by Eirias Emrys
A dead fisherman's son falls in love with an upperclass girl of the utmost snobbery.
|They were the Scavengers, the treasure hunters, a band of scrawny youth. Together they combed the rocky beaches of a fishing village nestled in a wharf on the coast of Wales.
Jonathan sat, not quite twelve years-old on the bank of the shore; the rest of the Scavengers were picking through the rubble. These banks by the docks were often called the “Tatters,” for it was a rocky and sea-shell encrusted shore strewn with tattered sails, broken ale-bottles, forgotten crates, pulleys, rope, and decaying bodies of seaweed. It was a grimy shoreline where only two things dared to go—stray cats with mottled fur and the Scavengers.
Barmouth its self was the center of commerce in that little part of the world, but poor by any standards. The Welsh landscape had seen its hardships, perhaps this village most of all. For centuries the people had forgotten the ways of their ancestors, lost since the dark ages of Brittany. They no longer knew how to commune with the land. The Roman coin had forever changed men’s hearts. It took the women from their homes to the bazaars of expensive imports. Even when Rome fell back, away from the island, the people were left in a fitted frenzy for land, titles, and claims to blood rights. The ideas of Rome still purveyed beyond its fall, with a new order, a new coin. People could live in areas like Barmouth that could not be farmed, had no forest to provide shelter, and no reeds to be woven. It was a town built solely on commerce. The fishing vessels and the occasional passenger ship offered the only income, and so the townsfolk would look greedily to their coming each evening as the ships returned to port. The fishermen’s wives would watch from their cliffside homes, hope alight in their eyes. Often, what money the fishermen were about to make—and more—was already spent on the barest necessities required of raising a family. The women did what they could with what little their husbands made, often accumulating running tabs with the town’s merchants. With their men gone all day, it was up to them to run the village and their families. Even when they returned, the men were too famished and exhausted by the perils and life at sea to make any vies for power, they handed their daily dues to their wives and said nothing.
Jonathan’s father was a fisherman. The boy would watch his father and crew sail out on the Merryweather every morning—out to the far reaches of the world, Jonathan supposed. When the sun touched the horizon, dark figures of the returning ships could be seen, silhouetted in the setting sun. Some men would not return, those that were thrown overboard by God’s hands, and drowned in the swell. It happened to fishing crews from time to time, and when they returned to port, you could read it on their faces. The crew would disembark as one, their stoney visage especially grim as they slowly sauntered down the dock. Crestfallen and dazed, their eyes were haunted by death. A crew member’s passing was that insistent reminder that their days were numbered, any sunrise could be their last. Of course, every missing crew member was also one less hand in the battle against the sea. It meant that every hand was to work harder. Without discussion, this was always agreed upon.
Most of the time, Jonathan never worried about his father, until one cold evening in August. The morning was the calmest morning Jonathan had ever seen, the sky a warm pink and brilliant in the bright eyes of a child. His father left, met his crew outside the marina, and boarded the Merryweather just like any other day. They sailed out onto the still bay, fear in their hearts. A black storm, full of nature’s fury, met them at sea, threatening to tear every soul aboard from the vessel. In the confusion and fight for their lives, James Moore, a good family friend, fell from a mast head and was strangled in the ropes. When the storm cleared and the gulls descended on his body, Jonathan’s father was the one who had to go up and cut James down. By the time his body was finally cut loose, the seagulls had devoured James’ face until you could no longer see his features. Jonathan still had nightmares.
“Pink sky at night is a sailor’s delight, pink sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning,” Jonathan’s mother would say.
From then on, Jonathan’s stomach clinched when he saw pink skies, always afraid that his father would be the one to be eaten by gulls. He would beg his father to stay.
“How will we eat? How will your mother buy you clothes?”
“You can catch more fish tomorrow,” Jonathan would say, clutching his father’s legs tightly. He could remember very little of his father, but what he did remember was his father’s smell. Taller than any other man, he would bend down, wind-blown and damp, hug little Jonathan and use his last, remaining strength to spin him around in the air. Jonathan remembered those hugs, his face pressed into the folds of his father’s sea jacket. It was cold, slightly damp, and had a sweet repugnant scent of fish. Beneath it all, however, there was the salt and the brine of the sea. He searched for that scent—the one he found both pleasant and mysterious.
It was only a year after James’ death that another pink-skied morning, chilling to the marrow, dawned and Jonathan begged his father not to go. They went through the routine. Jonathan would ask him to stay, and his father would ask, “How will we eat? How will your mother buy you clothes?” But his father always left, and today was no different.
Except, when the sun touched the horizon, when boats and the Merryweather returned, his father’s crew disembarked paler than death. Jonathan’s heart fell as he ran down the docks. Barefooted, every step sent a slippery spray of leftover storm puddles cascading around him. His little chest rose and fell as he ran, scanning the faces of his father’s friends. His features fell, in his heart, he knew.
Thirteen men had died that day, Jonathan’s father among them. Thirteen families were destroyed, left with hungry children and widowed mothers. It was the day the Scavengers were born out of incident, thirteen children with no hope for the future.
Jonathan still had his mother, an older woman who was already beginning to slip away into the mental confines of her own reality. They loved each other, but it was up to Jonathan to provide for the two of them, a task he did without question. Most the time, he was down in the Tatters with the other scavengers, picking through the rubble for anything that might have a value. It was exciting, like a treasure hunt.
“Johnny, look what I found!” A mouse-haired kid stood in front of Jonathan. In the center of the boy’s dirty palm was a smooth shard of beach glass. It was an exceptionally pale blue and prettier than most Jonathan had seen.
This boy was named Charley. For some reason, he had decided to take Johnny on as a surrogate older brother, which Johnny did not terribly mind. Unlike the rest of Scavengers, Charley had lost his father when he was only a baby, so you might say Jonathan felt he had to take care of him. At least he had known his father. Though, Charley was one to get on your nerves after a while.
Jonathan glanced at the shard. “It’s beach glass. You can find it all over here.”
“Is it worth much?”
“To some people,” Johnny paused, “see that line over there?” he pointed to a long line of well-dressed persons waiting to board a passenger vessel. Jonathan had been watching them all morning. They were waiting for everyone to embark and had been standing on the docks for hours. All of them wore unfamiliar faces, probably from neighboring cities—ones that could afford a lot more than Jonathan and the Scavengers could imagine.
“I see ‘em.”
“Those people have loads of money. They don’t know what to do with it all, so they just sail wherever at any moment.” This was all a fib, and the last part was a wish, one that Jonathan made to himself daily. Someday, he would sail away, to wherever he wanted. He wouldn’t need to scavenge to make money, he could bring his mother back anything she needed. In truth, he had been watching those passengers with jealous eyes, wishing himself aboard.
Charley’s eyes grew wide and he dipped his head up and down like he always did when he was excited, “I bet they would buy this beach glass, they would.”
“You’re not brave enough to try it, Charley.”
Charley straightened his back, puffing out his chest.
“Braver than you.”
“Alright then, prove it. Sell your beach glass to one of them and…” Jonathan searched his pockets, which were empty. In fact, one had a hole in it. That one was always empty. He glanced around the Tatters for inspiration. “I’ll give you everything I find today.”
Charley looked at the beach glass, his eyes gleaming. Jonathan knew that emotion, the thrill of adventure. Something in his heart pained a little, reminding him how much he hated it here. “Just don’t get in trouble.”
“I think I’ll look for some more sea glass first.”
“Yeah,” Charley nodded, barely listening as he skipped back down to the waters edge with the other Scavengers.
Jonathan watched the them, an assortment of odd-ball ragamuffins with nowhere to go, no hope that anything would be different tomorrow. His stomach clinched, feeling the weight of responsibility. How was it fair that they should have so very little?
Jonathan looked to the line of waiting passengers. The men were dressed in wool suits, hats, and canes. The women wore dresses and coats made of different colors. All of them wore scowls, frustrated at the time they had to spend standing before they boarded.
Jonathan’s gaze stopped at one of them, a young girl dressed in pink. He snorted when he saw her, clutching his mouth. She looked ridiculous in the midst of all the drab grime of the lower wharf, more so than any of the other well-to-do passengers. Her mother was holding her daughter’s hand so high that the poor girl was practically dangling off of it. Even now the daughter yanked her hand away. The mother haughtily recovered her child’s hand, holding it still higher.
Jonathan squinted, trying to make out the girl’s features. She had strawberry-blonde hair that fell in waves to her back, pale skin, and a dress that was much too frilly to be practical. He imagined that her mother picked out that dress. An the whole, she was very pretty, probably more so in a black dress.
The girl wrested her hand from her mother’s clutches and took several steps backward, leaving the line and the edge of the dock.
“Jossalyn!” her mouther shouted a little too loud. Heads turned and people whispered. She suddenly had the attention of the entire group of people near her in line.
She continued in a half whisper, “Jossalyn, come back here!”
Jossalyn shook her head, continuing to back away. She was less than forty paces from where Jonathan and the Scavengers were. Jonathan felt her mother’s gaze pierce their patch of beach, assessing the danger. Jossalyn was wandering closer to them, twirling around her dress and stretching her limbs.
Jonathan felt something stir beneath his breast. He looked back to the mother, why wasn’t she leaving the line to come get her daughter? Even now, he could see the girl’s mother gauging the people around her, wondering if they would let her back in line.
Jossalyn stopped suddenly, spying something amidst the shells and the rocks. She bent down, extending a gloved hand. Jonathan saw Charley’s head snap in her direction. Again, he felt a strange sensation in his chest.
“Jossalyn!” The girl’s mother left the line, marching as quickly as a one in a dress can March towards her daughter.
Charley was at Jossalyn’s side in an instant. Jonathan stood up. The girl brought whatever she had picked up to her face, holding it up. Charley’s hand swiped through the air, clinching around the girl’s hand.
The pair struggled. Jossalyn started screaming. The passengers in line just watched, amused at what was, for them, a long awaited break in the morning’s tedious boredom.
Jonathan could feel the blood pumping in his ears, he was suddenly filled with energy. He raced off his bank headlong into Charley.
“Leave her alone!”
“I found it first!”
He took both his hands, grabbed at Charley’s dirty vest and flung the boy to the ground, accidentally knocking Jossalyn off her feet as well. She fell face first into the grimy beach. For a moment, she looked like a giant seashell with her fluffy pink dress flattened against the pebbly plane. She was beautiful.
Jonathan took her hand without asking, pulling her to her feet. She was crying and yanked her hand away quickly.
“Leave me alone.”
Jonathan let his hand fall to his side. “Sorry.” He looked at the ground awkwardly, daring to steal a moment’s glance. Her face was lightly sprinkled with freckles and she had a sharp little nose set between two green eyes. She smelled of lilac perfume, like the soap bars his mother used to buy special. He noticed her stature and immediately stood straighter.
“Mother is going to be furious.” She plucked at the dirt on her dress, tears dripping down her red face.
“It’s an ugly dress anyway.” The words spewed out before Jonathan had time to stop them.
“It is not!” She let out a whimpering sob, which Jonathan normally would have found ridiculous, but for some reason felt awful about. She stopped, as if seeing him for the first time, “You’re one to talk, just look at the state of your clothes.” She snickered mockingly. “You should try taking a bath.”
Jonthan’s stature dropped and he stared at her hands to avoid her face, “I don’t have one.”
The girl laughed again. “How can you not have a bath?”
“Get away from my daughter!” Before he knew it, Jossalyn’s mother filled his view, umbrella in hand. “Disgusting urchin.” Whack!
Suddenly everything clustered together, sand surf, Jossalyn, Charley, the umbrella. He was lying, sprawled on the ground, when did he fall? He held his head. A little trickle of blood dripped down his right temple. Charley came over, trying to help Jonathan back up.
“I’m fine, Charley.”
Jossalyn’s mother was pulling her back towards the line.
Charley now held two pieces of beach glass, standing next to Jonathan. He giggled to himself, rubbing the smooth glass in his damp palm. They made a little grating sound, like two stones. Admiring them, he turned to Jonathan, “She’s a gutwhore.”
“That’s what’s my mum calls mean women.”
“You mean gutterwhore? That’s what we are Charley.” Jonathan ignored him, focusing on the mother and her muddy daughter. Listening, he caught small pieces of the mother’s ravings as she scolded her daughter, “...and what were you thinking? ...you want to look like those mangey cats...never seen such filth...dirty children living in squaller...”
The blood pounded in Jonathan’s ears, his heart still racing from the encounter now quickened twice as fast. People in the line were watching the Scavengers now with a mix of repulsed and judging faces. Jonathan could feel their attention, surmise their thoughts.
The mother turned to her neighbor as she pushed her way back into line, “Something really should be done. It’s no wonder the fish makes us sick...their slippery fingers all over it.” He clinched his fists, and looked, instead, to the Scavengers. In the pit of his stomach, he resented them in that moment. He resented being one of them. There was Charley, standing with his prize. Something snapped.
Jonathan ran into Charley full-force, sending Charley sprawling on the ground. Charley cried out in pain this time, the rocky bank scrapping through his thin clothes, hundreds of broken seashells stabbing at him.
Johnny sat on top of Charley and pried the boy’s fingers open, wrenching the two shards of beach glass from his fingers.
“No! Gimme those! Johnny!”
Johnny stood, matching down to the shore. With unthinking conviction, he threw the shards into the bay, his whole body arching with the throw.
Charley jumped on his back, little fists punching all over in the midst of sobs and battle cries. Jonathan just shrugged him off, walking back to the bank, but the other Scavengers stopped him, crowding around in a circle. A tall girl stood in the center, Meave. Meave was the oldest, and always the meanest. She was the leader before Johnny had ever come along, and was always looking to steal back the throne.
“Whadja do to Charley?”
“A pack of lies you are! I saw you take his loot and throw it into the bay!”
“It wasn’t his.”
Charley raced up to the circle, bawling and eager for support, “He took my sea glass!”
“Did you find that glass Charley?” Meave’s motherly voice was quite unlike her, but it fooled the others.
Meave turned, resolutely to Jonathan, though she addressed the group, “Rules is rules. Right?”
Unanimous, the thirteen Savengers chanted, “Right, right!”
“But he took it from that girl—” Jonathan started, pointing to the docks.
“This is our beach, it isn’t hers.”
In an attempt to sound smart, Charley chimed in, “She already has money anyway, what would she need sea glass for?” The group ignored him.
Meave stepped closer to Jonathan, until he could smell the cod-liver oil perfume she always seemed to be wearing. He scrunched his nose, hoping she would guess his complaint. She spoke loudly, like a commander in battle, “Well boys, what do we do with traitors?”
“Burn him like a witch!”
“Cook him into a pie!”
Meave silenced them with a wave her hand. She always had a gift with theatrics. “No. I think,” she paused, smiling in triumph, “he should be banned from the Tatters! No more loot!”
“You can’t do that! I’m the leader, this is my beach.”
“Leaders don’t shove people, Johnny.” Charley’s eyes twinkled. For the first time, Jonathan started feeling bad for what he had done.
“No more loot! No more loot! No more loot!”
“Stop it, guys.”
Meave backed away in triumph, the Scavengers all around her, chanting merrily. “Go.”
Jonathan opened the door slowly and, as he entered his home, he closed with just as much care. The bolts were rusty and made an awful grating noise if you opened the aged door too fast. His mother would be sleeping, these days she always was. He didn’t want to wake her.
Even though years had passed since his father was alive, their home still smelled like fish, though he had grown so accustomed to it that he could only smell it when he had been out. The building was once a town hall, but had been divided into several homes and given to the fishing companies. They owned the two-room home out-right, the fishing company had been kind enough to grant them that much when Jonathan’s father died. It was the only thing of any value that they owned—Jonathan had sold everything else.
The main room was bare, the slate floor exposed and cold. The walls were also made of slate, so that the whole place felt more like a cave than a home. One wall was mostly plastered and had been painted white. Johnny thought it made their home look a little more cheerful.
There were two chairs, seated around a stove in the center of the room. The rest of this room was empty, save for a small cord of wood.
Jonathan lit a candle and went to the cord, taking a few pieces of wood from the stack. A large spider scuttled off the pile away from the candlelight. The boy bent down, holding the candle while he drew nearer to the spider’s hiding place. He could see it tucked away in the corner, flexing its pincers.
“Hey there little spidey.” Another smaller spider descended into view, dangling on a gossamer strand of web. He wondered if they eagerly awaited his return each day to light the stove.
With a little fire burning bright, Jonathan sat close in a chair, warming his hands.