Wondrous Dark Truth

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Jack, who has a bet on that he’ll wear cargo shorts for a whole year of TV shoots, crunches over the shingle towards Hilary. He shivers and jerks his head at the figure ten metres away, an elderly man leaning on a walking stick and staring out to sea. The man stands motionless though the wind moves his heavy coat; greasy hair flutters beneath the flat cap.

Jack says to Hilary, ‘He says he’s happy where he is. We’ll have to shoot looking the other way.’

Hilary hisses, eyes narrowed, and turns to the camera and sound crew. ‘OK, get on with it.’ She tucks her ponytail under her collar to stop it slapping her coat in the wind. ‘Faster. I want all three shots done today. Jack, you ready?’

Yup.’ Jack rolls up his script and tucks it into a back pocket. When camera, lapel microphone and boom are in place he heads down the beach, turns and walks back saying, ‘We’re off the mainland now and on the island of Papa Stour. Legend has it that the most beautiful music ever was made here on a mystical instrument.’ He points. ‘Further inland this sea loch is surrounded by the ruins of cottages. Shepherd, fishermen and farmer, each man and woman struggled to support a family by taking on every role they could. Life was hard, education minimal or non-existent. They looked at life differently. Imagine living in a world in which you believed everything that happened was down to angels, devils, spirits and magic.’ He stares into the distance.

Hilary says, ‘Cut. Jack, read your bloody script.’

Jack pulls the sheets from his pocket and tries to stop them rattling in the breeze. He frowns and reads, lips pursed. ‘Yeah … lost it there. Ready now.’

Hilary nods at the sound tech. ‘How’s it?’

Brenna, tight jeans, woolly top and hat to minimise the noise of wind-whipped clothes and hair, shrugs. ‘His shorts flap and the wind is a bitch but I should have it ready to upload today.’

After the camera takes a new angle Jack goes on, ‘A young woman heard magical music here on this desolate beach. Running to see where the music came from she saw a naked man playing a white harp. The legend says he was a murderous demon that caused a storm for 101 days…’

Hilary tunes out. Jack seems to have got into the flow. The camera crew are lost in their work. Brenna stands intense and immobile but being useful: a statue of concentration. The old man up the beach also stands still, ruining their best angle.

The waves are small today. Rather than crashing and rattling rocks, the incoming and outgoing surges whisper something like, “Kiss … me.” Hilary shakes her head, wonders why she feels dizzy, and puts it down to a hectic schedule, little sleep and high stress.

Jack strokes golden hair from his forehead and stares, chin up, into the distance – his signal that he’s finished. Hilary wants to throw up at his posturing. She shouts, ‘Cut. Pack up. We need to be in Funzie in two hours.’

Brenna says, ‘I twisted my foot getting down here. I can’t carry my equipment back.’

Hilary says, ‘Tough…’ sees Brenna limping and finishes with, ‘Jack, carry her stuff up. We’ve all got work to do.’

Brenna says, ‘Carry it gently please. Don’t break a thing or Hilary pays.’

Jack turns to Hilary, ‘No way am I here to play donkey to a sound engineer.’

Hilary avoids eye-contact like he’s not that important. ‘There’s no real reason for you to be here at all. Brenna could do your job and she has a cool Scottish accent that fits with this trip. It’s up to you.’

Jack says, ‘Hey, I was only joking. I can see she’s in pain.’ But Hilary is already headed up the sheep path leading from the beach to the track where the Land Rover, windows still steamed up from its early run, stands waiting.

Jack sees himself as a rising star held back by people with small budgets and small minds. He’s forced to help out now and then. He’s pissed off but can handle it.

Pulling the foam guard from the boom microphone he jumps and whirls round as a voice says, ‘You got the story wrong.’

‘What?’ he says to the old man – and wonders how he walked silently over shingle.

The old man’s creased face is almost buried in lines as he frowns. ‘She was my great aunt Stineag.’

Jack finds the right slot for the foam. ‘What?’

‘Stineag. She heard the music on this beach. I was only seven but she told the whole family and I was there when she told it.’

Jack unclips the microphone from its socket. ‘Right.’

‘She saw him day after day, listened to his music. He was handsome she said, and faery. The family kept away. No one messes with faery – they bring both good and bad. My great aunt was … not good looking. Everyone was pleased she had found a man. Magical people can see into beautiful hearts and treasure them when mere humans can’t see beyond the scarring of an accident with fire. Stineag used to hide her face behind thin fabric. The faery see souls and hers was pure.’

Jack, not really listening, says, ‘Legendary, man.’

‘Not legendary: wondrous.’ The old man grinds his walking stick between shingle stones and leans on it. ‘The man played an instrument made of hollowed walrus tusk and tines of whale baleen. It is the most beautiful sound but the instrument is very hard to play.’

Jack fumbles, trying to stuff a hurriedly coiled cable into its slot, looks up as Hilary beeps the Land Rover’s horn. ‘Shit.’

The old man goes on, ‘Stineag made him clothes. One day he sang the most beautiful song a human has ever heard. But only she heard him. In it he said goodbye to the sea … and his people. He left his musical instrument on the beach – never to use it again. Stineag sang the song to us, her family, but said she wasn’t a shade as good as he was. It is still the most beautiful … and heartbreaking thing I ever heard.’

‘Right,’ says Jack, getting a whiff of the old man as the breeze whips round him. He wonders if soap, shower gel and deodorant have made it this far into the wilderness.

The old man looks back to the sea. ‘They fell in love, this stunningly handsome, strong man and Stineag. No one could believe the match or her luck: then it all went bad.’

Jack grabs a boom segment and says, ‘Pox, how does this bit fold?’

‘The faery saw a dying seal caught in nets. He went mad. The man who had caught it wanted to save his fish; he had a family to feed. The faery wanted to save the seal. A fight broke out. The fisherman died. The faery admitted to killing him – by accident. Half the island rose up against him, called him a murderer.’

Jack looks up from scrabbling with cables, trying to blow damp sand off. ‘Murderer. Yes, I said something about that.’

The old man ignores him. ‘Murderer… That’s a frightening word: more than you could imagine. The faery said the fisherman had murdered his mother.’

Jack clamps one box closed. The old man goes on, ‘It took us a while to realise he meant the seal. Now you see why the word “murder” is so scary. But some people had already turned from the old truths and didn’t believe him.’ He sighs. ‘We were becoming educated. The faery had to run away – to this beach again. His clothes were found here. He swam out in the ebb tide. There’s no coming back from that.’ He looks down at Jack.

Jack’s trying to close a case, fumbling and clicking catches. The strident horn of the Land Rover breaks the air again.

The old man continues, ‘The storm was long but not 101 days; that’s just people making stories out of reality.’ He looks down at the flustered young man. ‘It was a hellish storm. A fury of wind, rain and lightning.’

Jack looks up. ‘Sounds brilliant.’

‘No it was dark. The sky was black for so long, night and day.’ The old man lifts his stick and slams it back among the stones; wet sand splats across the aluminium boxes. ‘It would never have stopped … never. The island people were cursed and starving. No one could catch fish, lobsters, anything. No one could row to Shetland to get food. Stineag knew people would die.’ He shakes his head. ‘There was so much anger in the air, sea and rocks.’

Jack, catching his coat as a gust tries to send it across the beach and into the surf, says, ‘Right.’

‘But Stineag stopped it. She walked into an ebb tide too … and the storm ended.’

Jack stands, aluminium boxes in either hand and others strapped over his shoulders. ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’

The old man says, ‘I was there. I watched my great aunt walk into the sea … sacrificing herself to the faery folk for the sake of the islanders – though it’s hard for me to know the truth. Maybe she was joining her man: becoming faery too. There’s a whole world you young people don’t know about these days.’

Jack takes his first overloaded steps up the beach. ‘Hey, fantastic story.’

‘It’s the truth not fantasy.’

Before Jack can say anything, the old man speaks again, ‘I still have that musical instrument. It was a bit broken but I did a good job mending it… Spent all my life learning to play as best a human can… You want to see it?’

‘Sorry, I don’t have time. It’s only a story. Thanks but I had everything I needed in my script.’ Jack turns, clatters off the beach and struggles up the sheep path, members of the team laughing at the way he has straps and cases tangled. With the team’s help he gets into the bus and tumbles into a seat.

Hilary says, ‘Jack, you’re an arse. Right, let’s go. Now.’ She looks back at Brenna. ‘Oy, Brenna, get a grip I need you to work on the … Brenna!’

Brenna’s using her down-padded body warmer to clear the window of condensation. ‘Hey, that old bloke’s staring at us. Look at him. He’s like part of the landscape. Wow, to think someone can have so much time – just to stand and look at the sea and stuff.’


.©Gary Bonn: 2013

3 thoughts on “Wondrous Dark Truth

    Paula Harmon said:
    July 24, 2016 at 7:02 am

    I love this. I love this sort of “fairy” story but it also sums up our capacity to be too busy to see what’s actually in front of us and to be open to mystery.


    Shawn M. Klimek said:
    April 6, 2019 at 7:55 am

    Melancholy and mystical, beautifully told.


    pritijreads said:
    August 21, 2020 at 5:40 pm

    Such a lovely story, narrated in a fabulous manner. Leaves me in awe of both.


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