“I am not exactly who I am.”

The middle-aged woman, who must once have been young and pretty, shifted in her rocker, setting the shadows moving rhythmically around her. This was Madge Mudge. (She’d always been known as Madge during her heyday but then she’d met John Mudge, fell in love despite herself (and his name) and ended up wedding him) ... and, now recently widowed, she wondered what it had all been about. The sound of her whisper out of nowhere had broken the relentless silence ... only to be followed by another on padding feet. It was her cat Feemy. His real name was Blasphemy, but she’d always thought Feemy to be an endearing shortening.

Feemy looked up at the corpse of John Mudge on the trestle table, only that very evening professionally laid out by the village deadlocker, sea wrinkled hands poised in mock prayer on the upper chest. Then, Feemy, with only a cursory preliminary arching of the back, pounced upon the midriff of his one time master and curled into a ball. The over-loud purring filled the clockless quiet with a refreshing ruminative shape.

Madge could hear the distant crumbling waves along the pebble strands as yet another storm threatened. The village was one of fishing smacks, squalling fish-wives, rank fish smells, tall black fishing huts striating the coastline hereabouts like night sentries, fishgreen groynes stretching into the curdled sea whereon little boys with their makeshift rods fished night and day for sticklebacks, hanging fishing-nets like veils for giant maiden aunts with monkfish faces, washing lines of fishhooks, too many things with fish in their names ... and the upturned boathouses... one of which Madge now brooded. It was big enough for two people and a cat. But hardly room even to swing it. Put in one more cat and it would have been tantamount to a children’s game of Sardines. As the night wore on she crooned a shanty:

“My love he was a shine-eyed fisher,
A king of my heart, joy of my loins,
But he went to another to love and kiss her,
So he slipped ‘tween two waves groins,
And now lies on my table, his eyes are coins...”

She hummed the rest. John Mudge had indeed drowned at sea and been washed ashore quite near to the village totem pole, his mouth open on a flapping fishtail tongue. The sound of the mournful dirge, as they dragged him a trench through the sodden pebbles towards the wooden-stilted jetty, could be heard even where Madge helped cram her own ears with Feemy’s paws. She knew John’d been with Mygold the night before, been wrapped in her tidal embrace, so it was only fitting that he had met the only true death of a fisherman. He’d deserved every bitter salt-swallow towards that murky end...

Madge looked again towards her husband, no longer bearing Feemy who had skulked off somewhere, jealous of his master’s peaceful sleep. In the flickering sea-light, the corpse seemed to breathe as if it were an actor on the stage only playing dead. Mygold should be dead too, unless she was to live for another day, another love, another wife’s loss. Madge’s crooning forgiving lullaby lasted till dawn’s blurred edge. And, by then, Madge Mudge was not exactly who she used to be.

They found Mygold’s deadweight balanced precariously atop the fish-swallowing-fish totempole at first light, where it had clambered to die.

The little boys had a good crop of sticklebacks that blowy day.

(Published ‘Chimera’ 1990)

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