speculative prose

Collar for Captain Cormorant, by Rekha Valliappan

A Collar For Captain Cormorant

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
… how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…

                                    — Hopkins, ‘The Windhover”

A colony of cormorants cross the bridge south equalled by their transfiguration that they be former Knights of the Old Order of Otis. The Prince of the Old Order of Otis from a spellroom has watched them depart winged at black between the Three Worlds.

They are not to be trusted says the sorcerer. They fill our waterways with smelly guano. They empty our oceans of anchovies from Girren to XCaret. They forage for sprats. Away with the cormorants!

Only one is left staggering out of the sorcerer’s abode of darkness. He breaks into a frown, rubbing his grey temples as he mirror-glasses the surface ahead with an expert eye. His nautical chart identifies landmarks, reefs and rookeries. He has started his journey from XCaret to the lands beyond the Wall. The water eddies flowing into gentle rocking motion. Riding an underwater train which breaks water smoothly, he skims like a seabird, lobed feet retracted for what lies below in the salt-marshes. If he fails in his quest he will join the rest south, doomed forever to his seabird existence.

Twenty years he has been treading water in petrel journey, riding the water-train, listening for the conversation. He has crossed the Carpathians thrice and contemporary Greece where the fulvous duck’s whistle is said to be the strongest, most coherent. Two worlds he has visited, his search for her not at an end. He does not carry much, just his doublet and decorated coat with gold-tasselled epaulette which he wears double-crested with a matte black finish, his frayed blanket, a replica of his past for comfort and warmth, and in an inner pocket his most precious commodity, an emerald-green star the colour of seaglass, plucked by his seal mother once long ago from the night sky over Girren before the others black-crossed, before she slipped into the inky expanse below which would reach her to the other side.

Gaining purchase through the narrow brick-walled canal, he arrives at the old stone bridge, the portal. His destination. The lack of surface movement is not unexpected, although the water-train shaped like a flying dolphin rocks to a halt, bobbing in rhythm. The sun shines brightly, skies are mackerel blue, reminding him of the long-forgotten seaside town of Penarth when the worlds were different, Three Worlds in place, and breezes were light in the passage to nowhere.

Looking back over his shoulder he is mesmerized by thoughts of webbed wings and feeling a growing reassurance at having weathered the broken aqueduct, twisting alarmingly at the ford, at having dared to cross the Wall without a winged ferryman with the filament wings. He bears a noble visage and a cosmopolitan outlook, a young man’s quest for experience not ravaged by the vicissitudes of time. It is not a camouflage. He is a former Knight of the Old Order of Otis. His nobility of bearing has come to him from several generations of ascendency. The parents he remembers have gone into the Three Worlds to take up residence through crossings of their peoples. He must follow, seeking his fortune.

They do not call him Captain Cormorant for nothing. If he were a real bird, like those others, his eyes would swim all-black from the deep darkness of the forward spaces, an albatross or kestrel in flight. Like them he has learnt to firefly fleet, dipping for catfish and crustaceans with the dolphins. It has been an altogether journey of lapping waters to survive the worlds—to find himself his Ophelia, the collar decreed by the Prince, a wife, to bring home a bride, with jumbled thoughts piled on, when deja vu withers, so he can stay human. His hands and his feet are where the first telltale signs will appear. Cormorants as a rule don’t stand a feeble chance. Time rotates fiercely in these climes, whirlwinds of whorls brimming with circles and lines that throw smaller shrike like flung javelin to the imaginary number gates. His mind dancing from feeling to thought is reduced to fish minnows swimming fore and aft. His future is injected at the crossing.

When he left, his underwater counsellor at XCaret had miniaturized that all bridges were empty stairways, leading to nowhere. This was the modern era at the compass point of the Three Worlds. A bridge just did not want to lead. Thinking it through, a bridge did not want to follow either. Captain Cormorant does not know what he expects to find, whom he expects to meet. But he knows whatever it is, he has no more generational lifetime left to wait, because a woman he seeks be not found. Cease that moment. Spread your wings. In his book the message resonates from all intersection points. Thousands of messages. The usual clutter. Meeting is an implausible embrace, as impossible as dreams. A bridge rarely fails in that way.

Besides, the waters that are puddling around the structure’s crumbling stained feet can only but produce a tapestry of timeless thirst, which can never be quenched, once tasted. The Captain knows the score. All he needs is a single moment to disentangle from the grey belly of the bridge. This means he will either find his bird-wife mate or will have to journey on and on—the crossing of ages, alongside the Girren trolls, the ones his mother earmarked for the army of moth larvae which do not stop following him despite the parasites cross-contaminating. Nor can the spectrum be dialled back. He is fatigued. His skin burns. He feels an itchiness grow beneath his black matte top-coat and a discomfort seizes him as he thinks of feathers growing under his skin. He is tired of the truth. He is tired of the wait. He is tired of the trolls. Averse to their habitation. He knows they follow by the hundreds of thousands.

A half century ago Captain Cormorant’s grandfather would have called these tattle tales fanciful fire-hydrant gibberish, to be taken in measured spoonfuls, as medieval romantic propaganda goes. Not so his grandma, the diametric contrary, so sweet behind the dew-dampened daisies, shutting her eyelids down the shallow banks of the opposite shore. She starling murmurates in liquid helium with those same Girren trolls dwelling under stony structures, turning babies to changelings. When one folds supine and her glass mirror shatters she has no cowbridge to cross. His father being a once-upon-a-time farmer accepting chariots of steel has worked his land truly. He mostly talks of ‘aum,’ the universal cosmic sound reverberating through the deep darkness of oceans north and south in manifestations of three—breath, fire and sun; food, water and moon. There are none in the Three Worlds or XCaret who maintain a finer homestead or a more pensive bridge this side of the tor than his once-upon-a-time father. He knows the value in a good step-stone—the only real stairway to the land beyond the Wall, even if only of the do-it-yourself kind. All animal-crossing farming communities are in need of one.

But back then the Captain is knee high, a tiny little fulvous duckling looking into possibilities the same as meandering manuscripts spinning in delicate magic language which overflows with simplicity and forethought. The fairy tales his mother tells, steeped in gingerbread antiquity and moonworms, contorted in makeshift birdcages for the flight of the fanciful, always with a happy end. He fails to see the dark circles under her eyes or her seal-body emerge, too preoccupied with the sorcerer and the theologian Prince of the Old Order of Otis, such cartes postales religieuses as he could write from anywhere in the Three Worlds, and upright wolves the size of horses pounding the dirt and stone.

All her beautiful princesses met their handsome princes beside old stone bridges, far into enchanted forests, where the wildflowers bloomed the brightest. Enchantment is what keeps the Three Worlds spinning. His eyes shut tight, when she hands him the emerald green star, a menagerie of imprint shapes marching past—nothing more than a fading memory. The borderland of the Three Worlds is where the light is trapped and the porcelain birds released, for without amorphous forms hovering precariously between flight and fall such delineations are not possible. Yet his mother, grappling or failing to grapple with her own crossing lay under the water bubbles, silvering into serenity. Like the other Ophelia. The first firefly princess in the glimmering bottle from the Old Master paintings. Covered in colour sediments. By the mill-pond. Drowned in too much of water.

For want of a bridge.

Captain Cormorant building on dream paintings of romantic conjecture, stuck to myths and spells of rabbits skipping into holes and light between the stars fathoms bridges occupy liminal spaces far beyond, the nature of their otherworldliness simply placing them in an immersive state where there simply is no room to grow. No, none at all. They span, they curve, they belch like tactical frigate-birds in the grey pallor of pre-dawn, then once more into the ripening of late sunsets. He can see those bridges, hanging like insightful portals between life and death and the Three Worlds. Or they simply piggy-back. There is just no order to the nature of a cowbridge’s intrusiveness. Or fantasy otherworldly quests. Without supervision bridges either walk into one’s life, or swirl like the writing on a script into nothingness. Nowhere.

Captain Cormorant, his gangly legs rearing to be freed in wind-skimming stride, impatiently awaits the duck’s shrieking whistle. He sniffs the air. He smells of the salt of the sea and sweat from his long journey. Ceaselessly arching like a bulbous abdomen in a March snow-pregnant sky he cannot tear his gaze away from the sandstone and coral, with tints of tomorrow. He will soon get his wish.

Under the bridge’s clean-lined definition a family of ducks, noisily quacking, are skimming the reflecting waters like a child’s plaything—toy ships of hope on a family stroll. Ten little ducklings in a row. Something brings him up short. Mamma Duck is scrambling up the grassy sides of the embankment, with ducklings excitedly keeping pace, in haste. They produce a wild clamour. Not the whistle he is expecting. The Captain, eyes twitching tiredly, hands red and raw from frequent webbing, is not to know how their crossing over blue waters will end. While she sees no menace, invisible Mamma is not to know that she is marching her brood into the open jaws of a regular phantom of the XCaret countryside—a red fox, wily, lingering, lured out of the woods by lip-smacking thoughts of instant midday brunch. A dreadful din is heard.

In a trice Captain Cormorant swathed in silence emerges, hearkening to their wild cries, hastening to drive away the interloper. Too late. A carnage ensues. In retrospect of alternative dimensions reflecting with palpitations on this anecdote he will recall shrugging the image away. They could not have been ducks. But if they walked like ducks and quacked the same, they could not have been any other. He does not think the Prince of the Old Order of Otis has really understood. Brief snatches of duck-call shimmer through the turrets of his mind like silken threads hung on tapestry walls—the lonely yelp of the fox sniffing through the snow, the mournful cries of the ducks, hammering painfully.

He rubs his grey temples harder, the chasm to cross too wide, the preponderance of a probe on a thousand-year-old bridge too dim to ponder at the crossroads of the Three Worlds, and a fox lurking in the shadows snapping jaws, too smart for its own good, to make few mistakes. Captain Cormorant studies his hands, surprised to find them not webbed any longer, but human-shaped still. Resentment at what he can no longer find throbs painfully. Turmoil he has to keep inside, catalogued in memory, however out of sync the ache.

Leaving his underwater train to the care of the stone plinth anchored some distance ahead, he doubles back to the spot where he lost the ducklings to view. He tenses, shreds of vivid yellow feathers penetrating his glossy gaze. White-cheeked he strokes the bearded shadow on his chin. The detritus of past civilizations lies in a blur of loose fragments of stone, where the pathway leads. He follows the flowing water, book-ended at the curve, around the base of the stone abutment. It carries desolate remains of gulch and canyon, moulded with guano and precipitates. Seeds of light and dead feathers greet him blankly. Everything hurts, mocking the traditions of the Three Worlds.

So it was a family of ducks, grey-blue anhingas. The sight leaves him freshly frozen brain-numbed. The undertow of the crossing looks to swallow him whole in its chasm, the sun and the moon dancing wildly in synchronicity. He must be a good son. It is his mother’s wish. Nothing is changed yet. The house on the hill is hidden and so is the fox. Unravelling the hidden cloak requires one to dispel the magic. After twenty years rising up it is his legacy to know the geography of the Three Worlds’ ocean and sky well. He knows he must persevere, cross the threshold of the bridge.

Gasping fervently, the emerald star clutched feverishly in his own two hands weakened by the body feathers as he moves, he does not hesitate. Formalities done away with he bends in half, although his feathered chest hurts with the effort, to peer over the stone camelback, to secure the mirror image of himself, for himself, to reflect in the still waters of the canal, murmuring below. It is the only way to reach his seal-mother who will get his scent. A random sense of joy quickens his lusty appetite. He lets out a small grunt, his first sound that startles into a squeal, like a pig being chased. He overhears the forbidden fox, he hears the anxious struggle of the ducks sounding softly. There are rituals to be observed fanning the bridge.

That is when he sees her.

Along the rough-hewn south parapet of quarried masonry a lone woman in crimson cardigan is approaching at a fast pace. She is poorly camouflaged. Her stride is brisk. Her arms hang akimbo. Like a stricken yellow duck she moves. She wears her hair long, a shag carpet of moving eels streaking perpendicularly. She seems in a tearing hurry. He imagines he sees her answering wave. She has observed the battle of the fox and the ducklings, where all that remains are some ripped and torn feathers. She seems to gesticulate wildly—a vigorous attention-seeking wave. Not even an audacious fox moving from land to land eagerly gathering food will hesitate for more than a second. He thinks he hears her cluck and cry out, in great distress. Then he hears the whistle.

It could have been the rippling breezes. Is he trespassing on her walking trail? Is she moaning her chicks harnessed to the coldness of the old stone bridge? Is she waiting for her battle-bruised knight in shining armour to appear? Is her wave a salute or a farewell? He isn’t sure. She has to be living in the rows of distant houses across, on the far side, or over the hill bordering the woods, where the ducks live, where the wily red fox has staged his spin-cycle, smacking his chops. She breaks into a run. Just for a moment he is lost and sees a cormorant dark as the night fly quietly away.

She is neither duck nor fox, although she wears a full head of flaming red hair to match her cardigan. She is a fairytale princess come true—to fulfill the boon that lies at the heart of XCaret. No Prince of the Old Order of Otis can circumvent the boon, at the crossings, not even with the sorcerer’s magic spellroom. Twenty years of waiting has brought him to these crossroads he has sought. Captain Cormorant steps into full view from the spandrel, into the grass and light, stepping lightly over cloudbursts of spring rain, pooling in the asphalt and concrete.

Beneath him moulding in the firmament is the extant bridge waiting to yield its harmony. The emerald star in his hand heats up and glows inconsequentially. A thousand mirrors of the past, inconsistent in their stare, gaze back at him, in ghosts of wispy mirage. Nearer and nearer she comes, her cloud of red billowing flame snatching the embers of sunlight. His heart breaks into a rapturous zing. He no longer feels the complicated lover, although love is more complicated than feeling deliciously giddy besides an old stone bridge. Theirs could be the greatest love story ever told this side of the Three Worlds.

Nervously, they gaze at each other across the medieval masonry, looking deep into each other’s sun-washed eyes. A thousand talismans criss-cross like diamantes unloosed. Butterflies freeze-flutter free. It is a dexterous long moment. In an ubiquitous fairy tale, the ones his mother weaves, one does not know which Girren troll will emerge, or what magical corner to turn, or what sorcerer will cast a spell, or where the crooked path would lead, or what mallard settling in a mill-pond together with flocks of geese will break into full-throated birdsong amidst wild garlic and bluebells as they do in the land of XCaret.

But with the Captain and his newfound bride, rendezvous complete, they have found each other. They will live happily forever free, just as his mother who has carried him over many a three-span arch has promised, as foretold by the folk history of the Three Worlds.


Issue 18 (Fall 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by Rekha Valliappan

Artwork copyright © 2018 by P. Emerson Williams

Rekha Valliappan writes short fiction and poetry. She has won awards for her writing, been short-listed, long-listed, and published in magazines and anthologies, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Theme of Absence, Liquid Imagination, Boston Accent Lit, Coffin Bell Journal, Rabid Oak, and elsewhere. A former college lecturer, she was born in Bombay, lived in different countries, and can be found on Twitter @silicasun.

P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa, among many others.



This entry was posted on March 14, 2019 by in Stories.
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