The ugly work went on through the day. Black fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber to oil, and the stench stoppered the harbour, as if they were labouring in a low-ceilinged warehouse. The white underbelly was exposed where the carcass keeled to one side, the stomachs membrane floating free in the shallows. The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.
For a time no one moved or spoke, watching as if they expected the man to stand and walk ashore of his own accord. Devines Widow waded over finally to finish the job, the body slipping into the water as she cut it free. The Catholics crossed themselves in concert and Jabez Trim said, Naked came I from my mothers womb.
The body was dragged out of the water by Devines Widow and Mary Tryphenas father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young mans face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her fathers thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.
King-me Sellers prodded at the corpse with the tip of his walking stick. He looked at Devines Widow and then turned to take in each person standing about him. This is her doing, he said. She got the very devil in her, called this creature into our harbour for God knows what end.
Conjured it you mean? James Woundy said.
It was so long since King-me accused Devines Widow of such things that some in the crowd were inclined to take him seriously. He might have convinced others if hed managed to leave off mentioning his livestock. You know what she done to my cow, he said, and to every cow birthed of her since.
It was an old joke on the shore and there was already a dismissive tremor in the gathering when Devines Widow leaned over the body, flicking at the shrunken penis with the tip of her knife. If this was my doing, she said, Id have given the poor soul more to work with than that.
King-me pushed his way past the laughter of the bystanders, saying hed have nothing more to do with the devilment. But no one followed after him. They stood awhile discussing the strange event, a fisherman washed overboard in a storm or a suicide made strange by too many months at sea, idle speculation that didnt begin to address the mans appearance or his grave in the whales belly. They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought. The unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the days work to get on with.
There was no church on the shore. An itinerant Dominican friar named Phelan said Mass when he passed through on his endless ecclesiastical rounds. And Jabez Trim held a weekly Protestant service at one of Sellers stores that was attended by both sides of the house when Father Phelan was away on his wanders. Trim had no credentials other than the ability to read and an incomplete copy of the Bible but every soul on the shore crowded the storeroom to soak awhile in the scriptures balm. An hours reprieve from the salt and drudge of their lives for myrhh and aloe and hyssop, for pomegranates and green figs and grapes, cassia and cedar beams and swords forged in silver. Jabez married Protestant couples, he baptized their children and buried their dead, and he agreed to say a few words over the body before it was set in the ground.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...