THE BLINDING OF MOTHER GALE
(A companion story to Book 1, The Coming of the Whirlpool)
The clouds raced low and grey only a few hundred feet above the rounded peak of East Head. Stretched out there alone on the grassy hilltop, her green eyes stung almost to tears by the wind whipping in off the ocean, Susan Gale – oh so nearly sixteen years old now – stared down at the dark waters of the Rip and willed the maelstrom to form.
Not that she truly expected it would. Even if the mighty whirlpool was more than just a legend (which Susan doubted) it would only rise – according to the tales the old folk told in the inn – after a south storm that blew for many days. And while the weather had been grey and windy all afternoon, this was no great tempest; and though the currents might seethe and race in the Rip below, there was no rotation in the waters as far as Susan could see; no deadly funnel opening. In fact, the fishing fleet was making its way calmly back through the Heads even as she watched, their work day nearly done. They certainly feared no awful pit opening beneath them.
And Susan wished no harm to the boats, of course, nor that a whirlpool would actually swallow anyone. She was bored, that was all. Bored and idle and impatient for tomorrow to arrive. If – in the hope of some excitement to hurry time on – she summoned the dreadful maelstrom, she dared it only because she knew it would never come. After all, it was close to sixty years since last the whirlpool had risen, and in all Stromner only a few white-bearded old men and grey-haired old women could claim now to have beheld the thing with their own eyes.
That is, if they weren’t simply making the whole thing up.
With a sigh, Susan lifted her gaze to stare across the Rip to the town and fortress of Stone Port. Now there was excitement. Even from a mile’s distance the bustle of the place was palpable – more so than usual, in fact, for a Ship Kings fleet was in, and beyond the sea wall the harbour was jammed with their great vessels.
Banners streamed from the fortress towers, labourers swarmed about the docks, and in the laneways behind the wharfs busy crowds crossed back and forth in front of shop windows that glowed bright against the oncoming evening. If not for the wind, Susan might even have been able to hear from across the water the shouts and cries from the streets.
Soon now, she reminded herself. Soon she would behold it all first hand…
And not before time! She’d been yearning for years and years, after all, ever since she was a little girl, to make the short voyage over the channel to visit the wonders of Stone Port. But her parents had always forbidden it. Her father in particular. He hated the town, and had ever since the war. He thought of it as a Ship Kings place now, not properly part of New Island at all anymore – and no daughter of his was going to mingle in public with the sailors and officers and tribute collectors of the enemy!
But really – the enemy? It seemed so stupid to Susan. The Great War was over. It had ended more than fifteen years ago, when she was just a baby. New Island had lost, that’s all there was to it. The Ship Kings were in charge now and that wasn’t going to change any time soon, so if anyone on New Island wanted to get anywhere these days, then they had little choice but to go through the Ship Kings.
But her father didn’t see it that way. He’d served on the New Island fleets during the war, and their bitter defeat still rankled. So despite her pleadings, Susan had been denied Stone Port all her life. Which left only Stromner, and there was nothing to do in Stromner, cast away at the end of its long lonely peninsula. There wasn’t even a road that led from there to anywhere else, only a few sandy paths twisting away into the dunes, leading to nowhere but the empty beaches of the ocean-side shore.
But tomorrow – at last – she could put all that behind her. For tomorrow was her birthday. She would be sixteen years old and full grown – and finally able to do whatever she liked.
Susan’s impatience ignited again. All day it had been growing in her, like an ache. She’d hurried carelessly through her chores – the washing of the sheets and the scrubbing of the floors – until at last, while her mother’s back was turned, she’d slipped off without permission before fault could be found, or more work assigned. She’d felt so hot and flushed by then that it was almost as if she was coming down with a fever. That was why she’d come climbing up to the top of East Head on such a bleak and rain-threatened evening. She needed fresh air.
And yet it hadn’t really helped. The salt wind had cleared her head a little, but there was still a strange and unsettling quiver that pulsed in her limbs. And despite the winter air, even though she was dressed only in her indoor clothes, she didn’t feel cold at all, but uncomfortably warm…
Oh, stop it. She was imagining things. There was nothing wrong with her, at least nothing that a trip to Stone Port wouldn’t cure. And tomorrow, finally, she would be making that trip.
She climbed to her feet and studied the fishing boats down in the channel. There were close to forty in all – most of Stromner’s fleet – spread out in ragged lines to thread the Rip. The faces of their crews were not really recognisable from this high up, but she could identify each man anyway, for she knew every vessel by sight, and who rode in which craft.
Yes, there was her father’s boat: her dad was at the tiller, and her brother and two cousins were stowing away the nets. They’d already passed through the Rip and were nearly at the gate in the Stone Port sea wall, for they must offload their fish every night before returning to Stromner.
Susan watched unmoving, the strange pulse beating inside her, until they vanished into the harbour. She’d always envied her brother and cousins, sailing off every morning to fish. Not because she had any interest in sailing or fishing, but because they got to visit Stone Port every night.
And yet the privilege was wasted on them! They made no use of the town. They never entered any of the stores where the fine dresses were sold, or attended any of the great salons where the grand ladies paraded – all they seemed to care about were the wharfs and the price of fish!
Well, not tomorrow.
Tomorrow there would be no fishing at all. Instead, her father had declared a holiday, and was going to take Susan and her mother – at very long last – to Stone Port on a shopping trip.
It was not so great a concession, actually. After tomorrow, no one could stop Susan going to Stone Port anyway, either with one of her friends – a boy, maybe, who could borrow a boat – or even on her own, rowing a skiff. Her father was merely bowing to necessity, and no doubt he planned to keep her under close guard while she explored the town.
But what did it matter. She would be there at last, and that was only the beginning.
Susan spun where she stood, so that she could stare down to her home village, huddled between East Head and the beach of the inner shore.
Stromner was not exactly the end of the earth, she supposed. It was neat and pretty enough, with its white-painted houses and shell-lined yards, and its long pier spearing out into the Claw, and its spare boats lined up bravely on the beach. Its folk, too, were as well-off as humble fishermen could expect to be in these Settlement times, when everyone (so the adults said) had it harder than before.
But even so, it seemed to Susan an unutterably small and backward place. Why, there were scarcely any proper streets, just beaten tracks wandering amid the grass, and no shops at all…
No, she couldn’t live her whole life in such a setting. Her future lay elsewhere – somewhere with people and lights and events. Stone Port maybe – but even that might not be big enough. Maybe it would be Lonsmouth, the great city that stood at the top of the Claw, visible some nights from Stromner as a glow against the clouds on the horizon, a promise of unimaginable faraway delights.
Of course, sixteen or not, Susan knew she couldn’t simply up and move away. To survive in a city like Lonsmouth she would need a job, and money of her own. Or a husband perhaps, although that was probably for later, much later; she would have to meet someone first. Maybe several someones, between whom she would then make her choice. And that would all take time. But at least tomorrow in Stone Port she could make a start…
Anticipation flared brightly in her for a moment, then faded. Tomorrow was an age away. In the meantime, there were duller affairs to be endured: for one, a family dinner was to be held at the inn tonight in honour of her birthday.
Oh, it would be pleasant enough in the main, but at some point she would be dragged up onto the dais in front of the whole village, and presented with her first cup of whisky to drink – as everyone was when they turned sixteen. Susan had already tasted whisky in secret with her friends and thought it horrible, and that the whole ritual was hopelessly old-fashioned, but she’d have to play along and force it down anyway, for that was how things had always been done in Stromner, and always would be.
She sighed again in vexation and spun about once more, briefly taking in the entire wide view from East Head – the limitless sea, the Rip, the boats, Stone Port and the Ship Kings fortress; all the world she had ever known. Then she turned away to begin the steep walk back down to Stromner.
She wasn’t to know she would never see any of it again.
Later that night, the Gale family made their way through the blowing rain and winter darkness to reach the door of the Stromner inn. They left their coats in the vestibule, then passed quickly through the forward bar – a dim little room occupied only by a few older folk, chatting quietly around the small fire there – and on into the Hold Hall, where a greater fire was blazing in the giant hearth, and where maybe two hundred villagers were packed at the long tables, eating and drinking and conversing at a roar.
The inn wasn’t always as crowded as this, but when a Ship Kings fleet was in port people had money to spend and were eager to gather and gossip – as Susan knew well. She was no stranger to the Hold Hall. Even as a young child she had darted in here on many a night in search of her father at her mother’s behest, and since the age of fourteen she’d been allowed to pass her evenings here with the adults, and to drink beer, if not whisky. So she took no special notice of the scene as they came in, even though this was a special night for her. The Hall merely seemed its usual shadowy self, with the same haze of smoke and beery sweat hanging in the air as ever.
The family pushed through the crowd to arrive at a table in front of the great hearth – a much sought-after position that had been claimed for the night by various relatives and friends, who all rose to welcome Susan with smiles and congratulations. She smiled in return, doing her best to look happy.
For after all, she was, wasn’t she? Oh, true, this kind of existence might never be enough to satisfy her – to spend her evenings eternally within the same walls, with the same faces surrounding her – but that didn’t mean it wasn’t to be enjoyed for the moment, or that she didn’t love her family.
Of course it didn’t. And yet the impatience still gnawed at her, the wanting for this night to be over, and for tomorrow to come. And beyond that she still felt strangely hot, her skin flushed; and yet she was shivery too, as if deep inside she was actually cold. Something wasn’t right.
But she put it aside, and forced herself to laugh with the well-wishers up and down the table. It was quite a gathering; her parents and her brother; her uncle and his whole family; the Swans – Barnaby and Edith – who were neighbours, and whose five young daughters Susan often babysat; an old great aunt who was mostly deaf and lived alone.
But soon enough Susan gravitated to the far end of the table to sit with her three best friends, who she’d also been allowed to invite – Magda Netmender, Freida Wash and Kerry Tussock. The party grew a little livelier then, as things always did when the four of them were together; they were not shy girls. And tonight – as Susan was the first of them to come of age – there was an extra note of self importance and excitement between the four, for one was an adult now, and that changed many things.
Especially when it came to boys. Heads huddled together, the four cast appraising gazes about the hall. Who was here tonight?
Well – over there was York Deepner, who had won the Stone Port race this year in his father’s boat, and who was also the most handsome of all the Stromner boys, the girls had long agreed. But even in their fondest dreams they all knew he was too mature – twenty-one – and too popular to ever notice them. Older girls were already fighting for his attention, with Mona Strand the current favourite. Rumour had it they would be married in the spring.
Well then, there was Gerrant Carpenter. He was closer to their own age, eighteen, and handsome too – if he didn’t smile, for his teeth were bad. Ah, but his family was so poor. His father had lost two boats to storms in the last five years and had turned to drink, and Gerrant was reduced to labouring for wages over on the Stone Port docks, rowing over every day in a skiff, for he could not afford a room in the town. He had been a cheerful boy when he was younger, but his troubles had made him grim and silent, and the girls were unsure how to approach him.
Who else? Well, there was Sam Plover, also eighteen, cavorting by the fire with his older brothers. Yes – but he had courted Susan for a time last summer, until she’d broken it off because he talked of nothing more than fishing and boats. He was terribly boyish for his age. Too rough, too careless. He would never do. And neither would Jorge Strand – Mona’s brother – who was too short and fat. Or Will Havelock, who was strange, and had liked to pinch them when they were little, hard enough to bruise.
No, there were scant pickings to be found in the inn tonight. Truth be told, the four friends were often of the opinion that there were scant pickings among all the local boys; the good ones were taken, and those left over weren’t up to much. The better specimens – according to Magda, Freida and Kerry, who’d all been allowed to travel more widely than Susan – weren’t to be found in Stromner at all, but rather in the busy streets of Stone Port and Lonsmouth. City boys – now they were interesting!
For New Islanders, at least.
The real truth – one the girls admitted to each other only in whispers – was that even the smartest New Island youth compared not one whit to the young Ship Kings officers to be seen about town when a fleet was in, so tall and dark and proud in their bright uniforms. But such thoughts were wildest fantasy. Proper New Island girls didn’t step out with Ship Kings men, and that was that!
All of which the four girls had happily discussed and debated a hundred times before – and yet tonight there was no fun in it for Susan.
She still felt strange. The restless ache in her limbs wouldn’t go away, like a faint pain that came from everywhere, and her head was too light. She had no appetite either – she barely sipped at her mug of beer, and only picked at her meal. No one else seemed to notice amidst all the chatter, but more and more she found herself detached from everyone, as if she were only acting her role as the birthday girl, and watching on from outside of herself.
Also, the room seemed to have grown darker, as if the lamps were being dimmed. She stared about. Was there a problem with the hearth’s chimney; was it not drawing properly? The smoke was surely thicker than it had been before. And yet she couldn’t smell smoke, at least no more than normal.
But how tumbledown the old Hall looked, now that she took notice of it. Plaster was peeling from the walls, cobwebs drifted in the high corners, and the crowd’s laughter echoed emptily in the stairwell at the far end. There were rooms at the top of those stairs, Susan knew, meant for visitors – but there were far more rooms than there were visitors these days. The old folk said that was because of the war. Stromner had been busier in the old days, they said, before the Ship Kings came and imposed the Settlement, which took so much wealth and trade away.
And when Susan glanced again at her fellow villagers, she saw that in a way they matched their aging Hall; there were so few young faces in the crowd, especially of her own age. She had often heard her parents lamenting this very fact. Half a generation had never been born, they reckoned, for many of the men who should have been fathers had died in the war, and the rest had been away so long – the fighting had lasted twenty years – that their wives had gone childless for those same two decades.
It was only recently indeed that the last of the war prisoners – those men captured by the Ship Kings and put to work in their fleets – had been allowed to return home. Right at the next table sat Vernon Shear, gaunt and withdrawn, who had come back to Stromner just three years ago – after a dozen spent in captivity – prematurely an old man.
He was with his wife Mathilde, who had waited for him faithfully all that time, while her own youth and fertility wasted away. Sitting in her lap was their precious baby boy, Nathaniel. The child himself seemed a happy thing; but if not for the war he might have been their fourth or fifth, rather then their first, and very likely their only.
Susan blinked. Where were these portentous thoughts coming from?
And why was it so dark? She rubbed her eyes, but the haze didn’t clear. Alarm grew. She must be coming down with something – some kind of fever, hot and claustrophobic. But she didn’t want to be sick. If she was sick she might not be able to go to Stone Port tomorrow, and that would be a disaster.
Her roaming gaze strayed to the dimmest corner of the Hall, and there alone on a bench, a whisky glass at her side, sat Toper Maggie.
The blind woman.
Even on such a crowded night, a space was cleared about her. She was a plump creature, both in body and face, and while she was by no means young, her red cheeks and constant beaming smile – almost idiotic it seemed at times – gave her a strangely childlike demeanour. Or it would have, if not for the terrible white emptiness of her eyes.
Susan stared, not knowing why she was suddenly so drawn to the lone figure. Like all the village children, she had grown up at first frightened of Toper Maggie, because of those alabaster eyes, and then somewhat scornful of her, for as everyone knew the blind woman drank too much (and so her name, for that’s what toper meant) and laughed to herself all the time, even when no one had said anything funny.
But that scorn aside, Susan (and everyone else, she suspected) had always remained a little afraid of Maggie. For as well as drinking too much, it was said that the blind woman could cast spells and mix potions, and even read the future.
Susan didn’t believe that – no one could tell the future, and there was no such thing as magic. Still, she’d heard that people visited the blind woman secretly in times of trouble, to seek cures for their ills or advice for their problems. And watching her now Susan could almost see why. Those white eyes were mesmerising, in a horrible way…
It was then that she realised her friends had stopped talking – had perhaps stopped talking some while ago, only she’d been too distracted to notice – and were staring at her in concern.
‘Susan,’ asked Kerry, ‘are you alright?’
Susan smiled and forced herself to nod, but the action brought on a spasm of nauseating dizziness. She swayed in her seat, and her friends frowned, but before they could do anything, there was a stir from the other end of the table; her father was rising, and so were the Elders, up on the dais.
It was time for the official toast.
‘Susan Gale,’ announced one of the old men, ‘you are summoned to stand forth.’
The Hall fell quiet. Susan swallowed and stood up, concealing the fact – with a hand on the table – that her legs felt too weak to support her. She stumped numbly to the dais, barely aware of the smiles and nods from the crowd as she passed through. The world seemed to have drawn into a tunnel, and she could only see directly in front of her.
But she must not let it show. If she could get through this moment, then she could go home and climb into bed, and tomorrow the sickness – whatever it was – would have passed.
Old Tobias Gunning, the Chief Elder of the village council, was waiting for her with a kindly smile half hidden in his beard. He held out a small silver cup, brimming with whisky. Had she been a boy, she contemplated in vague horror, it would have been a whole mug of the stuff – but thankfully girls were only expected to down the one dram.
Her father watching on proudly, Susan took the cup in a hand that felt clammy and cramped, the golden liquid within trembling as she held it high for all the crowd to see. In turn, everyone in the Hall raised their own mugs and glasses in readiness. The smell of the whisky made her want to vomit, but she would drink it anyway, and hold it down somehow.
‘To Susan Gale,’ called Tobias Gunning, ‘daughter of Stromner. May she have long life and happiness in her home and family!’
‘Daughter of Stromner,’ echoed the crowd.
Then everyone drank. Susan likewise tilted her cup to her mouth, but even as the whisky touched her lips, the dizziness gusted ferociously in her head and she staggered, the cup falling from her hands. She tried to straighten herself, one arm out, but only swayed all the worse, reeling about in a circle, mortified, for everyone was watching. What was wrong with her? Then she fell, her legs buckling and the floor rising up to slap her across the face.
There came an uncertain scatter of laughter from the crowd, as if at first some mistook her state for one of drunkenness. She would not have been the first sixteen-year-old to make the toast already somewhat worse for the wear. But then, as she tried to rise, and only fell again, there rose a concerned murmur and finally a cry of alarm: her mother.
A rush of movement followed, but for Susan it was all confusion. Hands lifted her into a chair, but she couldn’t sit upright, her limbs had gone boneless. Her head pounded, and it felt as if smoke was all around her, for she couldn’t see anything properly, the room was blurred and streaked with black. A face loomed close to hers, but it was distorted and unrecognisable, a leering stare, an open mouth…
Then a voice was crying a terrible thing. ‘Her eyes! Look at her eyes!’
‘They’ve turned to milk!’ cried another.
‘It’s the blindness fever!’
‘Flee! Flee if you value your sight!’
Chaos descended upon the Hall, a storm of frightened screams and shouts as two hundred men and women stampeded for the doors.
Susan’s terror was no less – the blindness fever, she too must flee! – but she couldn’t move. Her limbs were quite paralysed now and if not for the hands holding her up she would have slid from the chair. Who had stayed with her? Her father? Yes, she could hear his harsh cursing. And her mother too, who she could hear weeping now. But this was much too dangerous. If someone in the room had the dreaded blindness fever, then they must all get out…
Someone … ?
It was only then that the awful realisation dawned. Panic gripped Susan, and she strove madly to open her eyes and to see, to look, to prove that it could not be her, not possibly her.
But in fact her eyes were already wide open, and no matter how she strained to open them further, there was nothing to see, only a jumble of shadows. Except – was a third person with her now? Yes, she felt hands upon her face. For a last instant the threatening cloud of blackness withdrew to reveal a pair of eyes staring deep into her own; eyes that were dead and white and utterly unseeing.
Then darkness fell – full, and forever.
There was nothing to be done after that other then let the fever run its course, which took several days. For Susan, this was an unmeasured time of delirium, with little difference between waking and non-waking. All she knew for certain was that she was not at home in her own bed or her own room, but rather in a strange room and a strange bed – but where that was she could not guess, for she could not see it.
She thought she could see it, at times. At times, she was sure she was wide awake and that the fever had only been a false alarm and that her eyes worked perfectly. She could see walls and windows and chairs with a crystal sharp clarity. But then, just as she savoured the joy and the relief, the room would grow oddly jilted and flat, like a painted picture, before dissolving away into a swirl of colours, meaningless. And then she would open her eyes to terrifying blackness, and feel the sweaty sheets clinging to her, and the cold space around her, unrecognisable by any sound or smell or voice she knew.
But there was someone with her throughout, someone who cooled her brow with a wet cloth and who muttered wordless comfort during the uncounted days and nights. Not her father certainly, and not her mother either, but a woman, to judge by the voice and the gentleness of the touch.
And then finally it ended. Susan woke again to her normal mind, weary and dazed, and yet clear-headed once more. Fresh sheets, blessedly dry and soft, were being folded about her limbs.
She opened her eyes and was blind.
A hand pressed calmingly on her chest before the fear could make her rise. ‘Gently now, child,’ came the voice. ‘Lie still. The fever has broken at last, but you’re too weak yet to be up and about.’
Susan knew the voice, even though she had never heard it speak so softly or closely.
It was Toper Maggie.
‘And yes, child. You’re blind now, like me.’
Oh no. Oh no.
Tears pooled in Susan’s useless eyes. She went to dash them away, but found that her arms were loosely tied to the bed, so that she could not quite reach her face. Panic rose again as she fought with the bindings and the tears and the terror.
The hand pressed upon her chest once more, gently, but too strongly for Susan – weak as she was – to resist. ‘You are safe,’ reassured Toper Maggie. ‘You will recover your strength in time, if not your vision, but now you must be calm. Your hands are bound only to prevent you from rubbing your eyes, for such is the natural desire in your condition. But rubbing them will not bring back your sight, you will only irritate the orbs and risk inflaming them, in which case they might need to be removed. So lie still!’
Susan, with this new fear, lay still. ‘Where’s my mother?’ she whispered.
‘I’ll go and fetch your mother shortly; she can come to you now that the fever has broken, and the threat of infection passed. Mind you, I doubt there really was a threat – I doubt that victims of the fever are ever infectious to others – but as I’m already blind, that’s easy for me to say.’
The woman must have been moving, because the tone of her voice rose and fell. Then she was back, and a cup of water, smelling delicious and cool, was held to Susan’s lips, and she drank, aware suddenly of how dry and sore was her throat.
‘Where am I?’ she asked.
‘You’re in my house. You were brought here after you collapsed at the inn; three – no four – nights ago it was. And here with Maggie is where you’ll always live now, and this will be your room, for that’s the way of things. But that doesn’t mean you can’t visit your folks whenever you want. And your friends too – at least, those who still want to see you. Some won’t, more’s the pity, for fear can make people cruel. But you’ll learn that yourself, soon enough.’
She was in Toper Maggie’s house? But that was the Blind Women’s House, an ancient cottage on the outskirts of the village, draped in old ivy and shunned by children. The Blind Women’s House – Susan had used the name a thousand times over without really considering what it meant.
A new terror filled her – was there no one with her then who could see? Was it only the two of them there, a blind woman and a blind girl? But any kind of monster could be creeping silently in the room, if neither had eyes to behold it…
Maggie might have read her mind. ‘Don’t fret, lass, I’ve lived here forty years – twenty of them on my own. There’s not a mosquito or speck of dust moves around here that I don’t know about.’
Strangely, Susan believed her, and the terror receded a little. Maybe it was just that Toper Maggie sounded so different from normal, so assured and sober. It was hard to picture her as she usually appeared at the inn – the childish face, the drunken laughter. Abruptly Susan wanted to see, to be sure it really was Maggie sitting there, she wanted to look – but that only led to more tears, and another futile struggle with the ties on her wrists.
‘You’ll get used to it, dear. You’ll learn to get by. I did – and you will too. We all have to, sooner or later, we who suffer the fever.’
Susan stopped wrestling. Of course, yes, Toper Maggie had endured the blindness fever in her own turn. She would have answers. ‘How?’ Susan asked in hushed dismay. ‘How did I catch it?’ But what she meant was, why had she caught it? What had she done to deserve such a horrible affliction?
‘Ah now – how does anyone catch it?’ pondered Toper Maggie. ‘No one is sure. The fever strikes without warning or cause that has ever been detected, though it is known to be a disease solely of the lowland coasts. Maybe it comes from the sea air, or from the water, or maybe somewhere else entirely. All that can be said for certain is this – it strikes rarely; it strikes only young women; it always blinds them, and there is no cure. And though indeed only young women have ever fallen victim to it, that does not mean that old women, and men too, don’t fear it anyway – for sight is a sweet and cherished thing.’
And here it seemed that Maggie lowered her face close to Susan’s. ‘But know this; it is not your fault. This is not something you brought on yourself for being bad or careless. This is not a punishment for some wickedness, be it of action or thought. This is bad luck, is all, no better or worse than that.’
Susan cursed desolately inside the prison of her head. Bad luck? How could the woman use words so mild? This wasn’t merely bad luck; this was something abominable and unjust! She couldn’t be blind. She was young; she was only sixteen; she was supposed to be going to Stone Port! She couldn’t become like Toper Maggie, a strange and frightening figure behind a pair of those horrible, dead white eyes.
That wasn’t fair…
The blind woman let her weep for a time, then said, ‘It’s not such a bad life, you know. It’s not as if the Stromner folk leave us to starve in the dunes. No, they give us all the food and drink we could want – and long ago this house was set aside specially for the likes of us. There’s plenty of room, so you’ll be welcome. I didn’t always rattle around here on my own, you know. When my eyes went – and I was only fourteen, younger even than you – there were three blind women living here. Very kind to me they were too, although they’re all long since dead. In fact, I was starting to wonder if I might be the last, if the fever had died out altogether. But now here you are, and I have someone to teach the way of things after all.’
Susan’s tears were spent for a time. She sniffed wretchedly, only half sure of what she had heard. Teach the way of things? What did that mean? What was there to teach about being blind and useless and sitting drunk in the inn every day, living on the charity and scorn of others?
And yet, this new Toper Maggie didn’t sound like a drunkard, or useless… she sounded quite the opposite. Capable and patient.
‘What things?’ Susan asked finally.
The woman’s voice gave the impression she was smiling. ‘Do you think Stromner keeps us merely out of pity and fear? No, child – although no doubt pity and fear are part of it. Indeed, if you asked the Stromner folk – even your own parents – they might say that pity and fear is all of it. But whether they can admit it or not, whether they even know it or not, they keep us for a different reason. They need us.’
Susan laughed with all the force of her bitterness and grief. ‘Need us? For what?’
Toper Maggie was silent a moment, as if thinking how best to answer. ‘I’ve heard tales,’ she said finally, ‘from up in the highland valleys, in the snow and cold of the forests, where folk are rough and unlearned. Nowadays, of course, most all New Islanders are banned from reading and writing, but up in the highlands they never went much for reading and writing anyway. They’ve always got by without such things – and one way they do it is with men that they call Scribes. Do you know of them?’
Susan shook her head.
‘Well, Scribes wander the high valleys, from village to village, and their sole purpose is to watch and listen. They sit in the Halls and Barrel Houses night by night, attending every council and judgment and ruling, every birth and death, observing everything that is said and done, and they remember it. That way, when someone needs to know some fact from the past, or some ancient law, or the ancestry of some child, they can consult the Scribes, and the Scribes will tell them, even though nothing is written down. They perform a vital service for the highland folk, and thus the highlanders feed and house them well in return. We, girl, are like those Scribes.’
But Susan was shaking her head ever more violently – for the blindness had rushed up on her, a dreadful vertigo of darkness, and she had become convinced that she wasn’t blind at all, but that the mad old woman had wrapped bindings about her eyes, and if she could only shake them free, then this whole nightmare would be over…
In response, Toper Maggie laid a cooling hand upon Susan’s face, so that Susan could feel the fingers upon the bare skin of her forehead and eyelids – and know that there was no blindfold.
And then she wept again, hopeless.
‘We are like those Scribes,’ Maggie repeated at last. ‘We are, in our way, the memory of the village. More than ever, now that the Ship Kings have forbidden the keeping of written records. For we listen, we blind women. I, for instance, sit day after day in the Hold Hall, and hear every single word that anyone speaks, and I remember it.’
‘You remember?’ Susan spat in her despair. ‘But you’re always drunk.’
Again, it sounded as if Toper Maggie was smiling. ‘Drunk you say? Well, so I used to be – once. When I was young, and bitter still at my affliction, and when the other blind women still lived and did the listening, leaving me with little to do – in those days, yes, I indulged in too much whisky, far too much, and so was given this shameful name I bear.
‘But I grew out of that long ago. Oh, I always have a glass by my side, it’s true, and because people see me in the inn all day, they assume I’ve drunk more than is good for me. Probably it’s only the innkeeper who knows that in fact I’ll take no more than four or five whiskies in a whole day and night, and that come closing time I’m as sober as he is, if not more so – for he takes a dram or two himself.’
But Susan couldn’t believe that. Whatever she claimed, Toper Maggie always looked and sounded drunk. There were her strange smiles, her bizarre laughter, the nonsensical things she said…
‘People see what they expect to see, child. And when they don’t understand the things I do, then it’s easy for them to call it drunkenness. But either way, once I became the last of the blind women, I had more important affairs to tend to then drinking. It was my turn then to do the listening.’
‘Aye – we are listeners, we blind women. And we listen in a way that few others can, for no one talks to us. In that inn, I am no more than a piece of furniture. No one heeds me; no one addresses me. But that’s the power – for people talk as if I were not there at all, and so I hear their true thoughts. Being outside of every conversation, uninvolved in every argument, taking no side in any lovers’ quarrel, I can listen fairly and calmly, and remember what truly was said, rather than what those who are talking think was said, which is never the same thing.’
Susan was struck by this. It sounded at first rather demeaning, like being treated as a child, for adults always spoke as if children weren’t there. But children were innocents, and rarely understood what they overheard anyway. A blind adult, however; that was a different matter…
‘We are a record,’ continued Toper Maggie, ‘for those that choose to consult us. An authority, even. Now to speak strictly, lawful authority in Stromner rests with the Elders of the Council. But those old men aren’t listeners, they’re talkers one and all. And you would be amazed how many folk – old men included – creep to my door of a night, or sidle up to me in the inn, to ask for the use of my memory, or for my judgment in some legal dispute or other.’
It was true – Susan had whispered of such things even with her own friends. If a girl had problems, with her parents, perhaps, or with a boy, then rumour instructed that she was to knock in dead of night upon the door of the Blind Women’s House, and Toper Maggie would tell her what to do.
But that wasn’t all. Those midnight visitors to Toper Maggie – so the stories went – often wanted more than advice, they wanted potions and spells, and sometimes to learn of the future.
She blurted it out. ‘Are you a witch?’
The blind woman laughed. ‘Of course not, child. There’s no such thing – at least, not if you mean magic potions and the like. Oh, I know a few treatments and infusions that can help folk with certain embarrassing troubles – but nothing more.’
‘But people say you know the future.’
There was no laugh this time. ‘Ah now – to know the future.’ Toper Maggie mused a moment. ‘Nooo… I wouldn’t put it that way. No one can simply read the future like pages in a book. But I’ll say this: to listeners like us, the course of things to come can seem all too obvious sometimes, and thus to foolish folk who only ever talk – who are blinder than we are, in their way – the things we say sometimes sound much like prophecy, even if they aren’t.’
‘I don’t understand…’
A sigh came. ‘It’s because we stand outside of life. I can sit in the inn and listen to the Council deciding upon some plan of action or other, and because I’m not part of the arguments, for or against, I can see better than they can if the course they choose is one destined for good or for ill. Sometimes it’s so patently for ill that I can only laugh – and then the old men get mad at me. But even though I do try and warn folk at times of the mistakes they’re making, I’m rarely heeded, because people can’t accept what I’m saying. They’re inside the world and I’m outside of it. It’s as if I’m speaking in a different language. There are no words. They simply think I’m mad. Or drunk.’
Susan couldn’t have said why – for she didn’t believe in fortune telling anyway – but she felt a strange disappointment. ‘There’s no more to it than that? You cannot really foretell?’
‘We, child, say we, for you are one of us now. But as for genuine foretelling – well, that’s a rarer thing. It certainly can’t be summoned at whim, in answer to this trivial question or that. But – as you’ll find for yourself, when you’ve lived blind for many years – there is a deeper insight that comes in time, more potent even than the art of listening. A true foresight, maybe. It’s not an exact knowledge of future events, but rather a feeling, a persuasion that things will follow a certain path, even though there may be no sign to support it. Some of us have it more than others, and it’s difficult to describe, but when the foresight is upon you – and there’s no mistaking it – then it’s well worth paying attention to, for it’s seldom wrong.’
‘You have this foresight?’
‘A little, a little. I have known, for instance – ever since the Great War ended – that life will now be calm and untroubled here in Stromner for many years ahead. Oh, the normal trials of existence will come and go, but there will be no great upheavals as long as I live. And I know I will live long.’
‘How can you know that?’
‘As I said, I can’t describe it. I only know it to be true. Oh, that doesn’t mean I’m beyond harm in the meantime. If I went now and threw myself from the cliffs of East Head down into the Rip, then I would die sure enough. Fate is not to be toyed with or tempted. But barring self-harm, I know I will survive into ripe old age, and see no hardships around me worse than those we know already. It’s another reason I laugh and smile in the inn. For life is good.’
Susan said nothing, unconvinced. Was this all there was to foretelling? To say only that nothing bad was going to happen?
Toper Maggie chuckled. ‘You think I merely delude myself with pleasant fancies – but you should be warned that my foresight has not always been so benign. When first I emerged from the blinding fever, forty years ago now, my first words to those tending me spoke of a terrible storm coming, of the end of the world as we knew it, and death to many. I spoke, I suppose, only out of my own pain and fear – but four years later the Great War broke out, and raged for twenty merciless years after.’
And now Toper Maggie shifted again to lean close over the bed, her breath warm on Susan’s face, and quite free of whisky.
‘And here’s the thing, girl. Long tradition, passed down from blinded woman to blinded woman, declares that the first words a victim of the fever speaks after awakening will prove to be the truest prophecy of her life. My first words certainly were, and the three women who trained me always insisted that the same had been true for them. So now is your moment – you must search within yourself for foresight, even though you are not even a proper listener yet, and let it speak through you, so that I might hear.’
Susan stiffened in surprise and unease. A prophecy? She was supposed to have a foreseeing right now? It was ridiculous.
She put her unbelief aside a moment, and closing her eyes (not that she needed to do that anymore) tried to look inwards, searching within herself, whatever those words meant.
Was there an intuition waiting there? A premonition? An uncanny certainty about the future? No… she was miserable and frightened, that was all. She didn’t want to know the future. She only wanted her sight back. And to go home.
‘You mustn’t fight it, child,’ Maggie urged.
An upwelling of resentment filled Susan. No – she would not be part of this nonsense. She was no prophet, and Toper Maggie wasn’t one either – the blind woman had invented the whole thing. She was either mad, or a drunkard after all, and Susan would not waste her life imprisoned with such a creature here in this horrible house of the blind.
‘Leave me alone,’ she demanded. ‘I can’t foresee anything and I never will. And I’m not going to stay here. I’m going home.’
And why shouldn’t she? She might be blind, but that didn’t mean all normal existence had to end! True, she could no longer hope for great things in Stone Port or Lonsmouth – but there was still a decent life to be lived here in Stromner. There was still useful work she could do, and there could still be love with a boy, and marriage, and children…
She added, ‘And why isn’t my mother here? She would never leave me alone like this with you! You’ve kept her away deliberately!’
But Toper Maggie would make no such admission. ‘Poor child, of course I haven’t kept your mother away. She could have been here all along if she’d wanted. But folk fear the blindness fever too much. Even mothers. And no matter how much your parents might love you still, they know how it must be from now on. You can’t go back to them. They would not take you. Blind women live in the Blind Women’s House, and that’s all there is to it.’
‘But I’m not like you…’
‘You are, you know. Oh, I hear it clearly enough in your voice – you dream still of the life that your friends will lead. You dream of husbands and children. But that can never be. No boy will want you with those eyes – and even if one did, you will never have children. For the blinding fever inflicts one other terrible hurt; its victims remain forever barren. You are sterile now. You will never be a mother.’
A vast sensation of loss, even darker than her blindness, froze Susan’s heart. Nothing? She was to be left with nothing at all?
‘Never mind,’ Maggie soothed. ‘There are other pleasures. You’ll accept all this in time.’
The fury bloomed in Susan again, the grief and the fear. She would not accept it.
‘You want a foretelling?’ she barked, seeking now only to wound the blind woman as badly as she herself was wounded. ‘Very well then, here’s what I foretell. You say that no trouble will come to Stromner in the days before you die? Then I say that before I die, trouble tenfold will visit this place.’
She searched wildly about for some disaster dire enough to match her anger – and remembered sitting on East Head, looking down to the channel, even as the fever grew in her. Yes, that would do!
‘The great maelstrom itself will return,’ she declared, ‘and rage fearsomely in the Rip.’ But no – even that didn’t sound bad enough. ‘Not merely once in my lifetime,’ she rushed on, ‘but twice, the second time even worse than the first!’
Toper Maggie drew in a sharp breath, but before the blind woman could speak, Susan, in her rage, hurled another taunt.
‘And Stromner will know terrible days. It will lie under a curse and its people will flee and the Hold Hall will stand empty. And that still won’t be the very worst thing. In the end another war will come, more dreadful even than the Great War, and Stromner will be ruined, and Stone Port will burn, and Lonsmouth too, and all New Island will be torn asunder and laid waste. There! That’s what I foretell – the return of the maelstrom and the end of everything!’
‘Child, child!’ Toper Maggie protested. To Susan’s delight, she actually sounded afraid now. ‘Think of what you’re saying.’
‘I don’t need to think,’ Susan mocked. ‘The foresight is upon me. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? And one last thing – no matter what you say the fever has done to me, I will be a mother one day.’
‘I will be!’ shrieked Susan, rearing up. Then she fell back on the pillow, gasping.
Great rings of dull fire seemed to burn and spin in the black night sky that was her sightlessness.
The blind woman fetched a huge, trembling sigh. ‘Well, there it is, sure enough. And yes, I asked for it, true – if not for a telling so awful. I can only thank the oceans I won’t be alive to see it.’
And that at least was of some satisfaction to Susan. She felt no guilt about telling such outrageous lies. If the old witch wanted to believe them, and be frightened by them, then let her!
But Maggie no longer sounded frightened, only sad, as if the thing was beyond arguing. ‘I mourn for Stromner, and for all New Island, that such horrors will come to pass. But I doubt you not, lass. You speak with true sight, whether you know it or not.
‘And yet one thing puzzles me. If indeed you are one day to be called Mother, than I can only guess that it will be a name bestowed in mockery, for though you will live to a great age, you will never have children of your own – in that, I now foretell. But you have called that name upon yourself, and so it must be – Mother Gale you will become, one day.’
A chill cooled Susan, her anger quenched all at once. Why did that name pierce her so?
‘But enough,’ said Toper Maggie, matter-of-fact once more. ‘You need to eat, and your mother will want to be told that you have survived the worst, so that she may come and see you.’
The dread still cold in her, Susan could feel the blind woman’s hands working at the bindings on her wrists. Her arms fell free.
‘There is no need of these now – you have passed beyond disbelief in your blindness. Touch your eyes if you must, but once you are satisfied there is no trickery, do not rub them. They are tender still, and you’ll only make them worse.’
Susan made no move to touch her eyes. She felt sick after her outburst – and haunted by misgivings that she’d defied something that should not be defied, and so called doom down upon her own head. Mother Gale. The name rang like a funeral bell.
‘I go now, young Susan,’ said Toper Maggie. ‘You will be alone, but only briefly. Should you need it, there is a pan below the bed, and a cane is resting by your right hand, should you seek to rise – but I don’t advise it. There will be time enough to learn the use of the stick in the days ahead.’
A cane, thought Susan. Yes, she would need a cane now, just like Maggie herself. A stick to tap her way along, dead eyes staring…
The front door of the house slammed shut before Susan even realised that Toper Maggie had left the bedside. A stark silence fell, the silence of an empty house she did not know at all.
But then, gradually, sounds came to her over the beating of her heart. The crackle of a fire nearby, the scrape of a branch maybe on the roof above, the low moan of the winter wind outside. And more distantly – the hammer of wood upon wood, from a boatshed perhaps, and very faint the laughter of children somewhere, playing. Everyday sounds, the muttered rhythm of Stromner, going about its day.
Peaceful – and long to stay peaceful, if Toper Maggie was to be believed. But after that…
Susan sat up slowly, and lifted her fingers to touch her face. She felt her cheek, her lips and finally, very gently, her eyes. They were there. Unshielded. Unhindered. And totally unseeing.
She could not help it. She pressed harder upon the orbs – and pain flared, agonising. No light came, but again it was as if the pain formed a shape in her mind, a great wheel spinning, red in the dark.
No, not a wheel, but a vortex, lines whirling and spiralling in upon themselves.
A whirlpool, slow and vast.
She lowered her hands. For the first time since awakening she knew a fear that was nothing to do with her blindness. It would not happen for many years – until after Toper Maggie was dead, and Susan herself was old. But she believed it now. The maelstrom, a second war, the end of the world.
It was really coming.
Susan Gale folded her hands upon her lap, and closed her eyes to hide their whiteness from the empty room. She cast her head forward, so that her long dark hair fell in strands over her face.
Then she began to listen in earnest.