believed it wholeheartedly of herself.
She nodded and stood up, ready to go on. Holding her hand out, not ready to go on without me.
“Not yet,” I said, smiling. Leaning on the wall of the fold. “Dusk is coming. Things are about to get noisy.”
She blinked, looking up a little wildly into the empty sky. “Oh—are they still here?”
“Not all of them; but Easter’s early this year, and they haven’t all gone. Still enough left to make a noise.”
“Oh, lovely . . . ”
She perched again beside me and we watched the sky, the sea, the boats, the horizon until they came.
From October through April, the starlings gather in great roosts along the cliffs and inland, on church roofs and pub window-ledges, on every tree that offers. In daylight they scatter, to forage in smaller flocks all across the parish and further yet. As the sun sets they all converge, to wheel and dance and display in extravagant, astonishing flights that write patterns in the air. The world calls it a murmuration. The noisy sky, Rowan had called it once when she was little. That worked for us: noise in three dimensions, figured by forces far beyond the random. White noise loosed into the world, given shape and substance and a name.
We watched it happen, we saw the sky fold itself in sheets and curves and angles, in blasts of sound and shadow that gave momentary solidity to the wind, as though they outlined all its fluid edges.
There’s a native human urge to see patterns in what’s random, to give significance to what is incidental. We have a word for it, even. We see shapes in clouds and call it pareidolia, as though we understood it. As though there were anything to understand.
If I saw faces, one face, making itself again and again and again—well, nobody could blame me. Besides, I didn’t need to say what I was seeing, so long as I didn’t ask her.
At last the light began to fail and the birds spread themselves more thinly, diving this way and that, tearing themselves out of all coherence. We stirred, gathered each other silently and tromped on arm in arm again, and here came the cliff-edge.
“Careful now,” I said, pulling free and guiding her behind me. “The council’s done nothing to make this path any safer, and the cliff-face is still crumbling.”
“Of course it is. It’s not going to stop, just because a parish council finds it inconvenient. Or expensive. I’ll step where you step.” She put both hands on my shoulders, to be sure. When she was small we’d go down just like this, except the other way around: I’d set her in front and steer her slender frame, keep fast hold and think how fragile she was, and how robust. She could outlive any boat that left my yard, and I knew exactly how well those were put together.
Down and down, winding back and forth until we came to where the path splays out onto the beach. It is, in honesty, not much of a beach. More rock-pool than sand, and more simple rock than either one; at high tide there’s a bare margin between sea and cliff, at spring tides none at all. Tourists head to the other side of the bay, to the wide sprawling spaces and the cafés and the tat. Ramblers following the coast find their way down sometimes, if they’re serious, but mostly not.
Which suited me, because at the end of the beach, in that marginal questionable territory where the river runs into the sea, just on the point, there was my yard. Formal access came from the other direction, along the riverbank. Approach from this side and all you saw was a wall of timber and corrugated iron, reaching from cliff to water. In fact there was a gate, but you might not spot it, first thing: like the whole stretch of wall, it was compounded of wood and iron, painted with pitch against the actions of storm and sea. Black on black, salt-stained and discreet.
There was no more an established path down here than there was in the ninety-acre; what the cows achieved above, surf and tide worked to match below. Pools and puddles shifted, new weed was laid down while old was washed away. Even I stepped somewhat differently from sand to rock to sand again, every time I crossed the strand. Rowan hopped and cursed and giggled, slipped and shrieked and drew her foot up sans boot, leaving it stuck in a crevice. Batted me away when I went to the rescue, then grabbed for me again; couldn’t decide whether to cling to my side or hold my hand more distantly or spurn me altogether.
“Piggyback?” I offered neutrally.
“Uh, yes. Please . . . ”
First I rescued her waterlogged boot while she balanced stork-like on one leg, then I bent my back so that she could climb aboard. With her legs jutting forward at waist-height, I used her feet as a battering-ram to knock the gate ajar, and carried her through like a queen.
We built our boats in wood, with handheld tools. Nevertheless, noise was no stranger to the boatyard, echoing off the cliff and out across the water. Nevertheless, the racket that evening was exceptional. One boy, one mallet and a heavy copper sheet: he’d laid an old folded tarpaulin between sheet and concrete, and even so. Sixteen square feet of copper will sing, when it’s beaten.
So also will a boy sing, when he’s thumping something in rhythm. At least until he looks up, to see that he’s no longer alone.
The Japanese are a quiet folk, by and large, with a yen for quiet art, low-cal, static. A solitary flower in a wabi-sabi vase, three characters in slow ink with a swift brush, a garden of raked gravel. A single square of paper folded whole—uncut, untorn—into a formal stylised figure: a crane, a unicorn, a frog. A boat.
There was nothing Japanese about Josh, and nothing quiet. Rather it was a restless energy that had led him to origami, simply to give him something to do with his hands. All through our first interview—in the pub, which doubled as my office—his swift neat fingers had transformed sheets of coloured paper into a little line of figures: Darth Vader and R2D2, two copulating unicorns, a cat in a box. Classic technique married to pop culture in a crisp and reckless style as inappropriate as it was charming. Mix that with tools, materials, and the space to scale up; the result had proved robust. Noisy. Origami unleashed.
The Boat of Going Nowhere was a yacht flying a jib and a mainsail, folded from four-by-four copper rather than paper. It had cost me one sheet already as proof-of-concept, a practice piece to learn how to fold and crease metal sharply; now he was working on the thing itself. Technically in his spare time, outside working hours—but my young apprentice shared not only my yard and my home, but also my casual approach to timekeeping. Sometimes we’d be up half the night, working under arc lights until the task was done; some days we’d start at noon or quit at three or never reach the yard at all. Just now I couldn’t have turned his mind away from The Boat of Going Nowhere if I’d tried.
Rowan was unsure how to feel about Josh, the idea of him or the boy himself. In other circumstances I could have been amused by her wary detachment, her inability to figure out which of us was the more vulnerable, who was exploiting whom. She saw me replicating what Bruce had done—for me, with me, to me—and so forging one more link in a chain I might have broken. She could disapprove of that quite thoroughly. At the same time she could thoroughly distrust the motives of a young man latching onto an older in his grief, at his time of least resistance. She loved me, was protective of me, knew what was best for me far better—of course!—than I did; and that best did not include a boy less than half my age, her age.
And now she was here, face to face with the reality of him, in the cottage and in the yard. Angular beauty and heedless charm, the relentless driving energy and the sudden slamming walls: she might have been his next conquest, or he hers, if it wasn’t that he occupied that unexpected, unnegotiated space, the bed that Bruce built.
She was quite bewildered what to feel. And I hated to see her in such a muddle, so confused where she ought to have felt most comfortable; and I could think of no resolution except to do as Bruce had done, live with the boy for the rest of my life and see if that was some kind of reassurance to her.
Just now, I set her down on an upturned cable drum and handed her lost boot back to her with a courtly bow. Knowing, as she knew, that Josh was watching, mallet poised, work suspended.
“Hey, Cinders,” he called. “Aren’t you supposed to leave the slipper and run away?”
“Yeah, well. I can’t get anything right. He’s not even my Prince Charming.” Slight emphasis on the my, and none at all otherwise: bless her, she was really trying. She might disapprove of both of us concurrently and consecutively, but she’d do her best not to let it show. At least to him.
Freshly shod, she walked over to view his progress and admire the crispness of his creases. “But will it float, when it’s finished? We learned how to fold boats at school one time, but they were different, more like barges. Those floated. And you could load them up with cargo, beads and stuff. Until you overloaded them, and they sank.”
“I guess this would float,” he said. “You can make boats out of concrete, so copper ought to work. I think she’d turn turtle, though, first thing. The sails make her top-lofty, see, and there’s not enough keel to counter that. Unless you load the hull with ballast, but then I guess she’d sink anyway.”
“Just as well it won’t be going to sea, then. Or going anywhere.”
He left his model lying on its tarp, rose and stretched—slowly, fastidiously, like a roused cat reaching back into itself—and smiled across the yard at me. All physicality, all purpose: wickedly deliberate. Rubbing her nose in it, but that was incidental. If he knew how she was feeling, he didn’t let it trouble him. Or stop him.
Oh dear God, but he reminded me of me, sometimes so much. Sometimes too much. Young man aware of his own power and reckless with it, heedless with it, willing to give it away. Willing to give it all away, in exchange for—what? A life, a companion, a craft, a home. Everything I had from Bruce, I was handing on wholesale, the complete package. Unless the thing existed separate from ourselves, and we merely inhabited the roles for a while, each in turn. It could feel that way sometimes, that we were groomed by some force outside ourselves, shaped to fit and held in place by a nameless inevitability. I had been him; he would be me. We would both of us be Bruce in the end, ashes in an urn. Lessons learned; lessons passed on. Someone else’s duty.
Something stirred in the sky. At first I thought it was one more late flight of starlings, turning in unison towards a cliffside roost, their wings catching some fugitive final glimpse of light from the sunken sun. The other two hadn’t noticed, intent as they were on building some kind of awkward detente on sand sodden with resentment and distrust. I had the words in my throat before I saw more, they were out before I could swallow them down: “Hey, look, look up―”
They turned, lifting their heads just at the moment when I would have called them back, when I would have said No, don’t look, don’t see that . . .
In the dark of the sky was his face again, impossibly, irresistibly. No matter if it was only scudding cloud lit from beneath, each of us saw the same thing. Pareidolia. And each of us knew whose face that was. Two of us had known the man himself; Josh knew him only from photographs, but that was enough to put a bewildered certainty into his voice.
“That was, that was . . . ” It was a sentence that couldn’t end, certainty notwithstanding; so he ducked it. “Was that awesome, or what? The way that looked like Bruce?”
He was at my elbow, though I hadn’t seen him come; and Rowan was just as sudden on my other side, taking my arm and clinging tight, no hint of adult irony. “It did,” she said. “Didn’t it?”
It did; and no, it was not awesome. A portrait like a sidelong glance, painted with twilight and cloud and suggestion—but not randomly, and not in our heads. If Josh was sure, who’d never met the man; if Rowan was sure, who’d known him and disliked him; how much more sure was I, who had known him and loved him and lived with him for thirty years? All three of us stared up and saw clouds shred into the wind, saw the first pale stars in the looming gloom, saw no hint of any face at all, and even so.
“Come on, kids. You know he never took his eye off me. Why should death make any difference?”
Jocularity struck a jarringly false note, but what could I do? Give one last lingering, anxious glance upward, then grip each of them by the shoulder and turn them bodily. Sometimes the inexplicable is too great for challenge, for question, for curiosity. You have just to stand under the reality of what’s numinous, and then to walk away.
It’s hard to turn your back on the sky, but we could at least set the sea behind us. And a bare dozen paces ahead lay the workshop, with a light already burning and the side-door set ajar.
Far more than the cottage, this was home and shelter to me, since I was that feral teenage boy. I used to sleep down here more often than not, curled in a nest of blankets, my dreams scented with wood shavings and diesel; and wake to brew coffee on the paraffin stove and sharpen yesterday’s tools on the oilstone and call greetings across the water to friends on the day-boats as they chugged out in pursuit of shoaling mackerel or pilchard. All with one eye on the cliff-path, waiting for the day’s first sight of Bruce, a distant potent figure headed down.
There was electricity in the building now, a new floor beneath a new roof and proper plumbing, a real bed for Josh or me or both of us together, those nights we never made it home. Even so, it was still essentially the same place, imbued with the same long history. Even the paraffin-smell still lingered. Perhaps that was only in my mind, like fugitive glimpses of that same distant figure with that same familiar stride. I could almost find a comfort in those moments, that he still kept watch over me. Especially when I turned my head and looked more closely and of course he wasn’t there. He was still dead, and I was still dealing with it; and what better comfort could he give me, than these occasional reminders that I really could get by without him?
No comfort now. Here I was moving beyond mourning and with my own apprentice, this sudden shift, a turning away that could seem quite like abandonment; and here was Rowan too, ever a thorn, a trouble, a wall between us where nothing should ever have come; and now his face was in the sky, and no comfort meant. Something else, something more, some expression of fury or claim of possession and death apparently not a factor.
But here we were, all three of us under my roof—mine now, mine!—and cut off from the sky’s glare, his. The workshop had no view out to the slipway and the sea; that wall was all door. The window looked out to the river and the road.
Just as I steered them both inside, Josh glanced back and yiked, ducking free of my grip and slithering outside again. I half-turned to follow and felt myself seized by indecision, there in the doorway with her on one side and him the other. Chase or stay, him or her? It wasn’t possible—and then thank God it wasn’t necessary, because Josh was no sooner gone than he was coming back.
With the Boat of Going Nowhere snatched up from the concrete apron, tucked securely under his arm.
“In case it means a storm, that sky,” he said, laughing, shrugging. “I’m not leaving her out there for some stupid flood tide to take away.”
People think that way. We all do. It’s what makes me a blue-water sailor, why I want a hundred miles between myself and any land when weather’s on the way: because danger lies in that liminal space where the ocean meets the shore. It comes from the deep and hits the land and God help you if you lie between the hammer and the anvil. It’s why we stand and look outward, why lighthouses and foghorns, barriers and sea-walls and defences.
Sometimes we should look the other way. Inland, where everything is fixed, reliable, coherent: where structures have weight and certainty, where the variable moon harbours no influence, where wind and rain together must work hard to achieve a little local damage. Where it’s all too easy to forget how everything from peak to valley bottom is designed to channel trouble to the sea.
Water finds its own level, they say. That would be here, where the rushing river meets the rising tide.
Perhaps there was a natural dam high up on the moor somewhere: a fallen tree, accumulated blockage, no one to notice. Perhaps there was a freak of weather, rain beyond measure just where a lake could build and build. Or perhaps water is somehow an expression of malevolence, or of will, or of endurance. Perhaps he could just make water happen. All at once, in flood.
It started as a rumour, a distant rumbling, something ripping deep in the fabric of the world. The kids looked to me for reassurance, enlightenment, anything. I had nothing to offer except a mirror for their own blank questioning stares. I shook my head at them, and turned to the window.
It was dark out there, not dark enough. I could see what was coming, all too well. The village upstream gave me a horizon of light, a beacon that drew us nightly to pub, to cottage, to dinner, to bed. This night I saw half those lights go out, almost all at once. Those that survived on higher ground served only to frame that darkness. Everything happens at the margins; that lit edge here was a churning chaos, a moving roiling wall in silhouette, sound made solid, that growing growling roar . . .
“Get out,” I said. “Out now. Not that way,” as Rowan turned hesitantly towards the door we’d come in by. That way lay my truck, the gateway, the road and the village and the world; but half the village was gone, heading our way in all its shattered pieces. It was breaking the road to ruin as it came.
“The river’s in flood,” I said, as mild a way as I could find to say It’s over, that world you knew; death is coming, and it’s meant for us. “We’ll go along the beach and up the cliff. Keep together and we’ll stay safe.”
Quick as I was to herd them out, I was almost already too slow. Floods should lose their power as their reach broadens, as a narrow valley river-bed opens to the sea—but this one met a wind and tide that should never have come together, that neither clock nor calendar was ready for. We were a week past springs and three hours before the full, and even so: here was the tide, too high and too soon, racing up the slipway as I heaved open the workshop door. And the wind that battered me, that tried to force me all the way back inside: a storm-wind was out of season and unforecast, implausible, as close to impossible as any weather ever.
The wind held up that rushing wall of river; the tide thrust underneath and lifted it higher yet, the water and the rubble that it swept along, half the village in its seize. I stood on the slipway and saw it hurtling towards my gate, my truck, my workshop—towards us, head-high and lethal with rocks and beams and filth and sheer force.
Sheer force of will, but I didn’t want to think about that.
I snatched for Rowan’s hand and Josh’s too, where they stood mesmerised and struggling to stand in the blast. I tugged each, and they each came with me, grimly step by step. It was a hard slog just to reach the side-gate, even with the impetus of what was following, that brute blunt fear to drive us on.
The gate still stood open. The wind was slamming it back against its hinges, slam and slam again; something in me wanted to stop and pull it shut, give it a chance of surviving the night.
But nothing here would survive the flood when it hit, and I had no free hand in any case. My true interest lay in their survival, the two youngsters who clung and hauled alongside me as we made a difficult panicked passage over the rocks of the beach with tidewater swirling about our feet, and behind us the dreadful sounds of destruction as the flood took my gateway, my truck, my workshop in strict order.
A sudden wave took us from behind, soaking us waist-high and floating Rowan off her feet for a moment. After that she clung closer. I ploughed on doggedly, letting Josh foray forwards while I trod more or less in his footsteps, making myself the anchor of our trio. That wave must have been the flood’s last gasp. But we still had wind and tide to face, not out of the water yet.
And something more. Perhaps.
“Single file,” I yelled above the wind’s howl as we reached the foot of the cliff-path, “hand in hand, slow and careful. Keep tight against the rock. Josh, you first,” and me in the middle, keeping a grip on them both. The path might give way before us or behind us, or underneath all three; but if we went, we would all three go together.
Mostly I kept my eyes on my own feet, for what little good that did, and my back flat against the cliff to give the wind least possible purchase. Rowan copied me with care; but Josh was leading, looking ahead, inclined to step out to see better. Each time, the movement of his feet snagged the corner of my eye, pulling my head up in anxiety, having me tug at his hand to draw him back into the rock wall’s mockery of safety.
Maybe he was getting confident, thinking the worst was behind us; maybe he could see the end of the path, the top of the cliff. At last he didn’t let me do that; this time he tugged back teasingly, tried to draw me forward into his body’s better shelter.
I was distracted, not ready, taken aback. Just for a moment I went with him, took a step too far, lost my place as the body-bridge between him and Rowan.
I broke my grip on her hand. She was too far behind, she couldn’t stretch that far, I felt her fingers slip between mine and away.
And flailed blindly to recapture them, before my head could whip around to see; and felt a strong hand close with mine again.
Strong and wet and bitter chill, compounded of salt and wind and water, and so very very much not Rowan’s hand.
Familiar none the less. Not Rowan, and not supposed to be there. Anywhere.
We always want to hold on to everything. We don’t even let our dead go.
Sometimes, the dead don’t let us.
Now I looked.
I couldn’t see Rowan at all, through the dark and the wind and the figure that stood between us. Broad-chested, raw-boned, standing four-square on the path; known, integral, unmistakable. Dead. Holding my hand.
I took a second, I needed that one second just to stand there, to be back, to be sheltered and watched over and held.
Then I plunged: straight through whatever there was of him contained within that shaping, the seaspray and the wind and all, a great stillness made of movement as we all are, as all things are.
I hurled myself recklessly and blindly through, to reach Rowan.
Doing that, I had to let go of Josh.
Every story is about betrayal, in the end. We lucky ones, we’re allowed maybe to choose who we betray.
If the briefest breathless moment can truly be forever, then I honestly never thought I’d find her. I thought she’d be gone: over the edge, or the path collapsed beneath her, or just not there, not anywhere.
But I hurtled into her very physical self, and for a moment we clung, almost going over; and then we scrambled to some awkward mutual desperate balance, and if that was some kind of Sophie’s choice, apparently I’d made it.
Made it and couldn’t conceivably regret it, when she was right there wrapped around me, damp and chill and trembling; and even so. Already it rived me, that I had let Josh slip. I gazed yearningly back over her head, thinking that Bruce must have taken what I had abandoned, sure that I would never see the boy again—and suddenly there he was, plunging out of a darkness deeper than the night, just as I had.
Again we teetered, again we didn’t fall. And now I had them both within the circle of my arms, and Bruce had lost his advantage. Whatever choice I’d made, there were others free and able to make choices too.
“All together or not at all,” I said; and this time I set Rowan before me, with my hands on her shoulders as they used to be long since, as they always should be. Josh took his cue from me, without being told or asked: set young strong fingers on each of my shoulders, stood close enough behind me that I could feel his breath on my neck, even in that wind; was young enough to brush a kiss against my nape, even in that danger.
I nudged Rowan forward, and that’s how we climbed the last of the path: caterpillar-style, stepping all together and gripping tight. I suppose I was still making the same choice, Rowan the one I gave my strength to, only trusting Josh to hold to me; but now it didn’t feel like betrayal. Recognition, rather. Something new between us, a shift of state, that I lay within his compass as much as he in mine.
Up and up, step by step; and here we were at the top and the wind was almost helpful now, blowing inland, pushing us to greater safety, away from the cliff-edge. It was hard even now to believe that I had lost neither one on the path below, when I’d thought to lose them both. And now I could fling an arm around each and march them forward, laughing almost in the teeth of the night. Bruce had had his chance, I thought, and missed his mark, and―
And of course that’s when he came again, in that moment of stupid confidence, when we thought the worst behind us. He’d always had a knack for catching me off-guard, keeping me off-balance, so that I’d forever be falling into him, needing him to catch me once again.
Again he was a stormshadow, woven from dark and wind and water. He shaped himself out of nowhere, and stood before us, undeniable as death—and then he walked away, across the ninety-acre, as though he were a guide in the night.
Towards the sheepfold, where of course we had been headed anyway: somewhere to pause, to catch our breath, to huddle in an angle of the walls and let the wind batter itself against stone while we wrapped our heads around what we had just survived.
He led us and we followed, because what else could we do, where else go? There was no path to better safety, no path at all. If we had him in sight, at least we knew where he stood.
Besides, the wind hustled us neatly at his heels. I leaned back against it, tried to drag my feet, to act as a brake for all three of us. Even so, I could barely keep us from catching him up. We dogged him, and he led us exactly where we had all meant to be. Every step felt inevitable, preordained, irresistible.
The sheepfold has a gateway, though no gate. He brought us there and paused, and turned—I want to say to face us, although the weathermask he wore offered no suggestion of a face.
We came to a halt, all three of us together. Even the wind seemed to pause for that breathless confrontation, until he moved again. Reshaped himself. Made a frame around the gateway, like an open invitation, come on in.
Like a lych-gate, a threat as much as a promise.
Not wide enough for three of us abreast, however close we huddled. He wanted to force me into choice again, and this time there would be no reprieve. Whoever I left outside, he would take. And he had tested me once already, and he knew—we all knew—which way that decision fell.
Maybe he wanted a new apprentice.
Not this time.
I could feel Josh stiffening at my side, seeing what I saw, leaping to the same conclusions. Waiting to feel me pull away.
Not this time.
This time, I made a different choice.
I stepped away from both of them at once, one brisk pace back. I took a wrist of each, before they could protest it, and locked their two hands together; then I gripped them by the neck, one in each hand, and propelled them forwards.
The young cling by instinct. If either of them knew what I was doing, if they understood, they had no time to overcome that instinct and unlatch. I pushed them by main force through the opening in the fold’s wall, through the gatemouth Bruce had made.
He didn’t touch them; I don’t believe he could. The fold was home, safe ground, always had been. Even the wind couldn’t reach them, I thought, in there.
And now I was alone out here, my choice made, and I didn’t even try to follow them in. That wasn’t in the rules, and it wasn’t in the contract.
Instead—well. Hand in hand and two by two, that’s the way we choose to go.
I reached out my hand to touch the nebulous near column of that strange shimmering gateway.
And felt my hand seized again, by the same strong frigid fingers as before; and there he was again in almost-human form, his own size, his own shape.
If he had all the powers of wind and water, he chose not to use them. Perhaps bonding himself into an almost-body, as near as he could come, gave him only that body’s strength. The memory of mortality, with all its limits implied.
At any rate, I could pit my own body’s strength against his and not make a mockery of myself. I could tug him, indeed, against the wind’s shove, back towards the cliff-edge and the path. It may be that he was willing to be tugged. Denied what he’d expected, the cruel choice, one child or the other, he might be bewildered now; he might be intrigued. If he was capable of either one, or capable of anything but malice. I couldn’t tell: was he a ghost, was he himself remade with all his old attributes and antagonisms, was he only a memory or a lingering aspect somehow cut off from death, cut off by death and left behind?
It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except this moment, this determination: to take him away from the kids, away from the world if I could.
Young or otherwise, the human instinct is to cling. We always want to hold on. We don’t even let our dead go.
I was gambling, I suppose, that I could hold on to him now, and take him with me one last time. That he wouldn’t have the strength or else the will to leave me.
I was almost running now. And hauling him along, and if he thought anything at all—if he was capable of thinking—he must have thought I was headed for the path and trusting him to keep me safe in a foolish, hectic descent.
Not I. I ran him clean off the edge of the cliff.
That was all I had. My way to save the kids, if it could work: to keep him bound to me and end myself. I had no time for regrets, for second thoughts, for fond farewells. Just straight to the edge and over.
Hurling myself and him too into that wind, almost rising before we could start to fall; hoping he would, what, disintegrate perhaps? Lose coherence and fray away into the air that he was made from? I’d had no time for analysis either, or I might have thought myself foolish, hopeless, illogical. Lost.
I thought I was lost anyway. Dead myself and not reckoning to come back, malevolently or otherwise.
I leaped, almost flew, almost fell—and didn’t, quite.
He had always had the saving of me, in his hands. Always been the saving of me, always made that choice.
Now, one more time—who knows why?—he did that again.
I was such a man in my pride, in my strength, mature and responsible and knowing. Now suddenly I was a child again, while a grown-up swung me by one arm.
That grip I had, I’d thought I had; turned out to be his grip after all, his on me, as ever. He swung me high and hurled me, back to the land again.
I hit hard, and couldn’t breathe for a while. And couldn’t see for a while after that, because of the wind and the night. The wind died, though, in time. Then I could stand, and see that there was nothing to see; and walk to the fold, and find Josh and Rowan still huddling there.
Did he linger, did he depart, did he dissipate? I had no way of knowing: only that he seemed not to be there.
Nor was the yard there, when I went down, when I could. Nor the bulk of the workshop. The roof and doors were gone; some walls survived, but none worth keeping. There was nothing in me, no will to build again. It had been his, and barely mine before he took it back; and the village was in ruin, and my life there.
Besides, I had insurance. His insurance, transferred to my name just before he died; he always had been careful of everything that was his. Me not excluded. That money bought me a yacht: none so fine as those we used to build, but good enough. Blue-water worthy.
The cottage I gifted to Rowan, if she should decide to want it. If not, to Josh; if not, then to the distress fund for the village, all my friends and neighbours.
From the cottage, I took nothing but Bruce’s ashes; from the wreckage of the yard, nothing but the wreck of Josh’s copper origami, the Boat of Going Nowhere. Crushed and mangled as it was, no kind of seaworthy, I would take it out, far and far; and pour the ashes into its deepest crevice, give them to the ocean, watch it drink them down.
And then—well, not come back. Not yet, not now. Let the winds have me for a while, winds and blue water.
Originally published in New Fears 1, edited by Mark Morris.