To coincide with the recent publication of Evie Woolmore’s new novel The Salt Factory, this week’s blog is an extract from Chapter 1. To read the prologue and the rest of the novel, please visit Amazon UK, US or any other Amazon site.
Lymington, July 1891
I don’t want to look at the dead bird for a moment longer than I have to.
At least, I think it is dead. It has been lying very still for several minutes but now, as the little girl beside me reaches out for it, its cloud-white breast surely twitches. The horse shies and whinnies, tugging at the harness I hold, its head jerking and rolling as if witnessing the most violent decay.
I must have imagined the fluttering of the bird’s heart. Its eyes are glassy, and from the horrible angle of its head, twisted almost back on itself against the wet sand, I guess its neck is broken. If it isn’t dead now, it will be soon.
My revolver hangs against my leg, in the folds of my skirt. It would be easy to put the wretched bird out of its misery. It would make a mess on the beach, but the sea would wash it away. The little girl would have to leave first, of course, and that might take some talking.
Talking which I don’t feel like doing.
How the bird could have come to such a fate, I can’t imagine. It isn’t as though it could have fallen off a rock, because there aren’t any. Nor could it have flown into something, unless it mistook the hot glossy shimmer of the wet beach for the clear summer sky faintly reflected in it.
The day is hot and oppressive. If I close my eyes, I might be back home in Colorado but for the vinegary sweet smell of seaweed harvested by the low tide and the mourning cries of other seagulls. My damned corset grips stiff and damp to my ribs, the bustle hangs like a canary cage off my behind, and the petticoat drags like a wet blanket, weighed down even more by the revolver. I long for the loose poplin shirts and trousers I wore on the ranch, for the simplicity of my holster. But first impressions are first impressions. And if the Magnus I remember from my childhood is anything like the Magnus I am about to see again, he would never permit such a breach of ladylike disposition. It will be shock enough for him to see me again. Best not make it worse.
I glance across the dunes looking for the cottage where he reportedly lies at this very moment, not quite alive, not quite dead, stubbornly just being there, ridiculously, perversely clinging onto life like a—
Like a dead bird that, actually, isn’t quite dead.
The little girl kneels down beside the bird, the layers of her thin white dress turning the soft grey of the bird’s wings as they soak up the dampness in the sand.
‘I wouldn’t touch it, if it were you,’ I say. I am always wary around children and I know I sound fierce, hard, the voice of a woman who has never known motherhood, nor cared to.
But the little girl shows no sign that she heard me, especially when she leans forward and puts her small pale hand on the bird’s body, laying her palm at the base of its neck and her fingers along one of its folded wings.
‘I really wouldn’t touch it,’ I urge. ‘It might be full of maggots or something—’
‘It won’t be,’ says the girl. ‘It isn’t dead yet.’
The horse jerks again, squealing with fear. I comfortingly rub my hand over the pinto’s nose before pushing my old Boss-o’-the-Plains back off my head and crouching down beside the girl. I’m drawn between the natural disinclination to get involved that has kept me out of many a barroom brawl or main street shoot-out better handled by the Sheriff, and the same hopeless curiosity that drives me willingly galloping across the state in pursuit of some idiot fugitive, armed with only my gun and my Deputy US Marshal’s badge. I wince down at the deathbed, peeking out of one eye, my heart thudding against the cage of my dress as if somehow catching the last beats of the bird’s heart.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ the little girl says.
‘I’m not,’ I retort crossly.
‘Not you, silly. The bird. Don’t be afraid now.’ She tilts her head, a stream of disorderly brown curls tumbling over one shoulder, then she gently squeezes the bird’s body, her tiny span just managing to enfold its softness between her thumb and little finger. I can see now that it is still breathing, tiny pulses in its chest quivering its fine feathers. As I watch, the girl gently grasps the bird’s head with her other hand, straightening the neck and resting the head where it should be if all is anatomically correct.
‘There now, is that better?’ she asks.
The bird’s eyes flicker. The horse screams, rearing in retreat, the reins whipping through my fingers. Sensing escape, it gives a last terrified shriek, shakes my warbags off its haunches and gallops away along the beach.
I jump up but I know I haven’t a tenderfoot’s hope of catching it. I hadn’t wanted that particular beast in the first place, noting a petulant glint in its eye that reminded me of any number of malcontents I have corralled to justice back home. But the stable owner, determined to be unimpressed by my obvious horsemanship, had insisted on giving me an animal of ladylike proportion, regardless of questionable temperament. I can only imagine what his wife must be like.
I sigh crossly and look down at the bird, which is now nestling comfortably in the little girl’s palm.
‘Don’t hurt it,’ I hear myself say.
‘I haven’t. Look.’
The bird’s eyes clear and as the girl lifts her hand away its wings twitch again. Slowly it extends one of its legs then the other, as though practising walking while lying down. Then, after a few moments, it lifts its head from the sand and begins to preen, running its beak through the feathers at its shoulders and beneath its wings, as though combing out the weight left behind by her hands. It rolls onto its stomach, twisting its head now to both sides, as free as you like, as though it has never known the oblivion of death.
The girl rocks back on her heels and stands up, then digs in the pocket of her dress and pulls out a small handful of something which she leaves in a pile beside the bird, close enough that it can peck at it if it wants to. It looks like a tiny heap of snow, perfect white crystals sparkling in the bright sunshine.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
I shiver, quite in spite of the hot afternoon sun, the cool fingers of guilt caressing my spine.
‘Do you think it should be eating that when it’s only just—’ I hesitate, unable to describe what it is exactly that the bird has accomplished. Revival? Resuscitation? Reincarnation?
The girl finally looks up at me, and I study her properly for the first time. She is neither terribly pretty nor terminally plain and her grey-blue eyes look back at me with the open curiosity worn by all children. Perhaps that is why she seems familiar. I’ve seen so many faces on my journey by horse, stagecoach, train and ship from the open mountains of Colorado to this horribly cramped English coastal town of Lymington, more and more faces, more and more bodies and noise and chaos as I got nearer and nearer to my destination. At first I tried to memorise every face, like milestones on the way that could draw me home again when this is all over. But not only was it not home any more when I left, but by the time I set sail from New York I wished only to shut them all out, trying to protect the memories of solitary space I left behind, trying to protect myself from what is still to come.
‘Then what’s it for?’ I ask. But the girl only smiles, then turns and skips away down the beach, her bare feet slap-slapping on the sand. The bird stops its preening for a moment, apparently to watch her go, then glances up at me.
I stare down at it. ‘Don’t waste your time staring at me. I know no better than you what just happened.’
But the bird, just like the child, continues to stare in an unnervingly sideways fashion at me as though some sort of explanation might materialise between us. And when it doesn’t, I pull off my old leather gloves and pick up a few of the crystals the girl has left, tiny pyramids and sharded flakes of brittle opaque whiteness, as if my memories of the mountains of Colorado have been captured and crumbled into the palm of my hand. I shiver again, feeling a wintry breeze at the nape of my neck, and look along the beach towards the child who is now standing at the crest of the dunes, gazing at me, as if she were waiting.
I cast the crystals on the sand and brush my palms irritably on my skirt. Now what? It was foolish to have been distracted by the girl and that ridiculous bird. I should just have ridden on past. I have no idea how far away Magnus’s cottage still is. The stable owner was unhelpfully vague when I asked for directions, saying simply that it was the only inhabitable building on the coast and impossible to miss. I have no great desire to carry my warbags for what might be still miles. It isn’t as if my worldly possessions amount to very much, and I have carried dead men who weighed more. But there is also little point in trying to appear demure and dignified with a hundredweight of leather and life slung over my shoulder.
Perhaps the little girl knows where it is. I was going to ask the way when I noticed the bird and slipped down off the horse to get a closer look. At least if I know how far away it is, I could decide whether to trudge back to Lymington to retrieve the horse, feeling the very fool the stable-owner already thinks me.
I hoist the bags onto my shoulder, then hitch up my skirts with my other hand and plough up the dunes, the sand running over the toes of my boots. The slope is not steep here, and a drift line of seaweed shows how easily the tide climbs it twice a day, its distinctive smell catching in my throat like a bitter herb. But with the heat and the dress and the bags it is a struggle and I suddenly feel dizzy, thrusting out my arms to steady myself.
‘These damned corsets!’ I snatch in breaths and force my ribcage out in the vain hope it might shred the seams and splinter the whalebone. ‘Tomorrow I’m wearing my trousers,’ I shout defiantly at the sky, ‘and I don’t care what anyone thinks!’
At the top of the dune I pause to catch another breath and wipe the sweat off my brow with my sleeve. No doubt polite society everywhere is shuddering at the very thought of it. But the little girl simply waits, her pale blue hair ribbon fluttering in the breeze, observing me just as she studied the bird.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘You,’ says the little girl.
‘Well I wish you wouldn’t.’ I wait a moment but the little girl doesn’t say anything more. ‘But if you’re going to stand there, you could at least help me.’
The girl puts her hands out to take the warbags.
‘Not these, they’re much too heavy.’ The little scrap is so slight and small she would probably fall over under the weight and I’m embarrassed she even thought of it. ‘I mean, I’m lost. Wouldn’t you know I can find my way down a mountain in the dark, but I can’t seem to find a house on a deserted beach?’
I raise my hand to shield my eyes against the sun and look around. There is a cluster of dilapidated buildings a short way inland up ahead. Perhaps the cottage is there. It doesn’t look grand enough for Magnus though. But then, I’ve no idea why he is here instead of at home in palatial stone-clad splendour in Derbyshire. It would have been nice not to have been obliged to travel all the way up there to find out he wasn’t in residence. But then, I couldn’t exactly have telegraphed ahead. This visit has to be made in person.
‘I’m looking for a cottage,’ I say. ‘Do you—’
‘How could you possibly know? We only just met.’
‘That’s why you’ve come, isn’t it?’
Text copyright © Evie Woolmore 2013 – All Rights Reserved
Cover Design copyright © Chris Wells 2013 – All Rights Reserved