It is said that poets feel the pull of the ground in a keener way than other souls. It whispers to some of them sooner too. They burn bright and burn fast. And this poet felt the fire in his veins so very fierce tonight, his heart fed through ribbons of magnesium. Hunkered up and private in his corner, the one bestowed upon him by the kind people of his adopted town. Sweating flints.
And yet still he shivered, staring distractedly at the rosy tulip he swirled, held by the base in his palm. He had been thinking of the words of his countryman of late. About the consequences of gazing into the abyss. He had these last years been much concerned with the unfathomable shallows lying not 2 kilometres from where he sat this night, as he had so many others. How could these people live their lives farming the slopes of Vesuvius?
He of course, did as they did. He had his bacon and egg at The Dolphin, he walked along the pebble shore, he assumed the position at the bar of The Napier at the allotted time, repeat till the reap. The alternative would be to simply lie down before the town clock and wait for it to mark the exact time of your demise, assuming that there was anyone left to notice.
He had mapped out all the potentialities. He had shown the people of the island the instruments of their destruction. How something as clearly possible as a pressure wave from a passing jet could set off the 1400 tons of TNT contained in the remains of the SS Richard Montgomery, smashing a great hole in Sheerness, not to mention Southend. How flaming debris might hit the liquid gas installation at Grain causing who knew quite what. And yet the children ran shouting “bang” at one another laughing at the gallows as humans do. Life will out no matter what it seems.
The bar of The Napier Tavern chattered and glowed oblivious to their perch at the end of the world on that February night, knowing to leave the poet alone as needs be. The wine would come unbidden until a hand went up signalling farewell. And come it did, the poet continuing to stare into its depths for an answer to a question only dimly posed. And on each occasion as his glass was filled he saw three masts breaking the surface and heard a roaring in his ears that was not sea but was contained within it.
The poet exited the warmth of the bar and moved unsteadily, unsure of where to go next. A hammering gale lazily investigated his innards as he leaned against the pub wall trying not to heave, as much from the noises in his head as from the action of wine on an empty stomach. The orchestra of the night was playing for him and him alone. Deep in the mix, yet still distinct, lay the steady drop of gutter rain falling against a plastic barrel by the door of the tavern. Beating a slow rhythm, underpinning the tin can melody rolling along Marine Parade. Made insensible by grog and geists he fell in step with the thudding beat. Under the drum’s hypnotic influence he marched wearily across the road towards the beach.
Resistance, if there were any, which is hard to be certain of, was futile. There comes a point at which the ocean’s crash at night draws the poetic soul against the will, long since passed as its owner climbed the steps to pass the flood wall. Compelled by the meter of water small and vast he shuffled over stone and shell to the edge, wind whipping his cheeks as if to scour any tears that may have come.
And out there in the great black channel The Big Bad awaits. Three crossed masts standing as future memorials for what must come. A fate as unfathomable as it was certain.
A manic lucidity overtook the poet as he considered the variables. When? We shall know when we know. The only questions worth asking relate to geography and degree. Where will it hit? How far is safe? For now Old Dick will let them stew as is his wont. They can joke as they will but the houses get cheaper the nearer you get…
The poet was on his knees now, lapped all about by brine and aerial debris. A rippled shell pressed to his ear of a kind common along this coast.
He thought that he could hear the sound of sand falling, time passing, running out…
“Save them.” He whispered softly into the oyster shell as though to a forbidden lover on the telephone.
The shell fell silent.
“What will you give me?” Came the reply, more felt than heard. Offered as it was by a being unused to forming words as humans would know them.
“I have nothing to give you but my words…”
And the sand began to fall once more.
“What do you want!? What do you desire that I could give?”
The latter question came from his throat almost as a cry.
Once more the sand ceased to flow.
Once more the voice came like water falling from its source.
“I wish to walk in the world as men do. I wish to have legs and hands and fingers. I may only borrow what is freely bargained with. Grant me this and I shall bring myself to bear in your cause…”
A silence fell between them. The poet felt the simultaneous pull of water and earth so strongly that he feared that he might burst apart before a deal could be struck. At last he found the courage to speak.
“Then take my body. Do with it as you will. But you must save them, you must promise…”
“I MAKE NO PROMISES TO MEN! But I do not break my word either. I shall try for you poet. In any case it is done…”
“Forces are in motion. It will take time as tides do but it is done. You shall belong to Crassos till I tire of your service. Sleep now poet. You have a long day ahead of you come the morning…”
Upon these words he fell backwards, and the ground took him to its bosom. And the poet did not die that night, but what morbid visions he had as he slept sound amongst the shells. The abyss looked deep into his soul and saw a team of four plumed and prancing. And that was not the least of it.
When he awoke that morning, stiff and freezing but feeling little different, he thought he must have dreamt it all. He looked out to the estuary to see if he could pick out the three masts of the Montgomery but his eyes pained him and could not. The sea wall was intact and The Napier still there, so not yet then eh? Resigned to another day just like the last he strode away in search of breakfast.
And what of Crassos? It had inhabited the body of the poet and had looked into his soul and sighed at the knowledge it brought. The sand in this creature was all but gone. Crassos is the oyster queen/king, it is the monster, it is the abyss. But not a necromancer be.
“Well, well brave little poet, your time is up but it is not your place to know such things. Go and live the days left to you and I shall keep my word. There will be another that can stand me in their shoes…” thought Crassos as It leant the oblivious body gently to the shore before taking its leave.
The poet had a few more weeks among the kind people of his adopted place before he fell. They found him in his rooms some time after, unknowing of the sacrifice he tried to make for them.
And Crassos did indeed keep the words it said. By the time the islanders had found the poet, his ghost having finally burned free of him, two other lives began their story. This was not a coincidence. One of mountain, one of depth. Joined by an oath, though never can be met. Fault lines triangulate from far points to the mouth of The Delta.
Both would be greater in certain senses than any of their kind that have passed before or since. And both were also to be a mystery to all but Crassos and the wandering ghost of the poet, shuffling baleful among the shells.
These trickles had been started and The Great Shell bided its near endless time watching these rivers run fat.
In Bavaria a boy is growing in the belly of a farmer’s wife who will walk in interesting times once a man, then soon fade away into the hills before the world could know him.
His name would be Andi and he would have the same collection of human attributes and weakness as anyone. These will unfortunately be unimportant to this tale, but they mean something to him and his family, and we should remember that.
In a cold deep recess of the Northern Oceans a thing little more than a cell flits in the low currents. Luminous predators angle towards it and break away in fright for reasons their small fish brains cannot fully understand, but they know they must live tomorrow and that is all they need to know. It will grow unfettered by the laws of nature as they are known on land. It will be a monstrous thing devoid of malice and therefore unfathomable by humans who only understand what they can see, and that imperfectly at best.
Its mother/father has made it by sacrificing so many lives that will not now be lived. It is tempting to number them countless, though Crassos knows precisely the price It has paid.
Crassos spoke and time then, now, and next has been altered.
The thing was made. Its name is Legion.
“It will take time”
That was what It said to the poet on the shore that night in the year that Orwell spoke of.
Over the course of the next 21 years, the time of the majority as it is called, these futures matured and became drawn towards a place neither had previously had any sense of.
Sheerness is a point of confluence where waters meld and become something other.
“A solemn feast was there, To all the sea-gods and their fruitfull seede.”
Crassos had always liked that one, sentimental as it was, and felt it appropriate as the time came at hand.
Spread as It was across every crystal of salt in every sea that ran free The Great Shell was in a sense omnipresent but had come, across the time that had seen clever apes king their surroundings, to envy the corporeal compactness of the Landworld. It had begun to pull its form into local waters to gaze at these bodies with fingers that could touch and ached to do what little was denied It, as the powerful always do.
The poet had been brave and he would not go forgotten. These beings in this place may be protected but It would have Its prize. If it must be within the skin of some lost boy farmed for the purpose so be it. He was of no consequence beyond his use as a vessel.
Little is known of the early life of Andi save that at some critical point he began to fray if not unravel. The world turns and some of us break. Some in small ways, some in large. None of us knows where these turns will take us. We too have shells. What very few appreciate is that when they wear thin, other worlds may speak to us without our knowledge, and this can have consequences. And so it was this fresh minted man was making his way to England to a destination still uncertain.
And Legion, what of Legion? It had been brought into the world for one purpose alone and no other thought occurred to it. Such knowledge had been instilled from the first. It must know about the deal. It could not have been otherwise any more than Andi could have been allowed to know where he was going and the reasons for it.
The alignment was about to happen. And Crassos, The Great Shell, Pearlbringer of all the oceans, was massed about the pebbled beach waiting for its moment.
And so they came, in that 21st year, as the spring tide grew fat and swelled the rivers. On land a nervous young man with a twitching leg and a crowded mind sat silently on a Eurostar train bound for London. In the North Sea the largest living thing that has ever existed had for some time been laboriously pulling itself South along the ocean floor spreading marine panic all before it. Though, all that any surface dweller might know of it would be the observation that the trawlermen were not bringing much home for a season. And by the time that Andi was stepping from the train at Ebbsfleet Legion had positioned itself off Sheerness by the mouth of the River Medway.
It has never been explained by Andi once in his right mind why it was that he took a train to Sheerness. All that is certain is that he did so. Crassos may lay claim to having had some manner of malign influence over his progress but such creatures are often boastful. It may just have been waiting patiently for such a tortured soul to float his way as the fishermen do that it was so contemptuous of.
As Andi was making his way to the island propelled by whatever Brownian force had hold of him Legion had planted its great foot firm to the floor of The Nore Bank. Then slowly, and so very very carefully it parted its great shells and began to consume the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery. All the while as this was happening Crassos grouped nearby with no lack of familial pride.
As the three great masts that evoked tombstones in the eyes of the poet snapped away Crassos saw to it that the bearding on the shell of Legion formed into a passable simulation from a suitable distance. Such conjurors’ tricks would suffice as no-one ever came close enough to the Montgomery to see it clearly. And none of the coin operated telescopes on the shore worked in any case.
And within the few short hours that it took Andi to pull into Sheerness station Legion had swallowed Vesuvius. The volcano now lay encased within a shell that grew in places as much as three feet thick.
As the two halves of Legion closed about the ship a man dressed for the occasion walked towards the water. His movements were those of a soul defeated and cowering in the face of superior forces. His shell was weakening. Each time he dropped onto a knee something seemed to catch hold of him and haul him to his feet once more. At the very place that the poet fell, The Vessel rose and walked unsteadily into the waves.
Once at waist height the swell took him and his movements were not his own. As his remaining strength failed him a sensation of being pricked with a million pins came about him and water seemed to enter his veins though not his lungs. Borne upwards in some way the sea no longer was master of him. His feet were not touching the bottom but he was somehow able to walk back to the shore as if his way were paved. Crassos had taken him. The Vessel walked back onto the shingle, carefully avoiding the shells of the fallen.
Crassos was momentarily overwhelmed by a sensory overload. It had never tasted the air in this form and it took a few minutes for The Vessel’s breathing to calm and hit a rhythm. Walking and other motor skills seemed to be taking care of themselves. Crassos had sensed it done often enough and It was an ageless being that had absorbed the necessary basics across millennia.
An amusing thing occurred to It as The Vessel carried It up the steps and over the wall. The very idea of a marine deity was a human idea. An anthropomorphic personification, as it were.
“I wager they never imagined this!” It thought, temporarily distracting The Great Shell from the realisation that its presence in this state was causing people to stare. Children always being the first, having not yet learnt the adult art of politic editing. As worried parents began to shepherd their pointing, gawping offspring safely away from the sodden wretch that confronted them Crassos realised some explanation would be required for his dishevelment.
Approaching a backpeddling family outside the amusement arcade It bid The Vessel to speak words to them, the first time it Its long existence that it would ever be heard in this manner. Yet none came. It tried again.
For all that it had observed the beings of The Landworld, how they moved and such, it had no conception of how they communicated with each other. It had absorbed much of their culture and had even admired a great deal of it, but could not articulate it. Crassos then resorted to the usual method that it employed to speak to humans, that of simply placing the thoughts directly inside their heads, as he had done when he met The Poet. And though a being of no small eloquence it was the medium that his targets fixated on and not the message. And it terrified them.
“Excuse me, I have had a bit of an accident, could you help me please?”
“What?….What are you mate!?”
“*$%&! What did you just do!?”
“Please! I need your help…”
It was to be no use trying that again. Crassos took his borrowed feet down a side road to collect itself. This was going to be a major problem for sure, but It was not going to relinquish its prize after waiting so patiently for it to float its way. It decided that speaking was best avoided for the time being, but some form of shelter and sustenance was becoming necessary as The Vessel was beginning to show serious signs of fatigue. He was shivering, and, Crassos knew, becoming unwell, and it would not do to lose another one at such an early juncture. To some degree, help was at hand soon enough.
As The Vessel squelched up Sheerness High Street a vehicle with a flashing light drew up slowly beside him, the window lowering as it did so.
“Are you alright sir?” Said the officer, in that even manner that all keepers of the peace the world over have cultivated for situations that could go either way.
“Are you OK mate?” Said an older uniformed voice at his other elbow, seemingly going from the passenger seat of the car to his side, in no time at all.
Crassos sensed that this was the moment to adopt a submissive posture and allowed The Vessel to half stumble onto the arm of the policeman at his side.
“I think you’d better come with us sir”
The officers attempted to strike up a conversation during the journey but received no reply. Crassos knew instinctively what the reaction of a powerful thing is when it experiences something it cannot understand, and It had no intention of allowing The Vessel to fall victim of it. The eyes simply continued to stare at a place indistinct.
Presently, via the police station, The Vessel was taken to Medway Maritime Hospital in Gillingham, which took no more than an hour, yet for Crassos it was an education in what shape the Landworld had made itself into.
Trees and bridges and roads and people. So many people, all understanding each other in ways that despite its vast learning remained alien to it. A sign on a Baptist church read “Let all that breathe worship Him”.
“I think not…”
“Pardon sir? Did you just say something” as the memory of words entered the mind of the driver and her rationalising impulse made sense of it. Crassos did not reply.
So, it could read words but not speak them. The mysteries of this life are many it mused as the ambulance drew to a halt and it was helped inside.
The Vessel was placed on a trolley and taken to a private room within the hospital, its contents sloshing around his innermost depths marvelling at the bright lights and pungent aromas. And so the trials began.
The staff at the hospital very quickly realised that there was no progress to me made immediately in getting the young man to speak. It had occurred to Crassos by now that he had become a particular curiosity to the humans. A form of celebrity had grown about The Vessel as a result of his mysterious appearance, and also his silence. They can’t rest when there is something they do not know. I will become studied beyond these walls it mused. It was not certain what it would say to these scurrying white mice should the possibility arise. What is that I felt then? I am uncertain of my path…
Crassos had discovered what it is to have doubts.
The Vessel had been assigned a human female to help him by the name of Susan. Crassos had read it from her badge. She had handed it a paper and a pen.
“Could you write your name for me please? Can you do that for me? There must be people at home worrying about you….” She spoke in schooled soothing tones oozing a patience that she was going to sorely need.
In the days and weeks that followed Crassos discovered that not only could he not form words in the conventional manner used in The Landworld it could not make images of them either. It was it discovered not a creature of language. When it had spoke into the mind of The Poet on Sheerness beach it had planted images there that the human mind interprets as words and fills in the gaps. The dexterity to hold a pen was present but not the innate ability to even conjure a name.
A name. In all this time Crassos had not even discovered the name of the skin he occupied. That it would be the first thing any other human asked of it had never occurred to it. That first time that Susan asked the question there would not have been anything it could write had it the means.
The Great Shell was becoming diminished in this environment and knew it. Thinner. It had mastered the human body to the extent that it could have turned cartwheels should the need arise. It knew more of human music, literature and art than any human that had ever lived from its periodic adventures between their ears.
And Susan sat across from him pleading with her eyes for…something. It had an unbidden feeling that it wanted to stroke her hair and could not say why…
There must be a way to get through. How do these things make noise without speaking…
Crassos clutched at the notepad in a swift movement that pulled Susan aback from the near trance like state she sometimes entered while in this room. It began feverishly sketching a good approximation of a piano…
“A piano! It’s music! He’s a musician…” The suddenly animated woman ran from the room shouting.
The following day The Vessel was shown into a room elsewhere in the hospital and was sat down just shy of forcibly in front of a piano that had been brought up from the chapel. It was made of rosewood and there was an ornate inlay across the front in nacre. Or as it is sometimes called, mother of pearl….
The first chord that he made was done with such resounding force that the watching attendants were distracted from the “HA!” that burst into all of their heads at that exact moment. After all I have done for them and they bring me THIS!
With the momentum of a great waterfall the entire history of human music spewed forth from the German greats to The Beatles. Crassos even wove a few whale cadences within the notes out of sheer bravado.
At other times, as they watched at all hours of the day and night it simply hit one note in an attempt to reach them by means of Morse Code, but to no avail.
Invigorated by this breakthrough, the psychiatric team let the word out that their man was a pianist. Newspapers began to debate his identity. This happened slowly at first as one of the competing dailies feared that The Vessel may be an asylum seeker. They were of course correct in that notion in ways they could never know. Many imposters came forward to be recognised and basked in their brief importance prior to fading from the scene.
And still the world was no nearer to discovering the true identity of The Vessel. At one point they had brought him a map. Crassos had indicated the fjord close to Oslo where Legion had coalesced un-noticed two decades since. And so a new group of lost sheep arose from the Nordic nations falling back wave like as had the others.
As more weeks passed Susan began to show distinct signs of strain, her own shell chipping at the edges, and so too did Crassos.
The spore of doubt that it had felt being planted on its arrival had grown into a mighty kelp of despair. It was not, and could not learn to be so it transpired, a creature of language and now understood that there are some things beyond even the powers of even a great anthropomorphic deity such as it. It was time
And so one morning, as The Vessel took a long bath in his private washroom, he pulled the plug from the end and watched the vortex form as the water drained away.
“Goodbye Vessel….I do not know your name….it seemed unimportant when we met. It is time for you to be known by it once more and take pride in what it means to have it…forget…”
Andi’s eyes mooned wide and he took a great breath as he regained himself.
“Could someone help me please? Where is this place? My…my name is…”
“Thank you Susan. Drink to me. Goodbye.”
The cup of tea she had been drinking from at that moment crashed to the floor and broke into many pieces. For some reason that she could never understand she found it necessary to find every single one of them and glue it back together. It sits on her desk still, and she has never drunk from it since the day it fell.
And as the last of the water glugged down the plughole Crassos, The Great Shell, Pearlbringer Of All The Oceans left The Landworld. It travelled by means of a system devised by humans and was spat back into Gillingham Reach before too long very much the wiser. In his hubris he had discounted the words of The Poet as a prize worth taking. He had only offered him his body thus denying him the means to make language. Clever, clever little poet….
Shortly after it was confirmed that the mystery man who had been discovered soaking wet in Sheerness High Street had left England and returned to his family professing to have no memory of what took place that summer. They wrapped their arms about him and loved him for what he was, which was much more than anyone would ever know. He has now passed into a pleasant life of obscurity.
And Legion still sits at the bottom of The Nore guarding the volcano. Over time The SS Richard Montgomery has caused it not a small amount of irritation, to which it has responded for once in the way that evolution has devised for it. Pretty though the result is, and valuable beyond measure, it is unlikely to ever be disturbed.
And the white hot soul of The Poet that burned too fast for a mere body to contain still resides in the old haunts. The Napier. The shop where the cafe used to be. It keeps watch along the shoreline for any dangers that lurk out there in the water for the kind people of his town. Sometimes he even has company.
“Are they safe Crassos?”
“I make no promises to men clever Poet. But I hope so.”