from The Albatross-Eaters
Bill Vyning showed Charlie how to wash the blood and dirt from his face and hands with an albatross skin. First they rubbed themselves with the greasy inside of a skin to loosen the dirt. Charlie had to breathe through his mouth to keep from being overpowered by the smell of rotten fish, but the bird-skin felt good, being still warm—comforting. When they’d scrubbed their faces and hands, they flipped the skins over and wiped themselves off with the feathers. It wasn’t soap and water, but when Charlie had finished, some of his filth was on the feathers.
The feeling of the warm bird-skin on his face got him thinking about the fat on the birds. He thought about it some more while doing his skinning, one gusty morning: the skins were warm because the birds were warm, and the birds were warm because they were fat.
Tom was sitting next to Charlie, sharpening a piece of iron against a stone. A few feet away, Black Jack and Thomas Standring were mucking around with some turf—Standring with no hat on, hair whipping around in the wind. As usual, they’d gotten the turf to the point of smouldering, but could not make it burn. They’d finished their skinning already, and eaten their raw meat, but Charlie had gone out later, as his mother had been ill earlier in the morning.
He started on a greyback, making a slit at the end of the breastbone, then peeling the skin away, up to the neck and down to the legs. The birds were warm because they were fat. Of course, the insides of any living creature were warm. But the birds did not suffer from cold the way the men were suffering—you didn’t see greybacks shivering and stamping their feet to keep from freezing.
Thomas Standring started coughing, then stood up.
‘I’ve done my dash, Jack,’ he said. ‘I’m gonna have another go at the shanty wall.’
Jack shrugged. ‘Fair enough.’ He went on fiddling with the smoking turf.
Charlie bent the bird’s legs back until they cracked. The birds were warm because they were fat. Also because they were feathered, but the thick layer of fat under the feathers was what really kept them warm. It was the fish that made the birds fat, and it was the lack of fish—or of any good food—that made the men thin. A picture flashed into Charlie’s head, of himself and his fellow survivors smeared in bird-fat and covered all over in feathers. A place like this could do that to you if you let it—turn you from a civilised human being into a kind of animal.
There was heat in the bird-fat. It kept the birds warm while they lived, it was warm to the touch for a short time after they died, and it made heat again when it burned in Black Jack’s lamp—but not enough heat for cooking. Charlie spread a skin on the ground, ready for laying the meat from the next bird on. For a moment he looked down at the skin, then he picked it up again. He got up, walked over to Jack, and threw the skin onto the smouldering turf. The fat from the skin sputtered, and for an instant a flame licked up around it. Then a gust of wind came and blew it out. But it had been there—a flickering orange flame.
Tom was on his feet now, grinning. Black Jack sat back, nodding slowly. ‘Grab us some more of them skins, will yer, Mr Wordsworth?’
Charlie skinned the rest of his birds as fast he could go, while Tom found more skins and Black Jack tried out different methods of building a fire with them.
Now that he’d thought of using bird-skins for fuel, Charlie couldn’t understand why it had taken him so long or why no one else thought of it before. Perhaps it was because they’d all been thinking of turf: how to cut it, which parts of the island to take it from, how to dry it out at least a little, the best way to build a turf fire. And it was hard to think straight when you were tired and cold and hungry.
At the end of half an hour a small fire was blazing, with forty-odd men gathered around it, talking and laughing and clapping each other on the back. Charlie led his mother through the crowd, the men making way for them.
‘Oh Charlie,’ she murmured when she saw the flames, suddenly heavy on his arm as if she’d lost her balance. Tom pulled up a keg of gunpowder for her, and Charlie helped her to sit down in front of the fire.
‘Ah Jack,’ said Bill Vyning. ‘Yer losing your touch man—whatever were ye thinking, to keep us waiting for our fire so long?’
‘Nigh on two weeks it’s been!’ bellowed Sails. ‘Two bloody weeks of raw albatross!’
Charlie’s mother shook her head slowly.
‘Why Jack,’ she said, ‘what a brilliant idea! You’ve saved our lives. How can we ever thank you?
Charlie tensed. He waited for Jack to say it wasn’t his idea, that Charlie was the one who’d thought of bird-skin fuel, and she should be thanking him. But Jack was busy having his hand shaken by Mr Bentley and some of the other passengers. Charlie breathed out, and looked at the fire. What did it matter? Jack knew. Charlie didn’t need to say anything.
‘But it wasn’t Jack who thought of it Mrs Wordsworth,’ said Tom, the words bursting out of him. ‘It was Charlie!’
Charlie’s mother looked at him in wonder.
‘Well done, Charlie,’ she said.
‘Oh, it wasn’t much,’ said Charlie. ‘It was Jack who worked out how to make a fire out of them. He did a capital job.’
Black Jack turned his head and looked straight at Charlie. His nostrils were flared, lip curled, eyes hard with anger.
But he’d slept so badly the night before that tonight he’d chosen the invalid’s position. How much worse could it be? Surely anything was better than another night of being wedged so tight he could hardly move—Big Joe’s elbow digging into him on one side, his mother’s soggy mattress on the other, and a rock in the small of his back. Now he was regretting his choice. Rain drove in under the canvas, forcing him to sit away from the wall with his knees drawn up to his chin.
At last he was so cramped and exhausted that he drew his oilskin round him, doubled up Joe’s sea-boots for a pillow and curled up in the rain. The canvas crashed in the wind and the sea roared. There were patterns in the black: whirling chequer-boards of muted purple and darkest brown, deep velvet diamonds and hearts, billowing clubs and spades. He drifted into them, and at last he slept.
In the kitchen at Albany Street, Charlie sits on Jinny’s knee while she unwraps a parcel of bacon. Starched apron and squashy breasts cosy into the back of his head as she leans forward over him, pulling hairy string and rustling brown paper to reveal the raw rashers—flat slices of dull, moist red, streaked with creamy white fat.
Standing at the hob, he is between Jinny and the stove. He leans back against her, safe and warm in the circle of her arms. The bacon sizzles and spits in the hot pan, pocketing up into pink hillocks, crisping down into salty gullies, rinds frilling into undulating, fat-lined rivers.
Now laddie, here is yer bacon butty. It is huge, a giant’s butty—pig-size rashers of juicy bacon wedged between great slabs of hot buttered toast. Somehow he gets his fingers round it and lifts it from the plate. The toast is warm and rough against his hands. Melted butter and bacon-fat run down his wrists. His mouth waters, he opens wide, prepares to bite into it—
Charlie, my dear. Jinny is gone and his mother has hold of the bacon butty. He pulls on it, trying to lift it to his mouth but she stops him. Why Mother, will ye no let me eat me butty? He is crying, salty tears running cold down the back of his neck.
‘Charlie dear, are you awake?’
Her words pulled at him, tugging on the loose threads of the kitchen, drawing the bacon smell from his nostrils, unravelling the warm dream. His cheek was pressed into a cold sea-boot and his neck was wet from rain. He sat up in the dark, furious. Jesus Christ, did she have to wake him?
‘Sorry dear,’ she whispered. ‘So sorry, but I need to go out.’
Another bloody privy-trip in the middle of the bloody night. He clenched his teeth against the frustration boiling up in him. He could slap her. Right now he could slap her. He took a breath.
‘Nothing to be sorry about Mother. Just let me get my boots on.’
‘Hang on, Mother, don’t go yet, hang on.’
Is it Charlie’s face? It is like Charlie and yet not—the face of a full-grown man, not her little boy. He has a beard for God’s sake—her little boy is all dressed up as a man! She begins to laugh. Laughter roars through her like the fire in Albany Street, a ball of flames tearing down the chimney to burn a hole in the drawing-room carpet. They cover it up with the tiger-skin rug which Daddy brought back from India, fished up from some Indian tarn with a black and orange fly. She is laughing and laughing and now she is coughing, her throat torn and bleeding.
‘Shh, Mother, shhh, here’s your soup now.’
But she turns her head away from the rank fish-stench of it. That cry again, that wild lonely bird shrieking from her own mouth.
‘Hang on Mother, don’t go.’
If she is a bird, why should she stay here? Who is this son-man, this bearded boy to keep her here? And the other one, the big dark man who tells her not to worry—who is he to comfort her, wild feathered thing that she is?
Charlie takes her outside and she staggers against him, stumbles over the rocks and scree, the cold wind blowing right through her. Clouds race by above them, lit by the invisible sun, shrouded in mist. A sky full of seagulls, black shapes wheeling, wings-heads-tails outstretched, dark stars gliding against the gun-metal grey of the sky.
She squats down and her knee rears up toward her face, a sharp bone jutting from a holed stocking. Her skeleton-leg, her bird-bone leg, perching on the rocks that keep her from drowning. It is the island that preserves her, not these men. Her feather-boned body is borne up high on the back of the island, perched on the upper-most ridge far above the waves, way up on the narrow horse-spine of it, cantering through the sea. Sail ho! A sail for every wave, a fleet of ships coming toward them and then ducking away again, off-off to the farthest horizon. The sky is bleeding, blood back-lit like a magic lantern, and full of seagulls. Four-pointed black Christmas-stars glide motionless against the blood-red Punch-and-Judy sky. Punch drops the baby. The baby falls—Charlie falls—she is falling—a sharp clatter of milk-pails down-down-down the area steps, muffin-bells ringing out in the street.
‘All right now Mother?’
Back they go, hop-one-carry-one, tottering back to their cave. Legs are the thing! She sees this clearly, now that her own legs are failing. All journeys must be walked, and for walking one needs legs. This is what is wrong with sea-travel: it is as treacherous as pregnancy. Oh, you think it so easy! Just lie there, let it happen to you, let it grow and swell inside you—no walking required, you will arrive by-and-by without touching a foot to the floor. But you have to watch these legless journeys that happen to a woman—they are dangerous. Set sail for New Zealand and you end up here, the wrong island! Miscarried onto this barren place, still voyaging through the wild sea on this rocky ship that leaves no wake. Miscarried, capsized, wrecked, still-born—how many babies has she lost? Four? Or is it five? She has forgotten—here they are, back at the hut, and here is Black Jack, the big dark man, hollow-cheeked.
‘Sure now Mrs Wordsworth. Let me help you into bed yourself.’
His arms encircle her. Warm salt-sweat and smoke—she is held and lifted, carried, swung across, tucked down-down-down into the hard-rock cold damp bed of night.
‘There now, right you are.’
Dark sleep, tossing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sylvie Haisman’s short stories are published in the Australian literary journals Heat, Island and Southerly and her story ‘How to reverse gravity’ won a prize in the 2008-9 Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Her radio feature Tell Me A Shipwreck was produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and aired on ABC Radio National in June 2008. She is currently completing her novel The Albatross-Eaters, which she submitted in draft form as her thesis for the IIML’s 2008 Creative Writing MA programme, see her website.
For more information,The Albatross-Eaters is based on the true story of Sylvie’s great-great-grandfather Charles Wordsworth, who was shipwrecked in 1876. Along with his mother and 47 other survivors, Charlie was stranded for six months on a tiny, barren, sub-Antarctic island.