by Michael E. Charles
Strange are the things you sometimes find washed up by the side of the river. Stranger still are the people who might collect them...
Drifting down the river, my body caught on the marsh reeds. Face-down and coloured like the riverbed, it was miraculous that anyone saw me at all. The sun freed itself and light shone through the occasional gap in the pale sky, stained only by the billowed industrial smog from the city of London, not far. A paddle steamer chugged upstream through the thick river slime.
A woman, standing on a hill over-looking the tall grass, saw me from a distance. She was old; wispy white hair flapped in a strong wind. Bundled in a large brown overcoat and strong boots, she appeared native to the surrounding marshlands. She made her way down the hill with caution, prodding the earth below her for stability. A dog barked and came bounding into the river, splashing into the water, sniffing me from head to shoeless foot, whilst Ida stood at the bank, clutching her coat to her throat.
‘Bring him here Henry!’ She called, and at her command the dog dragged me closer to firm ground, where I lay unmoving on the muddy bank.
As dead can be, I was a mess. Stiff with rigor mortis, my skin glistened the colour of curdled milk, which shone through the remains of my dark, soaked factory overalls. There was a hole in the outfit, surrounded by a stain the colour of rusted iron. A gaping flesh wound peered through, worsened by the thick slime of the river, and ravaged by small fish. My sodden hair wrapped around my head like a loose fishing net.
The woman cooed and tutted as she rolled me over. Her grip was surprisingly strong, she had fingers like talons, and her strength was enough to flip me over with almost no exertion at all.
I was somewhere nearby observing, though exactly where is uncertain. I was neither floating in the air above the ground, nor was I walking amongst the nearby grass, but rather between the two, and nowhere at all.
‘You’re so young, and so handsome. Look at that beautiful long hair. I can tell it was a beautiful hay colour in its time, few men have hair like that. Oh, you poor thing, you’re covered in that horrid river mess.’ She wiped at my face and tucked away my hairs. She looked up and down the river. Seeing no one to help, she took each wrist and dragged me further out of the water. ‘Whoever you are, you can’t stay here. Let’s get you back to the house until we find out what to do with you.’
She disappeared into the reeds, Henry behind her, and was gone for some time. A rabbit, curious and hungry came close to me, sniffed at my damp skin, before scurrying back into the reeds. The clouds ambled by as the day darkened.
She returned before long, leading a small and tired looking pony that pulled behind it a wooden cart. Ida scooped me up in her arms, one under my knees and the other under my neck, and she placed me on the cart. The pony pulled the cart around in a circle, avoiding the reeds and water, and began to trundle up the hill. It followed a path through the Rainham Marsh, amongst trees and bushes that showed the reddening omens of autumn. A cacophony of noises filled the air: croaking frogs and chirping birds. The woman led the cart by a rope tied around the pony’s muzzle. A deer stood at a distant treeline, regarding them with disinterest, chewing a mouthful of grass, before bounding away into the forest. Ida walked along, humming to herself. Somewhere there were azaleas.
A house became apparent through the trees. A sturdy wooden hut of a building, with a triangular roof. The house had a small stable sat next to it, with a paddock full of tall, unkept grass. Bringing the pony to a stop, the woman came round to the cart and pulled me from the cart. The woman carried me inside and placed me on a table. My swollen body draped over the sides of the table; water dripped on to the floor. The inside of the house was dark, lit only by the failing sunlight drifting through dirty windows. Wooden beams ran across the ceiling, from which hung various pickings and herbs. A wood-burning stove sat beneath a blackened wall, surrounded by a messy pile of twigs and branches. The house was neat, though dusty. Books lined shelves; porcelain dolls danced on the windowsills. A visitor might feel that the house did not feel like a home, as much as it felt like a museum, or a chapel. The woman lit the candles around the room, filled the stove with wood, setting it ablaze, before coming to peer over me.
Her face came close to mine. It was creased with lines of age in which mud and dust were trapped. Her eyes were big, blue and sad.
‘My name is Ida, by the way,’ she said, as though talking to someone down at the market. ‘I used to live in the city. But it wasn’t for me, not at all. I came out here when I ran away from home, you see.’
Composing herself, she stood beside the sink for a while, absently watching the marsh through the window. She muttered something to herself, and a smile grew on her lips. Bending down, she took a leather bundle out from under the sink, along with an apron. The bundle looked worn and was kept together neatly with string. She tied the apron tight around her bulging waste and approached me with the bundle. She placed it down between my feet and unrolled it. Within the bundle was a selection of various items and instruments that one might see in the hands of a surgeon. There were graspers, clamps, cutters, and callipers. There were saws and scalpels, all of which were blunted and darkened with age. Inspecting them one by one, Ida continued to whisper to herself, grimacing and sucking on her teeth.
‘What terrible things people do to each other. Look at all this filth. Slime, from the river. Unnatural effluent. I will need to wash you first.’ Ida filled a bucket of water, dipped a sponge in the water and began to scrub at my bruised and purple skin, stripping the remnant scraps of my clothes. Finished, she pulled one of the long saws from the leather pouch and began to pull the sharp edges back and forth against my skin.
‘My father,’ she said as she butchered me, ‘gave me something when I was young. When we lived in the city. He shouldn’t have, it was a vile thing to do. I didn’t know what it was, you understand, being so young. He wasn’t a good man, not at all. My Mam did love me, I could tell. But he made it so difficult. She would sit and cry for days at time. Sometimes escape up to the attic to play music. She loved to play the old pianola. Father hated it; he would break things when he heard her playing. His drink made it worse. The house became so lonely when my mother left, and after it was just me and him for a long time. We spent a lot of time together, the two of us. And it was then when he gave me his gift.’
She set about the job of dismantling me not unlike the butchery of a goat, or some other livestock. Her arms showed the strength that comes with a lifetime of hard work. Her hands were rough like leather. She did not flinch when my remaining blood and water speckled her face, clinging to her eye lashes. When she was finished, I lay fractured on the table.
‘What it turned into though,’ she continued, ‘was something special in a way, I suppose. Not something I could show to anyone. I hid it for a long time, scared that someone would see me as different. A rat became a piccolo, a cat or two became a small viola. Pottery with bones. In my old age I’ve become quite adept if I do say so myself.’
Picking up each part of me one by one, she threw me into a boiling pot atop the stove. My pieces softened in the bubbling water and my flesh fell away from bone. Ida pulled the bones from the mess, rinsed them, and placed them on a large plate sitting on the table. She extracted my teeth with her fingers, as though pulling loose stones from dirt. She was meticulous, handling each bone with care, as if it were something precious. She plucked my hair from my separate head, before carefully placing it into the boiling water. In another bowl, she washed my hair. The filth of the river was washed away, and the golden colour returned to the many strands.
Returning to the table of bones, Ida rested a moment. Henry, her dog, whimpered in his basket. ‘Nothing for you,’ she said. ‘I’m going to need all of them.’
Like a potter at clay, Ida moulded the bones. There was neither sound, nor colour in her work. The bones did as she intended them to do without force or coercion. Whilst neither breaking nor splintering, the bones of my arms were fashioned into a single long pillar, radius to ulna. She blew across its surface, smoothing and polishing the bone with her breath. The vertebrae of my spine were reassembled into a curve and positioned on top of the pillar. The remaining bones were fused together into a wider board: my femurs, breastbone, the many little phalanges of my hands and feet. My browned teeth were fastened in a row along the length of the suspended neck. Ida then took each strand of my yellow hair and fixed them beneath the teeth, winding them together. She occasionally plucked at the strings, listening, and tuning them. With her work done, Ida stepped back. Henry whined and stirred.
In my death, I had become a harp. String by string at first, the harp hummed a beautiful harmony, my voice could be heard on the edges of the notes.
My voice has come back to me now at last.
I could not make a sound, though my eyes saw,
There is a killer loose in the city.
Oh, how could I have not seen that before,
My own brother, jealous of my love.
Helen, who picked me over him, something
That filled him with a seething rage. And in
A drunken brawl, he thrust a knife into
My side and kicked me down into the Thames.
I beg of you if you are a good and
Decent person, you will take me to the
Church Of St Mary Aldermary where
He has taken my bride to be his own.
There I can sing to all there of the truth.
And take for me what I am due.
I stopped singing. Having expelled every word that I could, I was done and exhausted. I felt through the sounds I made, and many of the things that I did feel were sad and melancholic notes. Even so, I had found my saviour. One who would take me to the church and see the face of that brother as truth was spilled throughout the hall.
Ida looked at me, the harp. She stood up, taking me in her arms. ‘What a terrible and tragic story. You have suffered at the hands of another, just like I did. So many of you have come down the river over the years. Many who have come to terrible ends by the hands of others, washed up on the banks of the river. Those awful people in that city, outside this marsh. They don’t care how they hurt other people.’ She turned.
Through me, a feeling of delight and retribution surged that caused my strings to flutter and thrum as she held me. Yet Ida did not walk in the direction of the door that led to the marsh, where in lay the police, the constables, the sergeants. Those who would aid in my retribution. Instead, she walked into the shadow of the house, to a set of stairs that led down into the ground. Where is she taking me? A basement door that was rusted and worn stood at the base of the stairs. From behind the door, a subtle whistling could be heard. She pushed open the door with her shoulder and together we went inside. Placing me on a table, she lit candles which illuminated the walls with a dancing orange glow.
The room was filled with instruments. Some, a polished alabaster white, twinkled new in the candlelight. Others, hidden in the dark, were gnarled and twisted and showed the signs of times. Violas hung from the walls; flutes lay in rows in display. The instruments, as though startled into life by the light, sprung into a dissonant harmony. A screeching, wailing ensemble that produced a chaos of noise, as though each instrument played not to be in rhythm with one another, but instead played loud enough to be heard over the other. Each one could be heard playing its story in the cacophony of misery.
Ida let out a short, sharp hiss. A noise that was so similar to that of a cat, her face seemed to almost morph into a feline fury. The sound in the room dissipated instantly. ‘There have been so many over the years. Drifters I call you. Justice isn’t something that comes to drifters who are found by the banks of a river.’ She rested a hand on me, stroking my neck. ‘Not for you. Not for me. I made this ensemble because I missed my mother’s music.’ Stepping away, she went to sit in a rocking chair in the corner of the room beside the door. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘play for me.’
* * *
The last of the sun’s light failed and the marsh became dark. Crickets clicked in the long grasses. The croaking of frogs creaked somewhere out of sight. A gentle glow came from deep in the marsh, a wooden house sat silent.
On an oak rocking chair, Ida sat looking out into the marsh. Through the overgrown path, a light came closer. Contained candlelight, held in one hand and a sack slung over the other shoulder. A young boy appeared through the high grass.
Ida saw him coming, smiling warmly as they came closer to the house.
‘Your newspaper Ma’am,’ the boy called, pulling one of the newspapers rolls out of the sack. ‘Apologies for the hour.’
‘Thank you, Sam,’ Ida said. ‘I hope you’re well. Don’t worry about the time, stay a while and tell me what goes on in that big city.’
The young boy said nothing for a moment, looking around at the house and the marsh. ‘Sorry Miss Ida,’ Sam said eventually. ‘I work down the docks in the city early tomorrow. Just passing home.’
‘Ah,’ said Ida, ‘you be careful on those docks. And don’t drink too much. One day you may just end up falling in.’
It was perhaps the total collapse of daylight, or perhaps the eery noises of the swamp around them which made the boy feel unsettled. It was, however, more likely that their unease was caused by Ida’s unblinking smile, her rocking back and forth on her chair, the deep shade of the house behind her. The boy knew of Ida, and he did not want to. Without a moment’s pause, the boy tipped his hat and quickly shuffled on his way down the path to the next village, looking behind him once, and then twice.
Ida opened her newspaper to the first page. Another lost, she thought.