by John W. Sexton
Once, once, long ago, forty miles beyond the Great Skellig, was an island called the Skellig-of-the-heart. Very few could find exactly where it lay, and only the most skilled of sailors could land upon it. Some claimed it was made of fog, some that it was made of ice, some that it was made of glass, some that it was made of rain, and others swore it was made of light.
But those who had secured their boats to it swore that its shores were firm and could hold a thousand men. And on that Skellig-of-the-heart there lived a young girl. And in all the hundreds of years that men claimed to have met her it was said that she never aged a day. Ten years of age she stayed, for a thousand years.
And then one day she aged one day and the world was changed. And this is the story of that single day.
Once, once, long ago, on the Skellig-of-the-heart, there lived a girl called Aisling who was ten years of age. She had been that age for a thousand years for she lived on an island as soft as fog, as cold as ice, as clear as glass, as pure as rain, as fresh as light.
And then one day she took a walk to a part of the island where she had never been. And there on the edge of the northern cliffs was a sight she’d never seen. For on the clear, glassy beach, there rose a dark hill. The hill was covered in black grass and rose higher than she could see. Aisling started to climb. The black grass at her feet was soft and warm and the wind blew pathways through its depths. And through one of these paths she walked to the very top.
At the top of the black hill Aisling found two flat ponds of water. One pond was blue and one was green. In the blue pond there swam a large green fish and in the green pond there swam a large blue fish. As she looked into their shimmering waters the ponds grew large, and when she looked again they were small. Then larger the ponds became, then smaller; then larger, then smaller; then larger again, then smaller again.
Aisling had never seen a thing so strange; ponds that grew and then shrank. Aisling watched the green fish in the blue pond. When the fish swam deep the pond grew small, but when the fish came up for air the pond grew large. Then Aisling watched the blue fish in the green pond. Likewise, when the fish swam deep the pond grew small, but when the fish came up for air the pond grew large.
Then Aisling heard a sound like howling wind, but a howling wind far greater than the gentle wind that blew pathways through the black grass at her feet. Curious, she began to walk towards the noise. Soon she came to two darkened caves, set deep in the black grass of the hill. Out of each of the caves howled a tremendous storm.
So great was each of the storms that a flock of seagulls was caught in their gusts. Then just as suddenly as they blew to sea, the winds changed direction and the seagulls were sucked down into the caves. After the seagulls ten eagles were sucked down into the caves with the howling wind, then a flock of puffin, then a dozen geese.
Then just as suddenly as the winds were sucked into the caves, they changed direction and were blown out to sea. Out of the caves flew a dozen geese; then out flew a flock of puffin, then ten eagles, then a flock of gulls. Then just as suddenly as they blew to sea, the winds changed direction and the seagulls and the eagles and the puffin and the geese were sucked back down into the caves.
And this went on and on and on, the winds forever exchanging direction, and the seagulls and the eagles and the puffin and the geese were thrown from the sea to the caves and from the caves to the sea. And Aisling had never seen a thing so strange.
And then Aisling, her ears throbbing with the howling of the wind, made her way down from the caves. Soon she came upon a large pit, set deep into the black grass of the hill. This pit was much greater than the caves and at its centre was a soft red fire. It was the strangest fire she had ever seen, for it was as warm as the summer’s sun and as wet as the winter’s rain.
Aisling had never seen a thing so strange, for she had never seen fire that could be both warm and wet. And along the edge of the pit ran a pearly staircase. The staircase described the circle of the pit and went up and then down, and then up and then down, and around and around as circles do, no single place its beginning and no single place its end.
Aisling stood on the pearly staircase and began to climb. As the steps went up they became long, and as the steps went down they became short. And down in the centre of the pit was a fire that was both warm and wet. And as Aisling climbed up and down the pearly stairs she had never been on a thing so strange.
Then Aisling heard a rumbling voice coming up from the pit.
WHO IS THAT TRAMPLING UP AND DOWN MY TEETH?
WHO IS IT THAT STARES DOWN AT MY TONGUE?
I CAN FEEL YOU, YOU TINY LOUSE, BUT I CANNOT SEE YOU FOR MY EYES ARE BLIND.
I AM THE WHALECAT. MY PURRING BREATH COMMANDS THE TIDES, MY TAIL SPANS THE WORLD.
BUT I AM STRANDED ON THIS SKELLIG-OF-THE-HEART, FOR A BLUE FISH IS IN MY GREEN EYE AND A GREEN FISH IS IN MY BLUE EYE AND I CANNOT SEE MY WAY THROUGH THE OCEAN.
AND THE IRRITATION IN MY EYES IS MAKING ME SNEEZE, AND THE SNEEZE IS BLOCKING MY NOSTRILS WITH BIRDS AND I CANNOT HOLD MY BREATH BENEATH THE WAVES, SO THE TIDES ARE WILD AND THE WORLD WILL FAIL.
And as Aisling stood on the pearly staircase listening to the voice, she had never heard a thing so strange.
Then Aisling called down into the deep pit of the whalecat’s mouth:
“My name is Aisling and I am ten years of age. I’ve lived alone on the Skellig-of-the-heart for a thousand years. I have no memory of how I got here but I’m lonesome for company and tired of sleeping out in the cold, exposed to the blizzards of the sea. If I help get those fish out of your eyes, will you promise to take me to a more wonderful place than this?”
HA, SO YOU ARE NOT A TINY LOUSE AFTER ALL?
YES, LITTLE GIRL, IF YOU REMOVE THE FISH THAT TROUBLE MY SIGHT I’LL TAKE YOU TO THE HIDDEN CORNERS OF THE SEA. AND YOU’LL SEE ALL THE WONDERS OF MY KINGDOM.
Then Aisling stepped off from the whalecat’s pearly teeth and made her way back up through his black fur towards his two eyes.
As she peered into the depths of the whalecat’s blue eye she could see the green fish, who was now rising up for air. So Aisling took the long golden hair on the left-hand side of her head and braided it into a plait. And when the braid was finished she lowered it into the waters of the whalecat’s blue eye. Then, with the long plait of her hair sinking into the water, she walked over to the whalecat’s other eye, and as she peered into the green depths she could see the blue fish, who was now rising up for air.
So Aisling took the long golden hair on the right-hand side of her head and braided it into a plait. And when the braid was finished she lowered it into the waters of the whalecat’s green eye.
Aisling waited until she felt the two fish tugging at the braids, which they had mistaken for golden sea-snakes, and then she began to walk up high over the top of the whalecat’s head, and then down over his long back. As Aisling walked on, her two braids of hair were pulled free of the water and out came the two fish with them.
As the fish left the whalecat’s eyes, Aisling could see that their bodies were incredibly long. They were like two wonderful eels, each a mile in length. Free of the water, they struggled and writhed on the black fur of the whalecat’s back. One was as green as the sea, the other as blue as the sky. And Aisling had never seen fish as strange as these.
Then, stranger still, the fish began to speak. And the green fish said: “My daughter, Aisling.” And the blue fish said: “Oh my daughter, Aisling.”
And both together the fish began to speak in unison.
“Aisling, you are our only child, our first and only daughter. We are the people of the sea, merrows from the depths. One day while we swam these waters, on the very day of your tenth birthday, we were caught in the nets of a fisherman. He slaughtered us like seals, for that is what he thought we were. With our last breath we made an island for you from the pure blood of our hearts’ love, and set you here where you’d be safe. Then our spirits entered into these two eels and we have been searching the ocean for a thousand years to find a guardian worthy enough to raise you.
“Before we set you here on this enchanted place we cleared your mind of every memory so that you wouldn’t be haunted by sorrow. Now we bring you the whalecat, to raise you as his child. Goodbye, young daughter, and love us all your life, for now we must depart to paradise.”
The two eels slithered off the whalecat’s back and down into the waters of the sea. Down, down, down they swam, and the Skellig-of-the-heart began to melt. And sitting in the black fur of the whalecat’s back Aisling began to cry for her dead parents. And she cried and she cried until the waters of the sea began to rise with the fullness of her tears.
And when Aisling had finished crying an entire day had passed. And the waters had risen and risen until the lands of the earth grew small, and the Great Skellig was nothing but the tip of stone that it is today, poking out of the ocean.
And the whalecat floated in the sea, the waves lapping against its fur. Aisling could see the whalecat’s tail, which stretched for miles over the water. After a time the whalecat curled this immense tail beneath itself, and was thus able to stand upon its floating spiral, as if standing on a raft.
On the tip of the whalecat’s tail there was a claw, a claw as long as the largest ship, and it curved sharply like a dredging hook. It was with this claw that the whalecat, whenever residing in the deepest parts, could anchor itself to the bottom of the ocean. But on this day the ocean floor was well below them, and the sun shone into the whalecat’s eyes, its green eye and its blue eye, and the twinkling of those great eyes could be seen from the distant land.
AISLING, MY ADOPTED CHILD, CLIMB INTO THE CHAMBER OF MY LEFT EAR. THERE YOU WILL BE SAFE AGAINST THE OCEAN, FOR WHEN I DIVE TO THE DEPTHS MY EARS FOLD CLOSE AGAINST MY HEAD. COME WITH ME NOW, AND YOU’LL GAIN ALL THE WONDERS OF MY KINGDOM.
So Aisling did as she was bid, and the great whalecat uncurled its tail and dived down into the cold waters. And since that time Aisling has not aged above ten years and a day, and she lives at the bottom of the deepest sea, curled asleep in the whalecat’s ear.
John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland and is the author of five poetry collections, the most recent being The Offspring of the Moon, which was published by Salmon Poetry in 2013. He created and wrote the science-fiction comedy-drama, The Ivory Tower, for RTÉ radio, which ran to over one hundred half-hour episodes from 1999 to 2002. Two novels based on the characters from this series have been published by the O’Brien Press: The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed, which have been translated into both Italian and Serbian. Under the ironic pseudonym of Sex W. Johnston he has recorded an album with legendary Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell, entitled Sons Of Shiva, which has been released on Track Records. He is a past nominee for The Hennessy Literary Award and his poem The Green Owl won the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His poems are widely published and some have appeared in Apex, Danse Macbre, Dreams & Nightmares, The 2012 Dwarf Stars Anthology, Eye to the Telescope, Fur-Lined Ghettos, microcosms, The Mystic Nebula, The Pedestal Magazine, The 2012 Rhysling Anthology, Rose Red Review, Star*Line and Strange Horizons.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Genre is best seen, I believe, as a spectrum, rather than as a coagulating mass. So I think an early thing a writer has to decide is where they are on the spectrum. Another way of looking at it is to ask, what tradition of the Fantastic do I belong to or fit into best? Once a writer focuses on where they are they can function far more convincingly.
In my case I look at the genre through a specific set of lens, each individual lens being whichever tradition I am representing at any particular time, or upon which part of the spectrum I happen to be standing when approaching an individual poem. The traditions I align myself with, and all from a European perspective as I am a European, would be Magic Realism, Metaphoricism and Fabulism. As is common with the European practice of these particular isms, folktale is the specific myth-kitty that I would instinctively dip into. A very important additional approach that I align myself with, and this is specific to Ireland and to the geographical province I belong to, is the Aisling tradition, which is an Irish version of the vision poem. This sense of belonging to a tradition or traditions imbues me with creative confidence and also a conviction of artistic lineage.
In Irish poetry at the moment there is a crisis brought about by a top-heavy reliance on poems of the quotidian, which has led to convergence - where far too many poets are writing of common experience in a similar register. So what we have in Irish poetry journals is a bland porridge of the nearly same. As a poet working in the traditions of the Fantastic I am therefore currently and effectively anti-quotidianist, which suddenly legitimizes my stance as literary-political. This legitimacy is easier to maintain if one can claim a legacy of such writing. So my advice to writers is: find a tradition to belong to and then belong to it. Belong to it and serve it, and then take it further. It will deepen your writing immeasurably.