Where the Start Sign Marks the End By N.K. Woods

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The name on the grave still looks sinister. By day I can laugh off the coincidence and at night the mask of gloom obscures familiar details, but twilight and logic are natural enemies, and I’m jumpy, all alone on the island in the lake.

My faith in the plan fails, along with my nerve, and I retreat to the ruins of the abbey. Wild sounds reach me from high in the tower, the scratching and flapping of bats. I yank my hood up. Bat wings tangled in hair might be an old wives’ tale but I’m not taking any chances before my upcoming party. I’m tempted to go home and begin celebrating a day early; after all, midnight is less than five hours away. It would only take a few minutes to cross back to the village, but my heart has kept me from old haunts for too long and I’m not finished here yet. So I turn away from the footbridge that leads to the mainland and cut through a grove of trees to reach the pilgrim path, a sandy ribbon at the water’s edge.

A local saying pops into my head. Always travel clockwise on the island. Move that way to reach the Lord, or anticlockwise to find the devil.

Don’t be ridiculous, I tell myself, although I do feel a little uneasy about taking the anticlockwise route now that night has won the battle with dusk.

The wind is stronger by the shore. I wrap my arms around my body and push on. The island is tiny; a single lap will only take me twenty minutes. Then I’ll be ready to give my plan another go. I hardly cover any ground, however, before the sight of an upturned boat wedged on the sand brings me to a standstill. I can’t resist; a moment later I’m sitting cross-legged on the hull, surveying my territory.

Time melts away and I could be nine years old again and an aspiring pirate. More than aspiring. While I never made it to the high seas, I once boarded and seized a small rowboat that I found bobbing in the reeds. With a life on the lake in mind, I hauled up the anchor – two bricks hitched together with rope – and began paddling. But I didn’t get far before a giant of a man who was mending a nearby bench, one of a handful dotted around the island to allow weary pilgrims to rest, put a stop to my adventure. He waded into the water and hauled me back to shore before I could travel any distance. To my surprise, he didn’t yell at me or tell me to get out. Instead he secured the boat and left me rocking in it while he wrung out wet socks and shook water from his boots, revealing feet that were shockingly white in contrast to his sunburnt face.

‘You’re young Drew, yes?’ he said, tossing me a packet of mints.

I caught the sweets but didn’t take one. And I ignored his question. It wasn’t that he was a stranger – I knew him in the way I knew most people from the area – but he’d ruined my game.

‘Fond of the island, eh?’ He smiled and lit a cigarette. ‘But I bet you don’t know what happened here. Way back, like – hundreds of years ago.’

‘Course I do,’ I replied, too indignant to realise I’d been drawn out of my sulk.

‘Mm, I doubt it. That story is too scary for young ears.’

‘I know about the murders,’ I insisted, getting angrier by the minute. ‘Raiders came in boats and stormed the place. They cut off the monks’ heads.’ I gestured with one hand and made my eyes bulge. ‘Slit their throats from ear to ear and nicked all the silver and stuff.’

‘No such thing as X-rated stories in your house then,’ said the man with a snort. ‘The brothers got slaughtered – that’s true enough, but I never heard of anyone’s head getting lopped off.’ My face must have fallen because he went on, ‘Might’a happened, mind. Probably did.’ He blew smoke from his mouth and asked, ‘And what about the Drews? Anyone ever tell you about your name?’

I tried and failed to conceal my interest, but he had the sense not to grin in triumph.

‘Right so,’ he said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If you promise to stay off the lake, I’ll share what you might call a fascinating fact about your family’s history.’

I hesitated, not wanting to have my adventures curtailed, but he waited and my curiosity won out. I agreed with a nod.

He nodded too. ‘Simply put, Drew means descended from druids.’

He might as well have told me I was descended from Merlin. I was so excited that I stood up and the boat rocked, making me fall back down.

‘Druids worshipped here long before the monks stuck their noses in. Think of it. Your ancestors on this very spot. Must be why you’re so taken with the place. But if you’re going to keep skipping over the bridge on your own, be careful the island’s ghosts don’t nab you!’

A metallic sound startles me back to the present and I flinch, half expecting to meet one of the ghosts in person. Glancing round, I see the reflective eyes of an animal before it scurries into the ditch. Suddenly I feel exposed. I slide down from the hull. One of my flattened palms catches on a splinter and the sensation of trickling blood makes me shudder, but I ram both hands in my pockets without examining the cut.

Part of me wants to run back to the village, but I’m determined to see my plan through. I’m not quite ready, though, to return to the graveyard – the village’s burial ground in centuries past – so I continue on, singing softly as I walk, hoping to rediscover the courage that came naturally to me as a child.

‘Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Eliza, happy birthday to me.’

The lyrics are snatched away by the breeze but I don’t stop singing until I step off the path to enter the grotto. Medals, ribbons and memorial cards for the dead decorate the rock around a small pool. A battery-powered candle flickers on a stone, holding a card in place. The image of the woman who told fortunes at the annual fair catches me off guard. Her passing passed me by. Never again will I hear her standard predictions for my future: a life with more thrills than spills, an abundance of friends, an unexpected trip. I’m about to move the candle to cast light on a poem that’s printed beneath her picture when a faint clink causes me to freeze. More clinks follow.

No one replies when I call out a tentative hello, but the clinking stops. I creep back to the path and lower my hood to better see and hear. With the village concealed by the mass of the island and clouds blocking the moon and stars, darkness envelops me and it’s hard to be sure if I’m alone. I wait a minute and then walk on, faster than before.

I make it to the head of the island without meeting another soul and drop onto a bench to catch my breath. Almost at once, however, the strange sound returns and I spring to my feet.

‘Is anyone there?’

Silence.

I don’t ask again. Going faster than before, I race along the track. I’m almost afraid the world will have vanished when I round the headland. But the village lights twinkle invitingly on the mainland when I clear the curve, although things seem wrong, backwards. Travelling in the prohibited direction reveals cottages before shops, and church before water tower. Things appear in reverse order, and the start sign for the pilgrimage route marks the finish line of my backwards circuit.

The footbridge is in front of me but, much as I want to, I don’t take it. Instead I return to the cemetery and weave my way between lopsided headstones, markers disturbed by storms and time. The ground is bumpy but I’m careful about where I put my feet and reach Elizabeth’s grave without tripping. It’s too dark to read the inscription but I know it by heart.

Here lieth the body of Elizabeth Drew who departed this life April 9th 1807 aged 20 years.

‘Hi,’ I whisper to the woman I’ve feared since the day I spotted her headstone. ‘I should’ve brought you flowers, but I didn’t think of it – sorry. I’m rubbish at this. See, I’m not religious or superstitious. Well, I never used to be. But you probably know that already. You must’ve seen some of the stuff I got up to here, on holy ground.’ I bite my lip and go on, ‘All those “firsts”. First drink. That sneaky bottle of vodka with my friends by the abbey. First guy. By the abbey too. Sorry about that – hope you weren’t watching. But here’s the thing, getting sick’s given me a bad case of the willies. My op’s over and I’m ready to move on, but I’m worried about turning twenty-one tomorrow. Dumb, I know, but you never made it that far-’ I stop, not wanting to tempt fate by admitting that I’m afraid I won’t outlive my namesake. Trusting her to understand, I go on, ‘So if you could put in a good word with whoever…..’

I reach out to touch the stone but a stinging pain in my left palm stops me from making contact. Investigating gently with my other hand, I find the cut from earlier. It’s located in the v between my thumb and index finger and feels worse than I thought – deeper. It’s no longer weeping but the blood drawn by the splinter has hardened, mostly in the groove of my lifeline. It doesn’t mean anything, or that’s what my head says, but the rest of me doesn’t agree. I back away from the grave, holding my injured hand out as though it shows signs of gangrene.

After stumbling from the cemetery, I take the sandy path again, moving clockwise by design. The mysterious sounds don’t disappear with my change of direction. To block out the intermittent clinks, I talk to anyone who might be listening: Elizabeth, the giant who ended my pirate adventure, the woman who promised me a trip I’ve not yet had the chance to take, monks, druids.

The only thing that changes as I round the headland after passing the grotto and the upturned boat is the order of revelations, with the water tower coming into view before the church, and the shops before the cottages. Moving almost at a run, and with the wind behind me, this circuit of the island is the quickest of my life; but here, all beginnings and endings eventually converge, regardless of the direction taken, and I soon find myself back at the footbridge, exactly where I started.

I’m afraid to take my eyes from the village but I force myself to turn around one last time to face whoever is chasing me. And then the moon comes out from behind a cloud and I spot a dark shape up a tree by the path. My tormentor is surprisingly small, but that doesn’t stop my heart from pounding so hard that my chest hurts when I force my feet forward. But on reaching the tree I see that the shape is only a loudspeaker, one of a series rigged up around the track to allow prayers to be broadcast when crowds of pilgrims descend on the island. The breeze has set the wires rattling against the speakers, creating charmless wind chimes.

Astonished at my own skittishness, my cheeks grow hot although I suddenly feel cold. I tell myself the tingling sensation is windburn, but then I realise that the air around me is perfectly still. I drop to the ground and listen. Silence has swallowed everything, but I’m positive I’m not alone. It feels as though I’ve stumbled into a surprise party, one where everyone is watching me from nearby hiding places. But I’m sure it won’t be long before they show themselves. The thought makes me smile and my fears fade as I shut my eyes to wait.

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N.K. Woods

N.K. Woods studied Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh. Her stories have appeared in The Cabinet of Heed, Silver Apples Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman, Tales From the Forest, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Galway Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and The Ogham Stone. She lives in Ireland.

Image by Christian_Birkholz from Pixabay

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