Friday, 19 April 2013

The catch of the hapless stranger: The Skeleton Wife part three

He was not the only ghost in that bay, not if stories are true; and I think you will  find that they often are.  Deep in the sea the skeleton girl danced in the waves spring tide and neap tide, rattling her ribs to frighten the fish out of the bay.  Year after year  fishermen tried their luck.  All the boys of the village knew that a sheltered inlet like that should yield a catch worth bringing home.  Time and time again the boats went out and cast their nets; day by day lines were baited and set.  Yet never did these hapless fishers bring back so much as a sprat or whiting .
Although they caught nary a shrimp or mackerel, they did catch sounds that made them shiver.  Some men reported fingers tapping at their keel, knocking as if to come in through a door.  Others told tales of pulling and tangling of line a net, that mysteriously let free so fiercely they nearly fell back overboard.  Others reported hearing screams, not from the birds that followed the trawlers but from a human voice woven into the kittewake's cry.   Every man agreed, whilst nursing their glasses at the innkeepers bar, that the bay was cursed.  All fisherman fear and respect the sea.  This, they muttered together, was the sea telling them to keep away from bad water.  Over time less and less men tried their luck in that nook of the cove, choosing instead to fish further out.  Preferring to risk the waves of the open ocean and the chance of a good catch; trusting to wind and wave to take them safely back into shore.
Before long no one gave a thought to fishing that stretch of the water.  Common knowledge about the village was that a spirit of the sea wanted it for their own.  All the villagers respected the prior claim, some of the older women even remembered snippets of the story of the doomed lovers and the lost girl.  Superstitions aside, nothing ever was gained from fishing there so now few would even cast their minds to the place, let alone a net.  Until the bold young foreigner moved here.
Turner: Fishermen at sea 1796
He was a handsome lad, by all account.  He turned the head and broke the heart of many a local girl, despite not sparing a look for any of them.  He came to the village from somewhere else, somewhere strange and distant.  Though he was a fisherman born, not one of the villagers knew him or recognised his boat as from another fleet.  The men of the village little trusted to share the sea with the next town along the coast so they were not so welcoming of the new man in their midst.  Jealous that he was only there to net their shoals and cast a line for one of the village women.
So it was, each day he cast off his boat, set his sail and headed out of the village quay and into the salt spray.  Each day the fisherman took their fleet one way and the young man took his the other.  Day by day he fished further and further around the cove, catching small fry and occasionally herrings.  Late one evening, he drifted into a little moonlit bay.  The moonlight was strong enough for him to cast his net one more time, the fishing of the day having been so poor.  As he cast his net the wind started to whip up little wavelets around him.  Above him the gulls, gannets and more shrieked and shouted.  In between he began to hear another voice carried in the wind, a despairing wail that was not quite bird but not quite human.  Being a practical man he shook his shoulders as if to shake off the ill wind around him.
After a few minutes more he felt the boat twitch along the tiller.  Underneath his feet there was the rhythmic knocking of something tapping against the keel with each wavelet.  Fearing that the net was caught on something and about to drag his craft over he started to haul in the net.  Imagine his surprise when he found the weight of the net was that of a full one.  He hauled and pulled and heaved, each time hearing the tap-tap-tapping, like the sound of wood on drum.  Finally with one almighty pull his net slid out of the water and flopped onto the bottom of his boat.  The young man peered eagerly forwards to see what marvel he had caught, only to fall backwards with a scream ripping from his throat.  For there, in the knots of the net , grasped the bony fingers of a skeleton hand.

Thursday, 11 April 2013


It's all mine

Oh go on share, please.

No way, an' I'll fight you for it.

Good, he's gone.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Adding to the story

The sea took the girl to itself, playing with her hair and dancing her round and round in a gentle waltz until it laid her down in its soft sand bed.  Carefully the ebb and flow of watery fingers smoothed out the dress,  arranged the limbs and played with the hair.  Fishes kissed the beautiful face over and over; crabs and shrimps cut at the dress with their scissor claws.  Bit by little bit the sea took the woman and rolled her  about, turned her over and stripped her clean.  Each tiny nibble and kiss stole piece after piece of her until all that was left was the ivory bone and slender form of her skeleton.
Year after year the sea and her denizens danced with the skeleton girl .  Year after year the skeleton girl danced up to the surface of the moon lined sea, to stretch her arms out and stir the surf with her bony fingers.  To turn up her blind and shadowed sockets and see if she could find the betrayer of her trust.  To open her gaping maw and try desperately to recapture her voice, stolen by the wind . 
Looking for the story in the sea

What was that my lovelies?  When did this happen? Why many, many years ago. 
The young man, you ask?  He lived on,  haunting the cliff paths, begging the ocean to return his love. Year on year, until death took pity and released him, a broken old man.  Yet the sea never gave him back his love... no, she wasn't given back to him at all.
The old man had been dead many years when I was a girl but on cold and moon drenched nights we would dare each other to climb the cliff path.  The story was those brave enough to climb would catch a glimpse of him.  That is if moon permitted,  you might see his hunched form stretching out to catch his love.  Legend was that if you kept yourself silent and listened carefully you would catch the stolen screams of the woman tumbling over and over in the wind.  Those who claim to have dared report a chase over heather as he reached for the intruder; that if you were caught you too would follow his love over the edge and into the sea.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Loosing the story into the wind.

This is how I have returned the first section of the story to life: I enjoyed writing it, although I am not sure I am much of a writer.

The Skeleton Wife:  draft one
Come closer my dears, for the wind is stirring the sea tonight.  Listen; you can hear the whispering of the lost souls, all those whose lives have been eaten up by the greedy ocean.
 Peep through the curtains, look at the cliff top, there... did you catch the shadow?  There in the glimmer of the moon?  He haunts the heights on nights like this, searching the sea for the love he threw away.  Careless, thoughtless, cruel.  Hopeless now as he looks for his discarded jewel. 
The north west wind blew on that night too; not night exactly but twilight with its darkling sky and deeper shadows.  He proud, angry, marching along the cliff top path.  She desperate and weeping, clutching fingers into the coat he wore, trying to slow him down.  Pleading with him for a kind word or loving look, anything to heal the fracturing words they had hurled at each other.   Onward, upward,  higher he strode, shaking of her hands as he reached the topmost point.  Abruptly he stopped and turned.  His eyes were blinded by the rage in his head. As she stumbled into him the anger swelled; he grappled her arms, her neck, her hair, flinging her away from him.
In that moment she slipped.  Tumbling away, slipping out of his reach, anger turning to horror in that moment of madness.  Mouth open but voiceless as the wind stole her screams, she fell away from him towards the unforgiving stones.  He stretched, uselessly trying to reach forward, fingertips brushing the wind.  Her last breath stretched the seconds, until all that remained was a splayed, broken doll on the rock.  Cradled by seaweed and stroked by foam, she lay unmoving and lifeless.
With a howl he sank to his knees.  This angry man imploring the body below to return to him so that he could beg forgiveness, put right the wrongs  and fill the hole that she had left under his heart.  As he watched the sea grasped at her, took her gently and pulled her with it into the waters.  Slowly her dress billowed, ebbing and flowing with the tide until its sodden masses dragged at the dancing body.  With a last swirl of her skirts the waters swallowed  the girl up and sucked her down into the darkness.
What was that my lovelies?  When did this happen? Why many, many years ago. 
The young man, you ask?  He lived on,  haunting the cliff paths, begging the ocean to return his love. Year on year, until death took pity and released him, a broken old man.  Yet the sea never gave him back his love... no, she wasn't given back to him at all.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Telling Tall Tales

I love stories.  I think it is one of the very best parts about having children of my own (and being a primary school teacher), handling stories, sharing stories and being part of stories.  They are so essential for feeding our imaginations and giving us the tools for expression.
Sadly there has been a marked decrease in reading for pleasure amongst children, particularly ironic considering we are in the midst of a golden period in children's book publishing.  Why this is can be put down to many things and sadly I believe school reading strategies have a lot to do with it.  We squash the story out of the words, push it aside; we excise limbs from whole books and expect children to be satisfied with extracts.  Extraction is for pulling teeth!  One of the saddest quotes I ever read came from AS Byatt, in her introduction to Dodger by Terry Pratchett:
'Also, people who don't read, read Pratchett.  Boys of twelve who hate books. I hope he is never taught in schools.'
What does that say about how we squash the life out of the living story, leaving it dead on the page; spread-eagled like a dissection specimen that nothing could bring back to life.

Yet, children love stories.  Think about the joy that they take in video games, where they are right in the heart of the story, making it happen around them each waking second.  Think about films, where the screenwriters are delving into the rich history of books and oral stories that permeate our world.  Come and watch a foundation class that is being read a favourite book.  So the question is: how do we reignite the joy of reading?
Carol Ann Duffy brings Rapunzel to life; taking the dance of the story onwards to a new generation
Part of this has to come in the form of storytelling and, thanks to a project our school is part of, I have been learning how to do this successfully.  It is not easy.

Attempt one:  using a story learnt from Nicky Rafferty, who has been shaping us and teaching us how to engage an audience in a story.  Judging by the children's reactions to the story it went well.  It was also one of the most satisfying story sessions I have had with the class; we were fully engaged in the story, both class and I reacting and responding to each other.

Attempt two: this time we are all to take a story we love, break it into it's sparest form and then rebuild it in a way that makes sense to us.  I have chosen a little story called The Skeleton Wife, which I found in the Story Museum.  The process follows that shown on the site, where they offer the story map to go with the story along with the transcript and aural versions.  However, we are expected to go through the process ourselves, which is essential to learn the story well. Knowing the story is essential to building confidence in the retelling.

Anyway here is stage one, the bare bones of the story as I understand it.

  • Angry father pushes daughter into the sea over the cliff.
  • Waves pull her body in and fish eat her flesh.
  • Her ghost haunts the bay, fisherman stay clear.
  • A stranger fishes her bones out of the water.
  • Terrified, he rows home dragging the bones behind him.
  • Slamming the door shut, he hid in the dark cabin.
  • By candlelight he saw the bones in the chair.
  • Fisherman puts the bones back together in order.
  • He goes to sleep and dreams the skeleton weeps.
  • She sings the flesh onto her bones and dances.
  • The fisherman marries the new-made woman.

Stage two is to flesh out the bones (appropriate to this story to the nth degree) with ideas and images to help shape the retelling.  Not surprisingly that is being done in pencil form as I think in pictures and have several strong visual images to fill the gaps between the Skeleton Wife's white bones.

I will continue to post the drawings alongside the development of the story as it grows in the telling.  This story is a living thing and is already twisting and writhing with new life;  The Wife herself is asking for changes and new versions to speak her story and move it on.