Monday, 5 January 2009
The Great Sea Serpent
Death of course, was punctual. He showed up with his scythe strapped to his back and the young man let him in. The drawing room was a mess of labelled boxes and letters scattered across the dining table.
"I hope you don't mind the mess," the young man said, "I've been preparing for my journey with you."
Death waved a bony hand and remarked that it was nothing to him. He remarked that he had been in considerably messier places and he quite understood. The young man seemed pale and upset, which Death also understood. Still, the young man did not forget his manners. He made a large pot of tea and brought in a cake.
"I am not sure if you er,.." he foundered and Death smiled gently.
"I have been known to take both tea and cake, thank you. It is really very considerate of you in the circumstances," Death said kindly.
He refrained from pointing out the irony of the situation as the young man really did seem terribly distressed. He left his scythe in the hallway, leaning against the wall and sat in the drawing room with the young man. The young man poured the tea and Death took a teaspoonful of sugar and stirred it elegantly while the young man cut the cake. For a moment they sat in silence while the cake was tasted. Death nodded graciously.
"A very fine cake. The scent of oranges is quite lovely. Did you bake it yourself?" he asked.
The young man nodded and asked Death to help himself to the cake. Death thanked him and sat back in his chair. He had been doing some work of his own, but for now, he wished to hear the witch's tale and the young man took a deep breath sighed and began.
"You recall the witch who lived in the ruined castle by the lake with her cat. Well she was a youngish witch, but she was not so young that she had not travelled. She was out fishing, sometime after dealing with the whale I told you about. She sat on a stone floor overlooking the lake with her fishing rod. The wall had long since fallen away so she sat there in the peace of a damp, dewy morning with the sky slowly growing from pale to yellow to blue. Over the lake was a slight mist and beside the witch was a mug of coffee that she had made. Her fishing line did not have a hook on the end. It had a very fine net that dangled down like a cup. Over the spine of the net was a fine thread with a bit of food tied to it. The fish would swim in to get the food and be tangled in the net, which the witch would raise. So there she sat, waiting for the fish to bite. After a little while, her cat came and sat beside her. After a little while longer, the cat sighed. The witch turned to him and caressed his head and his ears.
"My dear, are you bored?" she asked him.
He remarked that he was and the witch stroked his back feeling the ridge of bones beneath her fingers, the firmness of his muscle and the softness of his fur.
"Before I came here. I mean a long time before I came here," she began.
"You were busy being a small girl?" the cat remarked cheekily.
The witch chuckled, "Not that long a time saucy cat," she said.
"But long enough," the cat confirmed.
"Indeed my dear, long enough. I lived in a large seaside town. One of those towns with old buildings and almost older people shuffling out the remains of their lives. A town that like its old people had once had glorious days and was now worn out by sea and sun and sea-winds. It had a long sandy beach where people used to swim and the shoreline curved around to form a crescent. So that from one part of the beach you could see the curve of the shore to the other side. I lived some way up from the beach nearer the centre of town in a large Regency house.
It happened that while I was there a sea serpent was seen by some children. I am sad to say that many of the townsfolk did not believe the children. They thought the children were playing a joke and told them off for it. Now you know that I do not like to mistrust people unless I have a good reason. I asked them to swear to me that they were not joking and to tell me what they had seen. Sure enough they were not joking. They had seen the beast's coils in the water and a little later, two lots of tracks were seen on the beach. But the grown ups believed that the tracks proved that the children were making up a tall tale and that the tracks were that of a vehicle. I went with two of the children to the beach and looked carefully at the tracks. The beast had definitely made the tracks with it's long coils. Both sets of tracks led straight out to the sea and it was clear to me that the beasts coils had been raised in an arc while two parts of its coils had made the tracks.
Strangely however, the townsfolk did not trust a witch any more than their own children. I forbid the children to go anywhere near the beach until I had dealt with the serpent. That very evening I went down to the beach with twenty lanterns and lit them along the length of the beach at intervals. Then I called the serpent."
"Was that wise, given that it was bigger than you?" the cat asked.
The witch smiled and reeled in a fish, which the cat hissed at. The fish seeing the cat, died instantly of fright.
"I did wonder at first. The waves seemed to come that little bit faster upon the beach. By the light of the lanterns I saw a distant gleam amid the dark valleys of the waves. A dark menacing something moved through the waters and the lamplights made it glisten and shine. Then the waves came crashing against the shore and I was forced to utter the word of stillness upon them. They became calm and flattened and now I saw the coils of the beast like a thread stitching the waves together. A little before the strand a great head arose from the waves. A head as big as a palace with all its grounds. The serpent's eyes were green and shone like two great green moons. It opened it's jaws wide and yawned at the sight of me. I was unimpressed with such manners, though I did on reflection recall that the serpent could hardly put a paw in front of its mouth as it had no paws."
The cat glanced at the witch wondering if she was alluding to him, but she was not looking at him. Her eyes seemed to gaze out over the lake, but she was remembering the memory as if she were there again. She sighed, turned to the cat and smiled, caressing his head again.
"With a hissing, the serpent demanded - demanded I say, as if I were to be demanded of - that I tell him why I had called him. I demanded of him what he had come for and he smiled a terrible smile. He said that he was hungry and demanded a tribute of the towns people.
"If I don't get food placed on the beach for me, I shall come into the town among the darkened streets of night and take the people themselves for my supper," he said with a hiss.
I reminded him that I was a witch and did not care to have the people threatened. He lowered his vast head and stared into my eyes. I was unafraid of him and he knew it, but he had other methods. Suddenly as quick as a whip, his tail flicked itself about me and before I could utter a word, let alone breathe he had pulled me into the sea. I will admit that at first I panicked, which was very un-witchlike of me. I recalled that as a being of deep waters and darkness the beast would not like things of fire. But I could get no fires here unless I risked my own life. I concentrated my mind on the broomstick in my closet and it came dashing from my bedroom window over the rooftops of the town and down into the water. Now as I always say,"
"Never underestimate a witch with a good broomstick," the cat interrupted.
The witch smiled and asked if she really did always say that.
"Well, often perhaps. Not always," the cat answered honestly.
"Well that is something. Still, with a good broomstick a witch can achieve a great deal. That broomstick came down into the sea and stirred up the waters until the serpent felt the sea pulling him down. Then he released me and I swam up to the surface and gasped for air. Then I uttered six words and I arose from the waters like an arrow from a bow. I called my broomstick to me and flew home, wet and really quite cross. In the morning I called upon the mayor and told him what had happened the previous night. He was sensible enough not to laugh at my having been soaked to the skin and asked what I thought he should do. I told him to place large logs the length of the beach and to soak them in oil. I would wait for the serpent and deal with him. The mayor's clerk asked if they shouldn't hire a knight to fight the serpent and I snorted with disdain. The only 'knight' around was the head of the Chamber of Commerce who had been knighted that year. He was a slow-witted corpulent beast looking something like a walrus, but without the wisdom.
"You asked me what to do and I've told you," I said and strode out in disgust."
"Ah," the cat said, "You mean you flounced out in the highest of dudgeons."
The witch sat up straight and sniffed.
"I did not flounce - anyway, what exactly is a dudgeon? Does anyone actually know what a dudgeon is?" she asked the cat.
"It's what one flounces out or in with," the cat said pointedly.
"Well anyway, I left them to it," the witch answered.
But that evening when I returned to the beach, this time with my broomstick, there was a large wooden barricade and it smelled strongly of oil. I had bought a large box of safety matches with me and I was ready to deal with the serpent. As the sun went down, I uttered the word of Summoning and called the serpent. The waves crashed and boiled and the serpents coils wove in and out of the waves towards the shore with only his head above the sea, his great green eyes gleaming horribly. He took one look at the wooden barricade and laughed. It sounded like iced water hissing on a hotplate. From beyond the barricade I commanded him to leave and never return. If not I would destroy him. He raised his head higher and higher above the waves until his coils like great thick cables rested in the shallows. Then he lunged downwards at me. I lit six matches at once and threw them on the wood. The flames caught instantly and the wood cracked and snapped as it burned. The serpent was caught up in the flames and a word from me sent the flames up and along the coils. I stepped back then, bestrode my broom and flew up. The great sea serpent writhed as the flames burned him and he pulled himself back into the sea. As he did so, I uttered three words and the flames twisted themselves with the oil and sank with him, continuing to burn beneath the waves.
I returned to the beach and put out the flames on the barricade. As I did so, the sea serpent burst from the waves the flames all about him and fell dead upon the sand. I went home and the next morning there was only a broad band of seaweed upon the beach where the serpent had been. He never returned.
"You are sure he was dead?" the cat asked her peering at the lake.
"I am quite sure, my dear," the witch said.
She stroked the cat and finished her coffee and the cat after inspecting the lake for a while, fell asleep beside her."
The young man sighed and looking up at Death he said, "I don't have any more tales. I just didn't want to die so young."
Death put down his teacup and leaned across to the young man.
"Nobody wants to die except the suicidal and only a few of them have good reasons. Yet, sooner or later we should meet you and I. I have made a deal with Life however. Instead of me returning you back to the star stuff from which you are made, I shall take you home. You and I can tell each other tales and if you would keep house for me, I should be much obliged. Also, your company would be welcome for a lonely old being like myself," he said softly.
The young man thought about it for a moment. Then telling Death that he would not be long, he tidied up the tea things and packed the rest of the cake to go with them. That done, he left the keys to the house on the table, got his coat and went with Death. As we all must, sooner or later.