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The Superstition of Albatross

“The Superstistion of Albatross” comes from Daisy Johnson’s Fen, available now from Graywolf. Catch Daisy in the states on May 22nd in D.C., May 26th in Brooklyn, and May 31st in Brookline, MA.

♦ ♦ ♦

POLLY,
I’ve been thinking about you and the baby. I think the baby is probably thinking about me too. You remember that story where storks bring little ones in packages? You watching out?
We’re out far now. You think you know what that means but it doesn’t mean anything till you’re here. We couldn’t go back if we wanted to.

There had been four, count them, four letters from him before there was nothing. Nobody said it but she knew what they were thinking: he’d made his getaway while he still could. Her feet were so swollen all she could fit into were wellingtons. Never mind. She put on a coat and the cat came stalking after her and onto the bus before she could stop it. Squalled up and down the aisle, pissed at her feet. She held it tight on the changes, fumbled for exact money. Three buses and a train and finally a dock hardly anyone had heard of.

You seen him then? she said to the men on the boats tied up there. They eyed her belly and she wondered if there was a superstition about a pregnant woman on her own or about a pregnant woman who didn’t love what she carried half as much as she should, or simply a superstition about a woman, filled up or not.

Well? she said, rapping a fist on the gunwale three times: her own sort of curse for them.

They shook their heads. She’d heard stories about post ships robbed for their cargo, pirates lonely enough to take anything that smelt of someone else’s home, even if they didn’t understand the lingo. She dreamt of that: a man with hair white before its time, hunched low over a letter whose words he could not read.

On the way back to town she got lost, slept at a bus station with the cat tied to her wrist with string. In the morning nobody knew where she was going though she wrote the name of the town down when they asked. She would not leave again.

♦ ♦ ♦

She’d known him all through school but it wasn’t till they were both seventeen and in the Fox and Hound that she pulled up to the bar next to him, elbow to elbow, raised an eyebrow. There wasn’t any use pretending.

He was superstitious as an old fish wife. In the beer garden behind the pub she asked if he had a condom.

I can’t use those, he said stiffly, as if she’d asked something inappropriate. They’re like broken mirrors.

What? Polly said, pulling back.

Broken mirrors, he said. Except more bad luck. Longer than seven years anyway.

If she hadn’t been drinking up the courage to talk to him all night and then after that drinking to keep the nerve and after that drinking as something to do, she wouldn’t have let him.

When she told him what he’d done, a month later and she vomiting enough to know, he towed her along the street and straight into the chapel.

What we doing here? What the fuck are we doing here?

Shut up.

He fell to his knees with a purpose she’d seen in him only twice, once in the dank pub garden, fumblingly, and once, barely fifteen, as he skidded towards her, mouth open, arms wide to tackle her down.

What you going to do? she said later.

He turned his head in a pained sort of way. She said his name till he looked at her. How you going to make money, Ruben? He looked like a child who’d got himself lost somewhere. They were sat on the grey cemetery wall and she let him think on it, getting more and more impatient. There was a tractor turning across the field in front of them. Cutting through the corn. She watched him narrowly as he stared at it.

I got a thought, he said.

Is that right?

He looked at her proper then, tapping his nose with the broad of his thumb. She looked at the rash of freckles across his face, clicked her tongue at him until he laughed. The next day he was gone and it took asking more than one person to work out where he was, and even then nobody knew the name of the place or how he’d get back from there.

♦ ♦ ♦

He loved the parts of the boat, the bits that made it up, that brought it together; loved the tangy names for things; loved the rules of it. He loved, most of all, the secret codes of fear and belief the boats ran on. Came home every other week with his fingers nicked like a crabber and leant across the little table she’d got from her mother and told her only the captain was allowed to whistle at sea in case you whistled up the wrong sort of wind; how you had to step on board with your right foot each time and that they called old Kerri Finney a Jonah down the docks because of the bad luck he brought to journeys. He talked often about an old, burnt-out lighthouse and the stories the others told about it.

You have to call a hare a langlugs, he’d said. And you can’t ever let them on the boat. Not ever.

She wanted to stand up, turn sideways, point to the mooning thing that hung out in front of her and say: and what exactly do you think about this?

I’d let a hare on board, she’d say instead.

S’not a hare, he said, frog-eyed above his sharp cheeks. It’s a langlugs. I told you. I told you.

All right.

♦ ♦ ♦

At first it was all fishing boats, trawlers and low riders with nets. Except he didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to wake up dark early and spend all day raw-handed, pulling in catches, smelling of fish forever. He wanted, he said, to be on one of the boats that sailed out far enough there wasn’t coast for two weeks, nothing but sea and brine, wanted to work on one of the ships sailed to the Caribbean for rich owners or ploughed to the tip of Africa.

Well, she said – and thought, without saying it out loud, he’d never find one to take him, skinny as he was and where he was from and who his parents were. Boats like that probably cared about things like blood.

♦ ♦ ♦

The last day before he left for good, he came in late, coat front bulging, something moving beneath it, rolling out onto the kitchen table and up into an angry triangle shape. Not black but greying right up to the spatters of white that pillowed its face, turning on the table to observe her with mute rage.

What the bloody hell is that?

It’s a cat.

She felt, then, how all his old mythic beliefs had somehow burrowed into her, just like his baby had.

Bad luck, that’s what you said.

He reached out a hand, grinning his freckles narrow. The cat took a swipe at him.

It’s good luck for sailors. Interesting, isn’t it? And for sailors’ wives. You’ll keep me safe by having her here.

The cat burrowed backwards on its haunches, took another rising step towards his face.

That night he told her about the albatross; birds who carried the souls of dead sailors and what did she think about that? She said she didn’t think anything about it and he stuck his tongue out against her face until she laughed. Later she opened her eyes and saw him looking at her, his pupils very wide, his breathing a little uneven.

What?

That sounds all right, doesn’t it?

What? What sounds all right?

Being in an albatross. Flying around and everything.

What are you talking about?

It sounds good.

All right. Quiet now.

He nudged closer like he was trying to flip back the braces of her skin and climb on in. Like there was comfort in there as much as in the thought of dying only to wake as a passenger in an albatross’s body.

What about you and the baby, though. Where will you go?

She laughed. I don’t know. I could be happy inside a pigeon.

His face didn’t change any. She closed her eyes to cut it out.

♦ ♦ ♦

He wrote to her about being on watch at three in the morning and seeing the cutting lights of another ship coming across the fog water. On the radio to them, watching them steaming on closer. On the radio to nothing but silence. Sometimes when he wrote they were ghost ships, abandoned and left to keen their own way. Sometimes they were only Greeks with not enough crew or patience to man the night shifts.

She got a job to fill the hours before sleeping, worked in the Fox and Hound, watched her belly swelling like it was air blown. Wished it air blown. Wished it always. Dreamt at night of the ships turned loose across the water, dreamt she swam to one and wound her way up the rope and left a wet footprint trail through the empty rooms, the half-eaten plates of food, barely cold beds, the spattering sound of the fish in the hold coming back to life.

He wrote to her about the line-crossing ceremony they enacted at the equator, like a prayer, and about the photo of the pig the captain kept as good luck, and the plant somebody put on board to curse them and which he kicked with a boot so it swung high, turned over itself and then dropped down into the water.

She did not name the cat out of defiance but after a week they set up a begrudging house fellowship. The skinny body barely enough to keep itself warm though it tried to help, perched atop her belly, not purring, rather shaking a little, as if it had never been taught how. In exchange, twice a week she bought it a fish, watched it pick around the bones, fed it tinned sardines the rest of the time, woke in the morning to its curious face examining her.

In the photo he sent he was bare-chested, tanned as a nut, arm turned to show off the wobbly inked lines: a north star. So I can find my way back, he wrote. What would she have written if there was a place to send it? Don’t come back. I don’t want you.

♦ ♦ ♦

Remember about the albatrosses? We got one on our tail now. I didn’t know what it was when I saw it. It was too big to be anything real. I keep thinking about them carrying dead sailors around inside them. How creepy is that? Like someone’s looking out his big eyes at us. The others are throwing up bits of bread and the rest to him but he won’t swoop to get them the way seagulls will. He’s got pride. He waits till they’ve fallen and then goes without even much moving his wings. I don’t throw bread to him and sometimes I think he’s eyeing me because of it. He knows that he worries me a bit. The others are taking the piss and they are right. I’ve got too much fear in me.

♦ ♦ ♦

Silence now. Never mind. Never mind him. She picked up more work, worked the late shift because it paid better and because she liked emptying out the pub, turfing out the old ones who came every night and still bowed their heads thoughtfully at the sight of her stomach. Walking home the sky gave everything away and when it was pink she felt a toggle of fear, tried not to but couldn’t help remembering Ruben coming jogging back along the path because the sky was red and did she feel all right?

Strange how things she thought she’d never really listened to had got in anyway. She took daily note of what fell on the floor, of what was on the table when she went down, of the first person who came into the pub in the afternoon. She took fearful notice of the rabbits strung in the butcher’s window and, one night, when she wasn’t working and didn’t know what to do, she carved a compass onto the kitchen table, as wobbly and ugly as Ruben’s tattoo.

Some days it felt like a boat, that house, wet in all the corners and running in seams up to the ceiling, all the furniture bolted to the walls. Some days she felt there were waves, rip tides and countercurrents, tripping beneath the floorboards, rolling behind her when she wasn’t looking, upsetting the uneasy balance. Some days she felt there were sea creatures dredged up in there too, come back instead of him: shoals jittering over her legs at night, great breathing somethings disturbing the carpet line, shellfish washed up in the bath.

Soon the sky was red most mornings and the cat came down with something, sneezing often, throwing up anything she gave it. The sky was red most mornings and when she came downstairs it was like a storm had been taken out of a jar and let go in the house, everything from the table and the counters and the walls on the floor.

When she wasn’t working she read over his four letters. Angrier and angrier: for giving him anything let alone her time. Read them like there were clues shoved up behind the words or inking out from the full stops: a part of the message she had missed, where he told her he wouldn’t be coming back, that he wanted a baby about as much as she did and he was going to stay away. Except she knew really she wouldn’t find anything. He didn’t write the sort of words that could hide anything anywhere.

At night she couldn’t sleep for the whales that came breaching up through the house’s watery foundations, rent apart the floorboards to flip through, circled the bed in sharkish lines until that is what they were: sharks made from all the letters he’d used to describe them, right up to the tottering S that made up the apex of each fin.

It was harder being left behind. Because sometimes the sharks grew legs, moaning from the pain: white, thin limbs with bony ankles. They climbed onto the bed and lay down next to her until there were so many there wasn’t room and then they piled on top. They wanted to tell her how hard it was to have what they had: grey, waterproof bodies you had to keep moving otherwise you’d die, and legs like supermodels. They were always off balance and she pitied them until she couldn’t breathe.

♦ ♦ ♦

She started going to the pub even when she wasn’t working. Took the four letters and read them leaning on the counter with the chair pushed back to accommodate the jut of her. Once she looked around and saw herself for what she’d become: a local like the rest of them, all balled up inside themselves, all in their usual seats.

At the weekends and on Friday nights the pub was full up, full right up. There were bodies on either side of her and foam on the countertop and sometimes she went round and helped even if she wasn’t getting paid for her time.

Once she turned to the sight of an arm bearing the inked shape of a compass, felt a wrench and looked up. They didn’t get sailors there often. They didn’t often get anybody who hadn’t been born there. It was far enough from anything and everything. He was older than Ruben, looking wryly up at her like he knew she’d seen the dash of someone else reflected on him. She stayed close by him through the night, saw the ends and starts of conversations swimming up and then receding into the loud. Boat words she knew from Ruben caught at her like hooks.

You been long? he said later, lowering his chin at her stomach. The pub was emptying out.

Eight months. Maybe a bit more.

He drew air into his cheeks but did not let the whistle out. He had an accent she did not know. Not a fen one anyway. Maybe not an English one.

Getting there. Aren’t you.

She did not answer. When she came back he was gone, drink only half finished.

She wiped the beer slicks and laid the letter flat, bending her head to read it.

♦ ♦ ♦

The thing is, what with thinking on you and the baby, and seeing him following us, I can’t shake the thought that it’s not storks at all. It’s him. He knows I’ve got one on the way and he’s thinking on whether to bring him or not. He’s testing me. We lost him in the fog. I think he got bored and went off. I keep having these nightmares, though. They bring the babies and then take them away again. It’s bad luck to say so but I’m glad the bird is gone. Is the cat OK?

♦ ♦ ♦

One morning she woke and the sky was red enough it came glazed through the curtains. She felt sick through to her bones. A great, seasick nausea. Off kilter. Went down the steps one at a time, one hand on the wall. Something had happened. Sometimes it was easy to know. The hot sunrise was at her temples and filling her mouth.

The albatross was on top of the kitchen table, one foot on either side of the carved compass. Behind it the window was broken through, pushed in with the frame bent down. The great span of its wings was open, measuring space. The light picked it out through the broken window and it looked like a mistake nobody was ever meant to see. She remembered the words Ruben had used when he wrote about them: the hazed shapes cutting through without moving, the coming of them as if called. It was stone heavy, head hanging down, wings straining at the chest. She could see the breath shifting, the stir of it.

She stepped down and onto something broken, hissed, felt the skin open. The bird on her table shook itself up, returned its wings against its ribcage, balanced up on its huge, flattened feet.

She wanted to say to it: I know why you’re here; I know why you’ve come. I wished it away, I know I did. I wished you here.

She imagined, one hand going to her belly, Ruben, wherever he was – under the sea or islanded up somewhere or just out sailing and tanning and peeling oranges with his clever fingers. She saw him sitting up and knowing, though he’d never known anything in his life, what she’d called up. Well, he would be praying. That was what he did.

I’ve got too many thoughts – you never said it but I’m sure you were thinking it! Never mind. I’m getting sensible for you. I’m working up a build and I’ll come home to you and the baby.

She took another step forward and the bird gave her eye contact as if that was all it needed for everything to be as it should be. That was a sort of prayer in itself, she thought, bringing a hand up.

Daisy Johnson was born in 1990 and currently lives in Oxford. Her short fiction has appeared in The Boston Review and The Warwick Review, among others. In 2014, she was the recipient of the 2014 AM Heath prize.

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