My name is Gabe. I was born between sky and land, spilt like a fish onto the salt-washed decks of a seaborne keel.
The men who brought us left soon after the floods. Our Sisters say they will not return. But I was just a girl then. I can hardly remember what a man is like, except for strange dreams of stubble on my cheek, of calloused fingers holding my hand, the low cadence of deep laughter, and a bold, musk-like scent. Mother says I was three or four summers old when they sailed. She says I’d do better to forget.
The Sisters taught me to write, to keep notes for them, and I learned my letters well. Sister Dorothea says I have a scribe’s hand, but an empty head. She watches me always as I smooth the vellum, and holds her breath as I measure out the ink. ‘Not too much, Gabrielle,’ she says.
It is always ‘not too much’. I sense the limits of everything as I make my way through the worn pathways of these stony ruins. Weeds creep through cracked paving. The gardens are hoed and watered by women daily, but nothing flourishes except weeds. I look across to the thin blue line of sea, and wonder if the menfolk will ever return. We are not allowed to speak of it.
This is how I know myself to be evil: my words. Inventories and lists, that is all I’m supposed to write. My charcoal was easy to get – there are fires here all the time, sacrifices, offerings to the gods to keep the waters away. I hid the paper under my chemise until it got warm against my skin, then escaped from the cloisters, bent double as if in pain, saying my courses had come.
My name is Gabe. I am a liar and a thief.
We are three score women here, that’s all, so there’s much to do. This spring, I was given a new job: watching sheep. I have to count them morning and evening and make sure the fox stays away. I have a small bothy in the field overlooking the sea. It was nothing but a ruin at first, as everything is, but I stacked the stones up on three sides, spread turf over coppiced wood to make a roof, and cut a hole out the middle. The smoke from the fire draws well, keeps me warm.
At night, I watch the stars arc their way through the lonely heavens. The sky is big and as fathomless as the sea. There are no limits here, away from the Sisters. The sound of the waves is soothing and preferable to the harsh chant of women. And my paper is easier to hide: I keep it under my bedding, next to my knife.
Days lengthen as the lambs grow. Sometimes I watch the sea and imagine I see a ship, the men returning. I picture them landing on the beach and wonder if I would recognise any of them. They are giants, like the monsters the Sisters tell us about, standing tall as the cliff face and covered in hair, rough and unkempt. I’m afraid that they wouldn’t understand me, nor I them. That I would try and speak, but they’d just turn away and sail back, back where they’d come from. Lost again.
I sigh as the dream fades.
The first time I see him, he’s crouched over like a child. He’s mending something on the hull of his craft. I watch him without blinking, but when he stands I’m shocked. He carries himself differently from a woman. He walks with purpose, with a kind of unconscious grace. The wind plays with his long black hair as it whips across his back, matted like the wrack on the shore. It covers his face too, like the giants from my dreams. He looks harmless, but I’m not a fool: I know him for a beorling, an evil spirit said to bring bad luck. Still, I can’t stop looking. I am caught behind a rock, my driftwood forgotten, while the sun climbs through a hurtsickle sky.
We are supposed to tell the Sisters if we catch sight of a beorling. Then we are exorcised with prayers and chants. It’s been almost a sennight now, and still I’ve said nothing. I listen from behind my rock as he sings to himself. None of the words are mine and yet I know them. Yes – here, inside, I recognise the song. I can’t explain. Perhaps my evil nature links me to him.
One night, he’s waiting for me. Footprints in the sand – I curse my stupidity – and he’s there, behind my rock. The moon is full and silver and he doesn’t say a thing, only stands slowly, as if wary of frighting a wild animal. Then he reaches for my hand. I expect to feel afraid, but I’m not. The stars are reflected in the black of his eyes and a universe has suddenly appeared in a vast sea that spreads itself wide under the big sky.
Next evening, I wait, I watch as he hauls his coracle to the dune’s edge, his back curved, his arms strong. The wind outlines my skirts against my legs and, as I stand there, I’m aware of myself in a new way. I’ve never felt this before. He smiles as he takes my hand, and we make our way through the sheep and clamour of lambs, into the bothy.
‘Beorling,’ I say, gesturing toward him. He lifts my hand to his mouth, my palm upwards, and holds it there so I can feel the roughness of his beard, the warmth of his breath, the softness of his lips.
This is the only word I will ever say to him.
Next morning, he’s gone. The coracle has been blown against the dunes, upside down, the underside misshapen and bent. His hunting spear is next to it, broken, and there’s a trail of blood on the sand. This is how I know a bad thing has happened.
Mother and Sister Dorothea are already in sight, approaching from the path which leads back to the cloisters. I feel a sinking like drowning inside. My breath is in gasps as I reach instinctively for the knife under my bedding. I wrap it in some sheets of paper, then secure it under my vest, before running to the boat. I drag it behind me to the shoreline.
The sea is salty, familiar, welcoming. They stand and watch, Sister and Mother, two still, small figures, as I push myself into the waves, foam spray churning, heaving. The last thing I see is a blur of red sand, then I’m fighting for my breath, paddling hard, pushing, willing the boat to stay afloat.
Under the enveloping sky, they grow smaller and smaller as the current finally takes me. In a rush of pain, of loss, I bear no grief for them, but suddenly realise – my beorling is gone. Through the wind and the cries of the black-wing gulls, I lose myself as a merciless tide of longing breaks forth. My name is Gabe. I am free.
ANNE LAWRENCE BRADSHAW writes poems and short stories. Her work has appeared recently in Orbis, Acumen and Artemis (UK literary journals). She lives in a dilapidated cottage in Northumbria, drinks too much tea, and walks a lot.
Tweet her @shrewdbanana