Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Sandman - "This Further Strand"

A Sandman sketch I got from the amazing Bryan Talbot
at a comic convention in the 90s.
It's not directly connected to this story, I just think its cool.
The fog had come down sudden. In a moment, the shore and the candles in the windows were lost, and only the dead dark silence of the river at night remained. The Fisherman felt sure he’d drifted for hours now, the fog still hadn’t lifted and the day had yet to break. He had gradually come to realise there would only be one way back; he’d heard the stories from the other fishermen,

You smell The River Witch’s barge long before you see it, a rotten hulk of fishbones, seaweed and shipwreck timber hauled endlessly between the two shores. And if you’ve cause to run in to the River Witch, it’s a safe bet your day is not going well and is unlikely to get better. For although she can help you back home, there’s a price to be paid.

The Fisherman did not have long to wait. The stinking broken bones of the barge tore through the fog, and there she was, squatting, smiling and waiting.
“I need to get back to the shore.” said the Fisherman.
“Oh aye. Ah daresay. But yer way aff. Waaaay aff.”
“You know the way back to shore?”
“Aye. Don’t care fur it. Mingin. People pee indoors.”
“Can you help me get there?”
“Aye nae problem. Course ah can.”
There was an awkward pause, the River Witch scratched herself.
“So...will you help me?”
“Much? Whit’s it worth to ye?”
“I’ve nothing but my nets and fish.”
“Eh. Ahm awright for nets and fish pal. How aboot anythin else ah find oan ye ah keep?”
The Fisherman held his breath as the River Witch hopped aboard and searched greedily about his boat and his person.
“Ah hah! Jist the thing,” she said, having found the purse he used for hooks and bait.
“It’s empty,” said the Fisherman, because he was an honest sort.
“Ah know it’s empty. Ahm gonnae put things in it.” said the River Witch. “Oh ho! Whits this though?”
The witch held out a small knife, with a carved oak handle. The Fisherman snatched it back. “You can’t have them both,” he said, “You told me you wanted the purse.”
“Fair dos. Fair dos.” said the River Witch, pushing some worms into the purse. “Purse it is. Fair payment. Right. Here’s whit ye dae. Fog like this...means her ladyship’s in a right mood. But! The Lady Clutha will probably let ye pass back to shore if ye bring her three things - a secret, a song and a full moon. And seeins as I like yer wee face, I’ll gie ye the full moon for practically nothing.”
“Practically nothing?”
“Aye. Ah dae need tae eat ye know. Cannae jist keep huvin fish every night. There’s guy’s over by who’ll gie me a decent meal for a guid trade.”
“What do you want for it?”
“Well ah quite liked the look o that wee knife.”
“My father gave me that knife.”
“And ah’ve got mah maws eye’s but I’d still pop wan o them oot if ah wis trading fur mah life.”
Reluctantly, the Fisherman handed her the knife.
“Ach ye’ll get another wee knife. Cheer up. Here’s some advice fur free. Roon here, the seamonster knows aw the secrets, and there’s a mermaid might sing ye a song. And just keep drifting, ye’ll find them aw in the fog. If they don’t find ye furst.”

The barge creaked back off into the fog, and the Fisherman drifted on.

It was not long before his fishing boat was shaken by something beneath the water. With more of a gentle splash than a terrifying tidal wave, a young sea serpent rose up out of the river.
“You’re...not a very big sea serpent.” said the Fisherman.
“I’m still quite new. But I could still smash your boat with my tail.”
Here, the young sea serpent swished her tail in a slightly menacing fashion.
“So you could. I need your help. Could you tell me a secret?”
“Any particular secret? Why the wind stopped whistling? Who knows best? Where is the edge of the world?”
“I don’t think it matters. You choose.”
“And what will you give me?”
“I don’t have much to give I’m afraid. Ask me anything.”
“I want you to throw your nets away,” said the sea serpent. “The river can only give so much.”
“I can’t throw my nets away, they’re my livelihood.”
The sea serpent smiled sadly.
“I see that. And I see you’re lost. Here is a secret anyway. Though it’s not one of my best.”
The sea serpent told him a secret, and the Fisherman thanked her kindly..
“If you’d thrown your nets away, I could have told you why we’re here.” she said, then she dived back into the depths.

The Fisherman drifted for a little while longer and then saw a mermaid, sitting on a rock, slicing at her silver hair with a cuttlefish bone. He rowed over to see if she would sing him a song.
“Hello. I wonder if you could help me.”
Now that he was closer, he could see the lines and wrinkles on her face.
“Oh. You don’t see too many...ehm...older mermaids.”
“No. You don’t,” said the Mermaid, “Merfolk are vain and shallow, while the Mer-King and his mer-men coutiers and ministers grow only wiser and more handsome with the passing years, mermaids are banished the day the first silver streaks our hair. Some drown broken hearted, some are killed by the sharks and some are wise enough to leave before they are told to. We swim to the secret court of the Sea Queen where even now, we prepare for war.”
“War? Really? When will that be?”
The Mermaid turned to look at the Fisherman properly.
“What do you want?”
“I’m lost, and I’m looking for gifts for the Lady Clutha so she’ll let me pass.”
“And you need a Mermaid’s song?”
“Well...yes. Would you do that for me?”
The Mermaid looked at the Fisherman’s boat.
“Throw your nets away. Too often my sisters and our daughters are tangled in the knots of the fishing boats.”
The Fisherman had thought that’s what she might say.
“I can’t throw my nets away. I need them to feed my family.”
The Mermaid nodded sadly.
“Well in that case, I’ll sing you an old song I no longer need.”
The Mermaid sang the song and caught it in a shell for the Fisherman, and he thanked her kindly.
She began to sharpen her sword with the cuttlefish, and the Fisherman sailed on.

“Now what?” he said. “Hello! Lady Clutha?”
There was only silence and fog.
Presently, another boat drifted out from the shadows, and a pale man stood aboard.
“Hello there.” said the Fisherman “Do you know where I might find the Lady Clutha?”
The pale man stared at the Fisherman for a moment before speaking.
“What business do you have with the lady of the river?”
“I’ve brought a secret, a song and a full moon. If I give them to Lady Clutha, she will let me pass through the fog back to my family.”
“I see. And who told you this...The River Witch I suppose?”
“My tolerance for her games is waning,” said the pale man, “The Lady Clutha cannot help you. She is not here.”
“Where has she gone?”
“She is dreaming. And you are part of her dream.”
“I’ a dream?”
“Yes. The lady of this river often dreams of those poor souls she drowned. Some wreckage sometimes remains, flotsam and jetsam in the fog.”
“But I’ve brought a secret, a song and a full moon...”
“I’m sorry Fisherman. It would take much more than that for you to buy passage back to shore.”
The fog bell of the River Witch’s barge chimed through the white.
“What should I do then?”
“You have your nets. Keep fishing. Soon she will wake.”
“But...what will happen to me then?”
“A different journey.”
The boat carrying the pale man drifted on into the mists.

The Fisherman held his nets and thought of his family as the fog bell chimed again.

I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, and the work of Bryan Talbot (whose Alice In Sunderland inspired our own school project graphic novel). The story title is taken from John Davidson's Ballad in Blank Verse. But just in case you thinking I'm making it up about our river having monsters in it, check out this episode of Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World...