She woke to a fierce, desperate knocking on the front door. Her hearing wasn’t as good as it had been but was there a voice, too? A voice shouting for help?
She lay rigid in bed, trying to make out the words. The pounding on the wooden door, and the waves crashing below all but drowned out the sound.
“Help! Let me in! Help me, Granny Kiss.”
She shook her head sadly as she got up, reaching for her shawl in the darkness. Darrell. In trouble again, no doubt, and panicking like a child. Arthritic her hands might be, but she could still light a candle first time when misfortune called after midnight. She walked as quickly as she could, calling, “Alright, alright, shut your racket,” as she threw back the bolt.
Darrell tumbled in, wet from the sea spray, and breathing as if he’d run all the way up from Skittle Point. She closed the door, bolted it up again, and looked at her grandson. Nineteen now, and a good-looking one with dark curls and strapping arms. Half the girls on the island were in love with him, and here he was cowering against the dresser, eyes wild, calling her by a childhood name left from when he was too small to say “Christine” properly.
“Please, Granny Kiss, I need you. Cook me a storm, they’re right behind me.”
“A storm? Darrell, I’m old and weary, I don’t have any storms left.” He could be so melodramatic. “What is it this time?”
“They’re right behind me!” He repeated. “They’ll land and come up after me if you don’t bring the weather down on them.”
Christine shook her head, and turned to light the lamp. “Storms are big things. They’re not the answer to just any problem. Whose family is after you this time?”
“No! Granny Kiss, it’s the Excise!”
She slammed the lamp down on the dresser. “How many?”
“Three, I think, they came up Solway Channel. Came out of nowhere! Just a small boat they’re in, it wouldn’t stand a heavy rain. Any kind of sea running would turn them over…”
Christine closed her eyes, her hands still resting on the brass lamp. She breathed in and out, slowly. Once, twice.
“Granny, please! Quick! They’ll be here any minute!”
She lifted a small copper pot down from its hook. Her voice sounded infinitely tired. “Fill this with seawater.”
He grabbed it and slipped out of the door. His movements as he shot the bolts and stepped out into the night were swift and sure, and Christine felt a flash of envy as she stooped slowly down to open the grate and blow up the fire.
He was back more quickly than she could believe, the pot full to the brim and slopping brine onto the wool rug.
“Fool,” she muttered as she tipped some out into the basin, the weight of the sea making her arms tremble.
“Open the window,” she told him, and she set the pot on the fire. “Not that one, the one that faces out to sea.”
She dropped dried bladderwrack and her handful of shells into the water, and began to sing as she stirred it with a black iron rod.
Her song had no words, but the melody rose and fell like waves on a summer shore. Bubbles came quickly in the salty water, and a thin thread of steam drifted towards the open window. Christine’s voice grew slowly in volume, rising above the blustering wind outside.
She huddled down by the fire, stirring the water all the time. Occasionally she lifted the iron rod and stuck the vessel’s brim; each time the answering crash from the sea below was louder and the thick cloud streaming towards the window grew denser.
Crouching beside her in front of the hearth, Darrell began to grin, and then to laugh.
“Oh, that’s a good one, Granny. They’ll be running for home, or smashed to pieces on Foregate Rocks. It’s a good one.”
She paused, listening to the surging howls outside the house. She nodded once, then pulled the black rod out of the pot and pointed it directly at her grandson.
“Don’t you ever, ever, gloat about someone running into trouble at sea. Never!” She pushed the little stick of iron towards him and saw him flinch. “Not even them.”
Now she was sure he was safe, the anger spilled out of her. “And why are they following you? Your father and your grandfather ran rum and tobacco up and down this coast for forty-five years between them. And they never once brought the Excise to my door! You’re careless, Darrell. Careless and feckless, and in this job that doesn’t lead to a long life.”
“They seemed to know I was coming, they were waiting for me!”
“And how many pretty blonde girls have you told about tonight’s cargo? How many angry fathers would be happy to sell you out to the Excise? Do you think of that when you’re boasting your grand plans to the next conquest?”
She turned back to the copper pot, whisking it angrily. There was a hiss as brine boiled out onto the coals, and a plume of sea spray hit the small-paned window and splashed across the table.
Darrell looked down for a moment, letting his grandmother see uncertainty on his face. “Granny, you don’t know it is. The girls, they expect the stories.”
“Don’t know how it is?” Christine snapped. “I was a young girl on this island, remember. I turned Billy Thorn down three times because he liked to shoot his mouth off in the taverns. He was a looker, all right, and the best sailor on the coast, but I knew he’d never last. He was hanged four weeks before your father was born.” She turned and glared at him. “Those girls who like the danger? Don’t look at them twice. Pick a smart one.”
“Will you teach her to cook storms?”
She looked out of the window, where the rain was still hurling at the glass and the breakers crashed below, and stopped her stirring. She hobbled over to the armchair and slumped into it, staring at the boy sitting on the hearth rug. He was all that was left of her family.
“You choose one, and stick with her – I mean it, mind, you be faithful – and I’ll try. A girl from the coast, though. I loved your mother, but she was from the Town and she could never get the way of it.”
Darrell looked away from his grandmother, her face worn and tired as she lay back in the chair.
He’d already promised Alannah that Christine would teach her to bring storms. Alannah had scoffed and tossed her black curls, and asked what use that was. “What’s the good of a storm?” she had asked. “Can the old woman call a fair wind to speed you home, like I can?” But he’d seen the glint in her eye, recognised her desire to extend her power over the waves.
Alannah was the one, no doubt about it. She was certainly smart, and determined, and willing to take risks. Working together, they could own this island. And even Christine couldn’t say she wasn’t coast-born, all the generations back.
He looked again at his grandmother, her head lolling against her shoulder. She looked greyer than when he’d arrived, and thinner, as if she truly only had a small, fixed number of storms left in her. He’d better ask Alannah soon. It would mean giving up the others – or at least the single ones. Other men’s wives didn’t talk.
He threw a rug over Christine’s knees, and walked out into the storm. Above the roar of the sea he imagined he could hear the frightened screams of the Excisemen as their boat smashed against the Foregate. He stared out towards the rocks and laughed into the wind.
Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable. She has fiction published, or upcoming, in Luna Station Quarterly, Straylight Literary Magazine, and Ash Tales.