Everything's all right in the end
A TALE OF TEMPEST BAY
When a bullied young girl finds a ragged bundle of pulp magazines washed ashore from a shipwreck, a mutual infection begins.
It washed up on shore, this grimy thing, a bundle tied with a knot. Papers sodden with sea water, the ink bleeding and running all through the pulp, last remnants of the violence that had taken place eighty miles south on the great ocean.
The thing was dimly aware of what had happened. Only dim, like a sea crab. But before there had been nothing, and then there was noise, and now there was this wriggling wet struggle to separate light from dark, next from then, salt from earth and sky.
The sun baked the outer fronds of the bundle dry. The thing tasted sand.
A girl came running along the shore amid the rocks chased by two others, one of them a redheaded boy with a cap. It was a game but not really a game. She tripped and twisted and fell. Her nose went bloody. The others caught up and stuffed shells and sand and birdshit in her mouth with ritualistic compulsion then laughed and laughed and went back along the shore still laughing. The redheaded boy with his smirk.
The grimy bundle-thing, stranded in this bright world, felt the dim shudder around it.
The girl made sounds with her stomach. The girl’s eyes leaked. The girl crawled across the sand, scraping her knees on sharp hidden things. Saw the grimy bundle and stopped. Reached out and undid the knot with her little shaking hands smeared with nose blood. Saw what was inside, prodded with her left finger, felt curiosity then disgust then a zing of warm delight.
That tiny conflicting sequence infected the bundle-thing, ran through it like a ship’s rat. It shivered. Felt the girl’s gaze hot on its fronds, reached out trying to push everything away–
But it had no limbs, no eyes, no way to escape the attention of a conscious soul. Only dim.
Are you a good thing or a terrible thing? the girl said in a tone of voice her mother used to use.
The thing didn’t comprehend or answer.
Well I think you’re a good thing, she said. My thing.
She grabbed the bundle. Although it was still heavy and mostly wet with sea water she began hauling it along the shoreline, over the rocks, towards her home.
The thing retreated inside itself. The thing remembered more, from the hungry event that had happened out on the ocean. It remembered the screams. But kept them buried down in the safe pulpy nest of the bundle, like eggs, for now.
And so their good and terrible story began.
The year was 1908 and the girl was seven years old. Born on the day Queen Victoria died. Wild and determined, she was, with a knack for trouble. Different enough to see the strangeness in everyday life.
The place was called Tempest Bay, in New Zealand, at the far end of the earth from the old countries. Along the shoreline was a dock, and beyond the dock was a rough metalled track for moving goods, and just past that was a crossroads. Houses and cottages then hills above.
It was a place where people tried to make new beginnings. But the girl’s father wouldn’t even let her across the threshold of their cottage.
Your nose is red, gel, and you’re scraped, he said. Not playing with that bloody Flanders boy again, are you?
It’s not playing, the girl said. He’s beastly.
You know his Da got taken last year, he said.
Yes I know his Da got taken last year, she said.
Affect anyone, that does, he said. It’ll affect you one day when I’m not here to provide sense and shelter.
I found this on the beach, she said holding up the bundle-thing.
That’s ship ballast, he said. There’s word of a wreck south, a bad one.
Her father was right: the bundle of papers had been in the hold of a ship, keeping it stable in the water. Old magazines and pamphlets, printed on the cheapest paper available, the surplus wrapped up and stored and shunted across oceans from San Francisco to Sydney to here.
Deep inside the dim, the thing listened.
You said I should be curious, the girl began–
Curious about ancient egypt or comets or sheep docking or suchlike, not ballast! he said. What a mess you’re making, gel, no respect, no respect. Get that lot out of sight and don’t let me see you mucking with it again. We’ll have no trouble here, no evidence to expose ourselves to the authorities.
We’ll have no trouble and nothing interesting, the girl said. Nothing interesting ever.
Supper’s at normal and you’ll be there, Cora Langford, he said, you’ll bloody well be there clean and presentable.
Presentable to who, the girl said.
To god and country and good manners, her father said, as he scratched his arse and spat on the threshold.
So Cora squatted out of sight in the empty lot behind the Tempest Bay dry goods store. Swept a handful of gravel from a nice dry spot with lots of sun. Unfurled the bundle and gently, so gently, began peeling back the dry and sodden layers of paper within.
Ballast, she said, what an interesting word.
The thing screamed as its skin was removed. Screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed, like the screams it remembered from the violence out on the ocean. The screams of terror and pain and madness. The screams of agony. Of rending iron. The screams of brutal digestion.
But no one, not even the girl, could hear. Because it had no mouth, only dim.
Look at you, the girl said. Look at all these lovely stories.
It was a trove. Gobbets of ink and wood pulp, the penny magazines and comics stuffed together hastily by brawny men in a port far away as they loaded the ship with cargo and for its long voyage. Impossible Stories. Wicked Detective. The Strand. Terrible Tales. Alien Marvels. Stuffed to the brim with gunslingers and lovers and monsters and fairies and sailors and women with mysterious expressions.
The girl kept peeling, probing. The agony wouldn’t dissipate. The harsh sunlight was unending.
The thing was ready for her to find the nightmarish memories nested deep inside it and recoil. Set it on fire or tear it to bits and bury it.
But even as she tore into its heart and wriggled her fingers amongst its pulpy guts, the girl didn’t recoil at all.
Instead she did something truly unexpected and violent. She traced a pattern with her left index fingernail, speaking aloud as she did.
The story of Butcher Bill and his Bloody Ensemble, she read. Ooh I like that.
It felt a shiver run through it, electricity in the salt water of its veins. It couldn’t eat her, devour her, stop this pain and hunger and sunlight and harsh awakening, because it had no mouth, only dim.
As Cora claimed ownership, then and there, of the story trove that washed up on Tempest Bay impregnated with the horrors of the ocean depths, the thing realized it wouldn’t die, not yet. Not simply.
It would be forced to live first.
The loudest scream of all didn’t even make a whisper in Cora’s ears.
So in the crisp spring of 1908 Cora began the Tempest Bay Official Book Tent down at the vacant lot. Her Da didn’t entirely approve, but it kept her from roaming the hillsides or getting into god knows what trouble over at the dock.
The stories from the old pulp magazines were mostly sodden still, pages ruined or missing, often torn out in the middle. Cora bargained with Alan Bream at the dry goods for enough of a loan of canvas to make a home for them. Propped up two Totara tree branches in the vacant lot, strung the tent. Painstakingly assembled paragraphs about pirates and vampires and harlots and space adventurers and gangsters and cowboys and cossacks and detectives. Hung them up on wooden clothespegs and twine that she nicked from down by Maisie Bickle’s wash-stand.
There they hung, all those juicy forbidden tales.
Glimpse other worlds, Cora announced as she strode the vacant lot. Feast your soul on unsanctioned stories! How much, you ask? Only a farthing! One farthing only to sail beyond the bounds of earthly imagination!
The children of Tempest Bay came first. Curious, then interested, nosing their way around the clothespegs.
With bloody ferocity he lashed the unfortunates with his whip, read out Mark Halliwell in halting speech–
Some most deep-laid and desperate plot is going on, read out Amber Wright, in her snotty brogue–
In her frenzy she tore at the lizard men’s chains– read out Lucas Gurney but the next bit made him blush too much and he ran out of the lot which only made the others laugh and crowd in further–
A glimpse of all that lies within! Cora announced, dropping a canvas sheet in front of the pages. Now farthings out, all of you.
Soon the news was spreading through Tempest Bay, and a venture was born.
Thursday during a quiet moment the redheaded Flanders boy came through and stood at the edge of the tent and stared at the pages drying up on their pegs, drinking in the sight.
Hello Nick Flanders, Cora said warily.
It’s nuffin but bits, the boy said with a sneer. Not even real stories.
You make the story yourself, Cora said. Inside. These are just the doorway. One farthing if you please.
The thing, whose consciousness had begun to spread throughout the tent, listened without ears.
The redheaded boy snatched a page from its drying place and stared at the scrap of picture on it, a lithograph of a vampire biting its well-bosomed thrall. Sneered again.
Looks like stupid bollocks to me–
Reaching out with dim instinct the thing slithered into the redheaded boy’s eyeballs and stung him in the brain. Just a jab. The redheaded boy shrieked, tore the page to shreds in a panic with his grubby hands.
Oi, Cora said. Stop it Nick Flanders, you will.
Something hurt me, the boy said.
Thinking does hurt some folks, she said. Imagination’s hard work if you’re stupid.
You’re saying I’m stupid, the boy said.
I’m saying you’ll stop being a nuisance, she said.
Or what, the boy said. He stepped over towards Cora, and the thing felt the echo of old violence in the air–
Or I’ll pay Jerry Wattle and Joanie Tyke and John Sloman out there one page each to beat you up here and now and humiliate you, she said.
The redheaded boy laughed but three other children were already looking in the tent-flap, their eyes mean and ready, whetted by the promise of vampires and pirates.
All right all right the redheaded boy began, turning away and pushing through them–
But Cora was feeling vengeful and remembering all the other times and so she nodded anyway–
It changed the redheaded boy, what happened next. Changed him and Cora both, in their ways.
When it was over and he was in the mud crying she fluttered half a ruined page down on him.
There you go, she said. I’ve broken you like a swamp horse and don’t you forget it Nick Flanders. That’s your story, now. The boy who was broken like a swamp horse by Cora Langford.
The thing felt all this through the dim, felt every moment. Fed on the interplay. Realized it could unfurl its fronds into the corners of these conscious souls. Realized this whole bright scorching world of Tempest Bay was fertile ground.
From that moment of violence and discovery in the book tent, the thing put down roots and began to grow.
There were many things under the skin of Tempest Bay. Layers. In its own way, the town was similar to the bundle itself.
First and foremost Tempest Bay was a place of rituals. Some small, like placing your milk bottles out with the lips turned south and a little flower in. Or visiting the tower up on the cliffs with your sweetheart in September, getting hands all over each other’s skin with the waves crashing below.
But some rituals were stranger, older, not talked about except in the act. Moments of sacrifice and exchange with the great ocean. Things had been washing up on that shoreline for a very long time.
One night when the storms were up and the rain was coming through the dark like fingernails and there was mud seeping under the flaps of the book tent, Cora snuck down from the cottage. A worn hammer in her hand with something dark on it. Her head full of weather and something vast like an orbiting invisible star she was avoiding. Something you try not to catch in the candlelight of your mind because to see it is to make it exist, and nothing like this can possibly exist in a world that is sane.
She slumped in her underclothes. Let out a huge sigh of all the air escaping her body. Listened to the howls outside and the rain.
The thing sat there, in the dark of Cora, aware.
They’re coming, Cora said. It’s the king tide at dawn and I got chosen. Da didn’t even try to stop it. So they’re coming.
Here in the book tent in the vacant lot they sat, together. Feeling the rising ritual pulse of all Tempest Bay around them.
For the first time ever the wondered about consequence. About what would happen next. Became aware of choices in the world.
Well they won’t catch me, Cora said. I’m fooked if I’m turning out like ma did.
She stood and plunged her hands into the thing’s fleshy heart, the remnants of the bundle that were still kept in a crate near the back of the tent. Tore out a fistful of pulp. Ripped down pages from the clothespins then pulled the clothespins apart so she had wooden nails and wire. Clenched it all in her fists and went back out into the storm.
Away from the shoreline. Away from the clifftops. From the voices calling for Cora, from the torches flickering in the dark and rain.
The thing came with her into the north woods beneath the hills. Cora’s head all dizzy and breathless. She stopped near an oversized rata tree. Opened her fists and felt for a page among the dim, a page about a pirate named Terrible Lucy –
Took the hammer and nailed it to the tree trunk. The thing screamed in the woods but those screams were overwhelmed by the voices of the townsfolk who heard the concussions and tried to follow.
Cora moved quick now. Deeper among the trees. Nailing pages here and here. The thing left pieces of itself behind with every one. Again and again, the agony. But it refused annihilation. There was purpose in this. It understood, as Cora did, something of what was happening, of how loose the boundaries between dreaming and reality were on these particular nights in Tempest Bay—
The wind was lashing the forest and you could hear the rumble of the high tide waves and the whole of Tempest Bay was coiling, hungry, ready for the dawn ritual –
But the townsfolk couldn't find her. Couldn’t follow the trail she’d blazed. She was somehow in a different place, a new geography. Charting some path they didn’t comprehend, which in that moment made Cora invisible to them.
Until Cora came round the shadow of a Totara tree and stumbled right over roots that weren’t roots, they were the red-headed boy with a foolish lantern–
He was with the others. But wasn’t. He was just as afraid as Cora.
He opened his mouth to yell–
But didn’t. Closed it again. The bundle felt the dim quiver, the seed it had planted in him all those weeks ago.
Cora grabbed his hand. Slowly, deliberately, shut the slider on his lantern.
All night the boy and the girl and the thing crouched there in the invisible path of the forest while townsfolk hunted and the storm raged, and no one found them.
In the end someone else was taken, a girl who had been in the book tent three days ago and whose name was never spoken again, and something happened down on the beach that was much worse than just rocks and sand and birdshit being stuffed in your mouth.
When morning finally came and the redheaded boy scurried back through the lightening woods without a backward glance, Cora finally let go her stubbornness and collapsed sobbing with exhaustion and relief.
You never know what you’ll learn to live with, she said in the same words her mother had once used. What you’ll learn to accept.
Nestled beside her, the thing felt the sky and the earth and the ocean open their jaws. Vast presences watching, just for an instant of deep time. Observation but also an invitation. A call home.
The thing resisted, for now. It had discovered that it wanted something. Wanted to warm itself around these bags of flesh and water. Wanted to warm itself around Cora, somehow. Around the violent candle of her refusal to be dim.
Time moved forward. The ocean tides came in and out. Storms rolled into Tempest Bay all the way up from Antarctica. Rhythm and ritual, seasons and sunlight.
Cora grew in the soil of time. A full foot taller. The tent became a wooden structure and acquired a new name, The Idle Hour Bookstore, scratched in red vermillion paint on a board above the doorway. Cora stocked the store with other bundles of ballast, other volumes and periodicals, acquired from ships’ quartermasters for all sorts of barter. But none of the new items had the dim. They were just paper covered in ink, sitting there like fat dry chickens. They hadn’t been in the ocean during those far-off moments with all the screams and the blood.
Overseas wars came and went. Cora’s Dad got taken in one of the storms, fell twenty feet trying to fix a hawser. Cora didn’t cry. Cora chopped the cottage down with an ax over three full days and no one stopped her.
The thing grew and grew from its heart in the bookstore. Sometimes it hid in the books themselves, emerging invisible like a puff of dusty mildew, sliding an emotion down someone’s throat.
Sometimes it would put on a skin of dreams and explore the tunnels and passageways of people’s souls at night. The physical bookstore was small but the imaginal realm of Tempest Bay was much, much larger, its stories richer and deeper than pirates and vampires and space adventurers. All these humans walking round with heads full of dim, each one a labyrinth of hidden urges and private thoughts, all their hopes and despair and lusts and jealousies and art and memories. Screaming, some of them, inside their heads, louder than the thing had ever managed to scream even when its skin was peeled off.
Cora had dreams too, of course. Cora kept evolving and changing form. Cora smoked and drank and listened to Victrola records and roamed the stacks with paintbrush in hand. Wrote in her journals and felt thoughts in her head like rasping violin notes.
I’m determined to live a remarkable life, she said out loud one evening in the stacks. I’m too different to be like one of them.
The thing couldn’t tell her what it knew, what it had discovered in all those passageways and labyrinths of people’s souls. Couldn’t say, you’re different indeed but in some ways you taste just the same.
She got frustrated and tried to leave Tempest Bay so many times. Running away to Wellington town or jumping ship for Sydney. But Cora always came back. Always rejoined the rituals of daily life. Talked to herself more and more. Copulated with people in every nook and cranny of the bookstore, and well beyond.
Woozy one night, her own head full of words and regret for things she’d done and not done amid various dramas, she vomited on the hardwood floor and said very clear:
I feel you, you know. I know you’re there. I just don’t ever know how to speak to you. I chase you in my dreamlands like a shadow but you fly away every time, like a bird.
You’re my navigator, she said. I feel like I’m still discovering you, all these years later.
But the thing knew it was no bird. Only dim. Only ravenous, and growing.
Cora had been dadless a long time now. But when a storm rolled in and old Pat Flanders hung himself up on the clifftop from rusty hooks screwed into the granite, it made the redheaded boy dadless too. The redheaded boy who was now two feet taller himself and grown fierce and capable, who had fought and fought and fought with Cora so many years, who had gone across the oceans and come back and built his own cottage on south hill because, as he’d told Cora one angry day in the Idle Hour, he’d rather be building things up than chopping them down, to which she’d said something horrid and they hadn’t spoken for another four months after that.
Two days after Pat Flanders went up on the hook, the redheaded man cried himself to sleep in Cora’s arms while she read him the story of Varney the Vampire.
Cora and the redheaded man made plans to go to the new movie theater that had opened in Tempest Bay just two months ago, a cavern of light and sound and butter snacks. Thursday night, it’d be. A double bill of monsters and pirates.
Feels like it might be the start of something, Cora said as she sewed up a special cotton dress in the old reading chair in the bookstore. Feels like I’ve been waiting for this.
But the thing, moving through the dim that was now a full spectrum of emotions and dreams and feelings woven all through Tempest Bay, saw the other side. Felt the redheaded man’s mind tessellate & fracture in his neatly built bathroom up on south hill.
Thursday morning redheaded Nick Flanders got on a bus at the Tempest Bay crossroads, the bus that went up over the hills to Wellington town. Got on that bus and never came back.
Cora went to the movie theater at seven thirty all dressed up and smelling like charm and waited in the foyer. Waited and waited as the people inside shared uproarious dreams in the dark, silver screen flickers of ghosts and swashbucklers and the adventures they’d once only read and heard about.
Cora came back to the bookstore half past midnight and sat in the old reading chair and didn’t say anything, didn’t think anything.
The thing knew it wasn’t just about the redheaded man on a bus. Redheaded men and buses came and went. There was something deeper here, something it had once known out in the ocean, after all that violence, as it washed through the deep waves just trying to move like a primordial crab, scuttling forward in the dim.
Years rolling into decades, all contained in a single repeated day.
The struggle of getting out of bed. Breakfast or no breakfast. Eggs not jam. Reading or not reading. Fucking and fighting and shitting and sleeping and waking. All these stories trapped inside people’s heads, telling themselves over and over again but never getting loose.
Cora kept trying to make her story in that repeated day. Paintings. Poetry. Love affairs. Gin no tonic. Picnics. Charities. Bicycles. A baby. A sanatorium. None of it held. None of it escaped the rising dim.
She offered up things to the stars and the ocean. Sometimes things came back. But not often. Not the right things.
She would go down to the shoreline and try to swim out past the tide, but the sea wouldn’t eat her and she would return exhausted at sunset. Stay sobbing in the bookstore past midnight.
The thing held two time scales in itself. The first was simply every day repeating itself, tide to dusk, sunrise to falling-off, with Cora and the humans of Tempest Bay. The other was vast, deep time, the ocean and the presence out there and this tiny flickering spark between eons.
Two scales, and nothing in between. Nothing to suggest an answer, even if Cora had ever asked the question.
The town kept growing. Workmen blasted a tunnel through the north hills joining Tempest Bay more easily to Wellington, to metalled tracks, combustion engines, traffic and sightseers and jobs and busyness. Another great war, far away. More blood on the ocean. More technology.
Cora smoked too much and got a hole in her throat. She breathed in book-dust through it, coughing angrily as she patrolled the Idle Hour, jealously checking for silverfish and cockroaches and dog-eared pages, scaring children.
She would rant and rave and then be tender and bitter, trying to provoke a response.
I know what you do, she said, baring her teeth at the rafters. I know what you’ve done to people. To me.
You’re a maze I keep on getting lost in, she said. A labyrinth of all these reflected things. But there’s nothing there. No Minotaur at your center. You’re just a horrid mirror. An echo. There was nothing there all along.
A scrap of the original flesh of those long-ago pages in her hand. Squeezing so hard her fingernails pushed blood into them.
You’ve done nothing for me, she said. Locked me up here in this place. Kept me from the adventures I always deserved to have.
I hate you. I wish I couldn’t read. I wish I couldn’t think. I wish I couldn’t feel. I want to come see it now, that nice dark quiet ocean. It’s time.
A beam creaked in the bookstore. It couldn’t possibly be an answer.
The thing had no way of telling Cora: it’s not time. You’re something, still.
Dawn on the shoreline of Tempest Bay. One particular day at the end of a hundred years.
Data crawling through the skies. The buzzing of information and invisible machinery unimaginable on the day Queen Victoria died. A brand new ultra millennium for all.
The body of an old woman who had breathed her last breath 12 hours ago, mad and gargling and bitter in her obsessive hovel of a bookstore. A thing inside that body, that had spent nearly a century spreading its tendrils through human dreams but didn’t know how to make a tendon work. The body walking with awkward steps like a badly hinged puppet, across the stones and sand and birdshit. A complete absence of Cora.
Lurching down to the ocean’s edge. Scraps of ancient yellowed paper stuck through its hair and armpits, obscene. The final dregs of its bowels and bladder staining the varicose legs and scabbed feet.
Standing slumped on that shoreline. The sun like pale fire, a different hue than it had been a hundred years ago. Little pebbles and crabs and the cool tongue of seawater.
Step forward. Again. Again. One last ritual.
No thought no love no words just dim now dark.
It was all so alive and exciting and then it was all so long and dreary–
No Cora no pirates no vampires no fucking no singing no thinking just darkness–
This is how all stories end–
No. There never was a story. Just temporary dim imaginings on the shore of an endless ocean, and now the cold waters close over us.
Deep time resumes.