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4 pm, Lamorna Cove is a wound against the storm.
And I no longer recall how the sea works. What goads the water into reaching at the rocks, why it so swiftly abandons the shore. I have forgotten how the moon takes a new name for itself in the spring tides, scoring its motions into the sand. The rhythms left my body a long time ago, disappearing away with my childhood superstitions.
When he was alive, Richie loved my stories about the creatures of Newlyn, Zennor, Marazion. “Do the voice,” he would say and then he would bellow with laughter, call me an old Cornish hag, and kiss me tenderly on the cheek. “You should write these down.”
I need to get back into character.
I spot a tangle of seaweed coughed up onto the rocks, step over and push both hands into the dark-green mass. A wave rolls in, swallowing my lower legs, and I feel the weeds writhing as they try to escape my grip.
A glance around to check for passersby. Not a soul. I lift up the seaweed and, without a thought, drop it onto my head like a wig, watching as the water streams back down my anorak. Bitter and cold, it hangs like a strip of wet leather against my neck. I curl my fingers like claws, open my mouth, and let out a mighty roar. “Ooorah!”
Nothing takes hold. I feel no less of a stranger to the empty waters. Disappointed, I toss the seaweed back.
For the last thirty years, I’ve made a home outside of Denver, Colorado – a thousand miles from the coast. Richie and I used to share long Sundays traversing the slopes of Golden Gate Canyon Park, and over the decades, it began to feel cosy being boxed in by towering rocks. But when we traded in the view from our back porch for the window of the hospice, I started to realise how landlocked I really was. Every transcontinental flight I would stare down at the vast expanses of yellow-brown terrain, only able to turn away from the window once I finally saw blue through the glass.
“D’you go for a dip or is that just rain you’re wearing right now?” asks the waiter in the cafe up on the cliff, smirking at my soaking-wet chinos. “I was going to shut early. Not many tourists out in a storm.”
I pick up one of the complimentary mints with a shaky hand and begin to unravel it. “I’m not a tourist,” I say. My accent suggests otherwise; it’s narrower than it was, the edges have been rounded down by the Mountain West.
Unconvinced, he clutches his apron, stares out the window into the shrinking remains of December daylight. “Well, there’s some leftover Chinese waiting for me at home. No point keeping the lights on for us locals, hey?”
I look down at the tin foil wrapper, rubbing the shiny film between my fingers. Next to the saucer lies my notepad, a sketch of an eel-like creature scratched across the page. The waiter pretends not to notice the drawing as I ask him where he’s heading. Trelaven, same as me. No sense waiting for a bus, we both agree.
I pile into the passenger seat. It is already dark. The headlights illuminate only as much road as they do rain, though that doesn’t stop the waiter winding up the narrow track at 50mph. He asks me what I’m writing and I tell him I’m working on a collection of stories inspired by West Cornish folktales. “Too many books about the bloody waves,” he says, matter-of-fact. “As if there’s any fisherman around here.”
“It’s not for children,” I reply.
The car lurches over the apex of the hill, putting the cove behind us out of sight. I know from memory that there is a steeple ahead. My eyes try to locate its form, pulling strange shapes out of the fog. “You saw they closed down the post office,” he continues, casually. From his face, I guess that he is in his late 20s – too young to remember it opening. “Last year it was the shop. Just the pub left. My niece is working part-time over the Winter. I’m driving her ten miles each way to get to the mine over Pendeen.”
“She works in the pits?”
The waiter laughs, and puts the car down into second as we whip round another blind corner. “It’s a museum now. Quiet sorta job this time of year.” He offers me his number, says he’ll drive over in the morning if I want a lift. “You should be here in the Summer. It’s a lot more cheery when the village is full of people.” I shrug, press my face to the glass.
The whole place feels back-to-front, I thought to myself two days earlier, walking past Trelaven cemetery, my suitcase trailing behind like a lost dog. I had fooled myself into thinking I could remember where the B&B was from the photo shown on the booking website. But, like trying to brush one’s hair in the mirror, every corner I took only seemed to take me further from where I was trying to go.
I stumbled across the cricket club, the changing rooms within which I shared my first kiss with another boy, his tongue tasting of Horlicks. I passed the garden wall where my grandmother used to loiter drunk on her way home from The Trelaven Inn, yelling expletives at anybody who walked past. Just when I thought I was nearing the B&B cottage, I bumped into the grinding stone opposite the primary school, where I had my head kicked in over the strength of my wrists. There remains an impression left in the stone the shape of my chin, though it is surely erosion of another kind.
How stubbornly it all endures. And yet, I couldn’t join up the dots. It was as if these different sites existed discretely in time, not just in space; montage-like, I could recall nothing of the connective tissue, the ebb and flow of daily life that once bound them together as one.
The room in my B&B smells of fresh paint. The walls are pale blue, and on every surface is some nautical fancy. Above the bed hangs a watercolour of St. Michael’s Mount; the castle, lucid, up on the rock emerges from the thick-brushed blue-brown like an apparition, but the people below on the causeway are painted coarse, ageless.
I lower myself to my knees and, with unsteady hands, sort through the scraps of paper scattered across the carpet. There are photocopies from out-of-print history books, verses from sea songs scratched onto post-it notes, fragments of stories scraped off dead links from the web. And woven through them all, my own quilted prose.
The Bucca is a male sea-spirit in Cornish folklore, a merman who inhabits coastal and mining communities during stormy weather. Some records show fishermen leaving votive offerings on the beach, similar to those left by miners…
I stop reading, recalling a memory of Richie in his hospice bed, thin as a beanpole, sipping something sugary through a disintegrating paper straw. “I suppose you’re too good for Cornish pixies,” he said.
“Pixies have been gentrified,” I replied, pretending to ignore the incredulous twitch of his eyebrow. “And the mermaids are worse. I’ve seen enough sparkly, sexy mermaids from Hollywood for a lifetime.”
“You’re better than that,” he teased.
“It’s not about me. This book will be an act of public service. The whole peninsular deserves something–”
“Something difficult. I’ll rescue from the bowels of time something so unruly it shall never die the same death endured by all that postcard fodder. It’s my duty to chase these ghouls across the landscape.” Richie laughed deep. “You wouldn’t get it. Look at this place,” I said in a huff. The pair of us turned to the window that opened onto the lawn and beyond, the snowy tip of Bear Peak. “You grew up on a postcard. The city’s only 150 years old and you’ve been lurking around the place for half of it. It doesn’t have a history.”
Richie put down the cup on the bedside table and exhaled a rattling, end-of-life sigh. “Who needs history?”
10 pm, the single-pane window shakes in its frame, waking me up from a fidgeting sleep. I peer out onto the gravel of the petrol station car park. From the prices listed up on the board, barely visible through the gale, I deduce that the pumps have not been operative for some months. Nonetheless, the kiosk light is still on and, behind the till, a mangy limb of tinsel reaches across the corrugated interior of the structure. I imagine it won’t be taken down this coming January either.
The room is stiflingly hot so I resolve to catch some fresh air. Outside, the wind has settled slightly. The clouds appear engorged red through the street lamps as they barrel silently across the sky. It’s late and everything is shut. I scour the village for signs of life; even the Inn is empty, except for the woman behind the bar who smiles awkwardly in her Santa hat as I poke my head round the door.
Leaning against the boarded-up window to the old corner shop, I wonder to myself what ghost stories they will tell about this place to the coming generations, as they gather round the fire in their second homes and AirBnBs.
“You’re the only ghoul round here,” Richie would have said.
The storm picks up. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a mophead floating in a dirty bucket by the Inn. I reach into the water and pull it out. It hangs like a dead jellyfish flapping in the wind. I breathe in deep. My nostrils fill with the stench of floor cleaner and dirty dishes, of stale beer and grease. Of shutting early in the winter, of part-time labour in a part-time village.
Breathe again. Something older. Oilskin, fishing nets, boil and brine, the foam and froth of a ravenous sea wrought upon the land. Without a thought, my fingers claw, the corner of my mouth curls into a snarl bearing my incisors, and the mop drops onto my head. A ravel of seaweed for hair.
On my toes, my feet trace the ley lines of my childhood. I creep up to the cricket green and whisper “Oorah” to the concrete pavilion steps. In sneaky steps, I approach my grandmother’s old garden wall. “Oorah,” I groan to the crumbling brick, holding itself moss for mortar. In automatic footsteps, I pace around the grinding stone, lay my face against the granite, and tell it with a tender tongue “Oorah.”
My Trelaven is a circle of stones, humming to itself:
Penzance boys up in a tree.
Looking as wisht as wisht can be;
Newlyn Buccas as strong as oak,
knocking them down at every poke!
I hear a shuffling sound beside me. My eyes dart over to the bushes. A sea wind whips the air, carving strange forms out of the fog that flutter against the limits of my vision.
Is this how you see me? a voice grumbles forth in a gurgling Cornish accent. I pull the mop off my head and raise myself to my feet.
If the miners had spotted me in the streams, they would have said my skin was the colour of tin ore. Vanquished in the furnace, they’d leave me their bronzeware clattering at the waterside. If the herdsmen had spotted me skulking amongst the cattle, they would have said I wore the hide of the bull. It’d be bags of corn feed nestled amongst the dry-stone boundaries to their pastures, bones of the calf that wouldn’t milk tethered in bundles to the side of their feeding troughs. If the flower pickers up on the hillside had spotted me sewed into the quiet, quiet earth, they would have said my hair was a gnarl of roots, and I would find daffodils tied with straw along the path to market. But it was a fisherman who spotted me first and all he saw was the eel-man with seaweed for hair.
The voice grows louder, agitated. No siren songs for me. No tryst with Zennor’s finest choirboy. No hint of that imperishable beauty that tore ships asunder on the rocks. No nothing, but a few spare fish left to bake in the sun at the mouth of Lamorna Cove. Food for the gulls.
Unlike my mermaid sisters, you’ve spared me none of that eerie chimeric charm; I have seen your etchings where I am indistinguishable from a common conger eel, not even fingers or toes.
“Yes,” suddenly excited. “They never furnished mermen with their fantasies, only their fears.”
I do not care for either! it bellows. That’s not what irks me most. They say I was once a prince, turned into this wretched Bucca by a witch. As if I should be flattered by the provenance of a human form. What yarns they might’ve spun if they had gleaned my figure in the stone that holds up their roofs, or the butter scraped across their bread.
It wasn’t so bad when it was only fishermen and their wives who spoke of me. There was room to wriggle and writhe in between those matelot songs, half-remembered and bellowed out-of-key from cove to cove, father to son.
‘Then who is to blame?’
It is you! You and your little folk tales. Your dead little archives.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an ice cream truck pulling up down the lane. The driver, in full courier garb, begins to unload a large piece of furniture to a well-dressed woman who stands shivering on her porch. Starling Cottage, reads the sign beside the door in tacky swirling typography. I sigh. “What do you want?”
Only to be forgotten. Returned to the trees, to the streams, to rest alongside the slumbering spirits of the mines.
I nod. Silence. Lowering myself to sit back on the grinding stone, I feel the weight of it pressing up against my stiffening bones, as if it is resisting, as if to say I’m still here.
6 am, the pillow is damp where my head lay for the night. For a few fleeting moments, I forget the year, expect the warmth of Richie’s body beside me. But when I turn over, there is only the blazing heat from the B&B radiator. Beyond the glass, the storm persists. Visibility is as poor as nightfall. It is bad here, I admit to myself, and I miss Denver.
“Why don’t you go in the Summer?” Richie had asked me in that last month of his life, when his death was so imminent I could plan my flights. “Catch your old stomping ground at its best. Don’t you owe it this much, after all these years?”
“I don’t want it at its best. I want to see how it is, for ordinary people.”
“Ordinary people,” Richie smiled. “These are to be the beneficiaries of your little sea monster stories?” I nodded, furrowing my brow. “How quaint.”
On the B&B floor, I see the notepad bearing yesterday’s sketch of the eel-man. This morning, it is clear as day that no living thing can ever survive the threshold of the page. If there is the trace of any Cornwall in my stories, it is more akin to the geological record: strata in the rock bearing the past motions of continental seas, slowly eroding in front of my eyes just as the tide endlessly gives birth to the shore.
With my pencil, I add a pair of legs to the creature’s body, smirk, before tossing it into the bin and texting the waiter.
“Business or pleasure?” he asks as I get into the car.
“I’m not a tourist,” I repeat, no longer convinced.
With his niece sitting in the backseat, we drive to the old mine. The site is more modern than I expected. A sign by the entrance says it stopped operations in 1990, though folk have been mining in the area for millennia. The Celts, the Romans, the English, they’ve all left their craters in the landscape.
We enter through the gift shop. The place is empty, and poorly stocked with the usual miscellany, mostly items from the wrong historical period or another county. I wonder about the selection of geodes – I’ve seen these kinds of rocks at museums in Denver. Though they are, in isolation, dazzling, together they appear tawdry.
But one of them catches my eye. Crystalline cassiterite, the label reads. “Tin ore,” says the waiter’s niece. “Only thing coming out of the ground round here. Not anymore, obviously.”
The rock is obsidian, primordial. It is so dark that I cannot imagine it having any interior. Polished raw, I can see my reflection in it. With the light from the ceiling blotted out behind me, the image hovers in soft-focus, multiplying across the geometry of the crystal. The swirling faces appear as if they belong to other people. I pick it up, it weighs heavily in my quivering fingers. “I’m going to buy this,” I say.
“You haven’t even seen the museum yet,” the waiter replies.
“I don’t care. How much is it?” I ask the niece.
“Just pocket it,” she says. “We’ve got 100 of them out the back, identical-like. They’re all cut with the same machine. You wouldn’t believe how cheap we buy them in for.”
I glance down at the ore again. In my hand, the surface returns the unflattering yellow of the gift shop, revealing every crevice of my ageing face. “Maybe I’ll leave it.” I rest the crystal back on the shelf and head silently for the museum – just another visitor – leaving the others behind me amongst the glimmering rocks.
About Jae Vail
Jae Vail is a writer based in London. They hold a Ph.D. in music from the University of Manchester. Their writing is published by or forthcoming in Pilot Press, Fairlight Shorts, The Interpreter’s House, Stone of Madness Press, Lit.202 and others.