Chapter 9: Monday evening: At the Scuttlebutt Saloon
Clara’s beloved farm boots got a workout as she walked the peaceful miles into Stumbletown, the nearest port village. She passed farms in the full glory of morning. Rows of sunflowers turned their faces to the sun. Horses nickered in the fields. Honeysuckle flowers perfumed the pastures. Ants built tiny empires by the roadside. The sweet melody of life.
There was so much goodness in the world. Clara opened to it like a sunflower herself, body and soul. She drank in the world, and the world filled her with strength.
She would need it.
It was a full day’s walk and the sun had set by the time she arrived at the door of the Scuttlebutt Saloon. A creaking wooden sign hung above the entrance. There was a water barrel carved into it, and these words:
Where sailors come
to get their fill
of talk and grog,
for good or ill.
She narrowed her eyes and pushed through the door.
Grizzled faces in the shadows. Flickering candles jammed into cracked whiskey bottles. Tables stained with slime, grime, and time. Strong shoulders bent by years of leaning into hard weather. Grumbled conversations over mugs of suds. A wizened sailor cradled a flagon of grog in a corner, smoking a foul-smelling pipe and singing softly to himself:
Some people claim that I’m touched in the head.
They say don’t worry, for we’ll soon be dead.
I tell them rubbish! You go hang your dread!
I see seabreezes and full sails ahead.
Clara would have been inspired if he hadn’t toppled off his stool onto the ale-sticky floor and fallen fast asleep.
Clara stepped nervously to the bar. A bald and bearded mountain of a man eyed her from behind the counter. Tattoos of sea monsters twisted up and down his thick forearms. One of his ears was missing.
He spat a glob of tobacco juice onto the floor behind the bar. “Good Monday evening to you, ma’am,” he said cheerfully. “Bartender Joseph’s who I am. It looks like you’ve had quite a walk. Perhaps you’d like to sit and talk?”
Clara was confused, for a moment. It’s strange how even after a lifetime of practice, you can still judge a person by how they look on the outside instead of by the soul on the inside. She collected herself and smiled. “Soul of a—“
“Poet,” he beamed. “Wouldn’t ya know it? It’s me first. Do ya thirst?” He hunched over the bar and leaned close. “It’s right unwearying, somehow, to have a poet so close now. It’s sure been a downright troublesome day. We all need a story to light the way.”
“I do need some unwearying,” sighed Clara.
Bartender Joseph beamed. “Well, let this be the end of your trip. Care for whiskey? Rum?”
All the scuttlebutt in the Scuttlebutt stopped.
Bartender Joseph shook his great bald head and frowned. “But why?”
The singing sailor on the floor woke up. “I kin take ye.”
Chapter 10: Tuesday: The fish of the sea
The wind started blowing fierce the moment Captain Barnacle Bennick’s little sailboat cleared the Stumbletown breakwater.
Clara had to shout to be heard. “Will the ship hold, Captain Bennick?”
“Call me Barnacle!” he shouted back. He squinted into the squall and puffed his pipe. Clara was glad to be upwind of it. “And, aye, she’ll hold. Been through worse.”
The ship held, but only till late afternoon.
All day the wind got windier, and the rain got rainier, and the waves got wavier. The little old boat strained heroically up the faces of the swells and skittered down the backs, but after a while the struggle was all too much. She gave up all at once and sank right down, leaving spare sails and oars and casks and flasks scattered about the surface.
Clara and Captain Bennick barely had time to leap over the rail before the ship disappeared into a heap of feeble bubbles.
They struggled a while in the waves. Clara, with her wiry pirate strength, supported the captain. But the waves battered even her stout soul, and she grew weary. Clara thought of Ramon and Letitia, and poor Ellie and all the children who would be just like her at dusk. What would happen to them now? She gave the captain’s hand a squeeze and said, “Fare thee well, Captain.”
“Fare thee well, Clara.” Captain Bennick chewed his soggy pipe. “You’re a good woman. I regret I met you too late.”
The bubbles burbled over their chins.
The foam rose over their noses.
The sea surged over their heads.
And then . . .
They were lifted from below.
Just like that, they were rising. They were moving. They were speeding along above the surface of the waves. Joyous, Clara held the fin beneath her and patted the smooth skin of a dolphin.
“Whee-hee!” she shouted into the spray, glancing at Captain Barnacle, who was trying to look dignified atop his dolphin.
The dolphins surged through the sea, racing them up to the closest stretch of land—an isolated crescent of a beach nestled at the base of a high cliff.
Clara and Captain Barnacle swam through the shorebreak and collapsed on the beach at dusk, happy for the moment their bodies were still alive.
They slept through the night.
When they woke in the morning, Clara was astonished to see the waves had deposited her soggy carpetbag on the sand.
She reached inside and untied the bandanna holding the dried rutabaga. She waded into the waves a short way and threw the vegetables into the water.
Chapter 11: Wednesday: The birds of the sky
Gulls wheeled over the beach, singing the praises of morning.
Clara nudged Captain Barnacle awake.
They surveyed their surroundings.
“Pretty stretch of beach,” she said, taking off her farm boots and wringing out her socks.
“Oh, aye,” growled the captain looking sadly at his soggy pipe. “It’s Unlucky, though.”
She punched him gently on the shoulder. “Well, I know that.”
He squinted at her. “No, that’s its name. Unlucky Beach.”
Pretty as the beach was, with its soft auburn sand and fringes of lantern trees, Unlucky Beach indeed was bound all around by high cinnamon-colored cliffs.
The gulls didn’t mind of course. They called to each other merrily in their ragged voices.
Clara put on her socks and shoes and scanned the beach. “Can we swim ‘round the headland, Barnacle?”
“Climb the cliffs?”
“Hail a passing ship?”
“The captains are all hunkering down, waiting for the soul collection.”
“Argh. Is there no one to help us? And why aren’t the boat captains doing something?”
“When a storm’s coming, you hunker down, try to ride it out,” he said.
“But you didn’t.”
“I like storms,” he said.
“Well I do, too,” said Clara.
Clara marched across the sand to the base of the nearest cliff. Rock chunks broke off in her hand when she tried to climb. Grumbling, she marched along the beach, looking for a rib of rigid stone or a braid of dangling roots, anything she could ascend by.
Captain Barnacle plodded up the shore, inspecting the line of driftwood to see if anything the ocean had brought in could provide the means of a seaward escape.
So passed a long and fruitless day.
All the while, the gulls busied themselves around a deep heap of seaweed at the center of the beach, just at the high-tide line. They’d pluck at the damp clump, tease out long kelpy strands, and lay them in lines.
Finally, as the sun was drawing low, Clara harrumphed, crossed her arms and leaned back against the defective cliff. A clod broke loose and plonked her on the head.
Captain Bennick came up at last to meet her. “Anything?”
She shook her head. “You?”
“No.” He sat down against the cliff and gazed out to sea.
She sat down next to him. “It’ll be a good sunset, though,” she said. The breeze had died away, and the waves made a gentle symphony on the shore. The gulls still intent on their pile of kelp, though it was much smaller now.
“Aye. A good one to end on.”
She looked at him a long minute, then saw how young he was under his whiskers.
“I know we can’t choose our time,” he said, meeting her gaze. “But I always did want to give farming a try. I think it would have suited me.”
Clara swallowed. “But, I’m so much older.”
“Not all that much. Besides, I think our souls would have gotten along. All of them.”
Suddenly the entire flock of seagulls took off at once and flew toward them, screaming.
The gulls stopped short and fell silent. Just as suddenly, they flew back to their seaweed, stopped, and looked back at Clara and the captain.
Clara noticed that the seaweed pile was now completely gone. Clara got up and took a step forward, curious. Then another. The gulls cawed encouragement.
The captain rose. He and Clara jogged over to the gulls. They stopped, puzzled.
The gulls had spent the day arranging the seaweed carefully so now the strands of it lay in hundreds of neat rows.
“Well, I’ve never . . .” began the captain. But he was unable to finish the sentence.
A small squad of gulls took noisily to the sky, flew to the clifftop edge, and perched there, squawking.
Clara squinted up at them. Then back to the seaweed.
“Captain! Start tying the strands together. Hurry, we’ve no time to lose.”
They went to work knotting the strands together, racing the sinking sun. When they finished, the strands had become one very long rope. Long enough to reach a good way up the beach.
Or down a cliff.
The gulls wasted no time. They clamored to the kelp-rope. Each bird took a length in its beak, and with mouths full, they flew upward as one. The gulls were beautiful as they rose, a great feathered kelp-scarf silhouetted against gold light turning red turning purple.
The gulls looped the rope at its midpoint around a stout sea pine and let it fall all the way back down the cliff face—one very long rope that looked like two. The gulls released a chorus of triumphant squawking.
Clara spat on each hand and clapped twice.
“Well I’ll be a barnacle’s blowhole,” said the captain.
Clara tugged the rope.
The captain cleared his throat. “Sun’s almost down. We’d best get on.”
“One moment!” Clara rushed to her carpetbag on the beach. She took out her book of poems and her pair of overalls and stuffed them into her jacket. She carried the empty carpetbag to the base of the cliff, opened it up, and set it under a pretty little lantern tree.
She addressed the seagulls. “This will make a lovely nest for one of you. Thank you, birds of the air.”
Time to climb. Up up up went Clara and the captain and down down down went the sun. The rope flexed with the weight of their climbing but held fast.
“Captain?” asked Clara as they neared the top.
“Barnacle,” he interrupted.
“Barnacle,” she corrected herself. “I never asked you. What’s your soul this week?”
Clara cleared the cliff-edge first and reached down a hand to the captain.
Just in time.
The moment she pulled him clear he began to shiver. He staggered to a clearing under a tree, a safe distance from the cliff edge. The pipe fell from his mouth to the grass.
His eyes rolled. He only had strength enough to whisper.
Clara held his hand as his soul was wrenched from his body.
When it was done, his empty eyes didn’t see her anymore. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He drifted off to sleep.
Clara was alone.
She had a terrible thought. What if I am the last one on the island with a soul?
“Oh, Captain,” she said. “I regret I didn’t meet you sooner, too. But maybe it’s not too late.”
Clara took her wadded overalls out of her jacket and rolled them into a pillow for the captain. He looked comfortable, but something was still wrong. She thought a moment.
“Ah!” She set the captain’s pipe between his teeth and shut his jaw. “That’s better.”
She tucked his pea jacket snug around him and kissed his forehead.
“You sleep now, Barnacle. I’ll do my best.”
She walked half the night through the woods, until, overcome with emotion and exhaustion, she collapsed into tumultuous sleep.
At dawn of the third day, the most important day of all, she woke to mooing.
Chapter 12: Thursday: A beast of the earth
Clara let the farm sounds guide her—mooing, whinnying, bleating, cluck-clucking, and scraps of human voices floating on the wind. She soon crested a rise and came out of the woods to the edge of a farm.
A man spotted her and called his family to him. They were still, silent, watching as she skirted the pasture fence and approached. She waved hello. No one waved back.
It was a young family, a husband, wife, two boys and two girls. All with vacant eyes. Ellie’s eyes. Is this how Ramon and Letitia look now? thought Clara. Yes, it must be. She swallowed.
“Good day,” she said.
“What’s your business?” asked the father.
“My business. Ah . . . I’m on my way to see—”
Suddenly, Clara didn’t think it was wise to tell them that she was on her way to see the king and put a stop to this whole soul-snatching business.
“I’ve run into a spot of trouble and need to get to town. I was wondering if I might, if I might borrow a horse.”
“No borrowing,” said the man. “You can rent.” The woman frowned. The children scowled.
“Well, any money I had is at the bottom of the sea. But I desperately need to travel to Clenchport by sundown. It’s for, it’s for— ”
“Business?” asked the farmer
“Chores?” asked the children.
“Yes,” said Clara. “Both.”
“No money, though?”
“Can’t help ya,” said the father. “Now we best be to our work. Time is money, and you’ve cost us plenty already. Git along, kids.”
With that, Clara was abandoned. She started walking.
In spite of everything, her soul delighted in the glory of the morning. The butterflies, the music-box tinkle of a little stream, the sweet smell of wheatgrass. Slowly, though, she became aware of a presence, a shadow behind the roadside hedge, moving alongside her.
Clara stopped, stooped, and pretended to tie up a bootlace.
The shadow stopped.
Clara walked on.
The shadow walked on.
Clara’s heart began to beat a little faster. She began to trot. Up ahead, she saw a break in the hedge, a gate, and open road beyond.
The massive shadow trotted with her.
Heart pounding, Clara sprinted down the lane. As she raced past the gate, she turned her head and saw the inky dark face of a massive bull. He gave a fantastic snort!
Clara stopped and put her hands on her hips.
The bull was as tall as she was. His head was sleek and black and magnificent. He snorted again, more softly. He watched her. For all his ferocity, there was an intelligence in his eyes.
“You scared me!” Clara harrumphed, turning to leave.
The bull bellowed.
The bull nuzzled the gate latch.
“You want out? I don’t think the farmer would like that.”
The bull nosed the latch again.
“You know,” she said, “I don’t think I much care what the farmer thinks.”
She opened the gate and waited for the bull to run off.
The bull stepped out of the pasture and stopped in the lane next to Clara.
“Go on,” said Clara.
The bull snorted again and tossed his head. “Oh,” said Clara, suddenly understanding.
The bull was inviting her to ride.
So she did.
Clara rode through the jangling, jouncing morning and arrived at a hill on the outskirts of Clenchport late that afternoon.
Clara slid down and threw her arms around the bull’s neck. He nuzzled her. When Clara stepped back, he’d plucked Arrow’s Poems for Gardeners out of her jacket and was happily munching away.
“Hey,” she started. “Oh, go ahead! Poems are good food.”
Clara kissed the bull on his velvety nose. He trotted off, chewing poetry.
Clara thanked the strength of her pirate soul for getting her this far.
But she would need even more from it. A lot more.
To be concluded next week … (but if you can’t wait, you can buy a physical copy of the book).