Little Inspirations: a cave painting

Mermaids on the walls of a cave near Oudtshoorn
from ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa‘ by Penny Miller

It seems strange to find an ancient rock-art painting, depicting what look like mermaids, in a cave near a town in an arid area of the Western Cape, some 60kms (40 miles) from the ocean. However, 250 million years ago, the stark, beautiful landscape of the Klein Karoo was submerged underwater. When the oceans receded, they left behind a fertile valley and these paintings of ‘fish-tailed humans’ have been linked to stories and legends about the ‘water-meisies’ who inhabit springs and rock pools, and who are associated with bringing both rains and droughts.

Some say that the ‘fish people’ in the San rock painting depict a ritual held by their shamans involving swallows, which are also associated with rain. However, many other people point out that the San people were known for drawing what they actually saw. Look again and you can see that the images have arms, not wings. Does this mean that these were creatures encountered and recorded by the San Bushmen?

There are modern-day accounts of people seeing creatures such as these too. One might suggest that the consumption of a few too many glasses of brandy and coke might have been involved, but I’m prepared to keep an open mind. In any case, I’m fond of writing in that space where myth and reality collide…

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Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

A mermaid? Sam can barely believe his eyes. His mouth starts to open and close like that of the fish which, imprisoned in the creature’s grasp, stares up at him blankly. Astonished as he is, Sam keeps hold of the line. The hook pulls at the fish’s mouth.

‘Stop,’ he says to her. ‘Wait. Let me take the hook out.’ Sam leans forward over the back of his little boat and extends his left hand towards the fish. He slackens the line and his hand closes over hers. It’s quite a big fish, enough for two. Sam looks into the creature’s blue-green eyes. ‘Can’t we share it?’

Her eyes narrow. ‘You’re not trying to trick me are you, fisherman?’

‘No,’ Sam shakes his head. ‘I’m not going anywhere, am I?’ He stares down at her, still not believing what he is seeing. ‘Now hold steady.’ He slides his left hand forward to grip the fish’s head and with the other he deftly slips the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

The fish is free of Sam’s line. ‘All right, you hold the fish and I’ll get my fishing bucket. We can keep it in there for now. I’ll make a fire later.’

She puts her head on one side.

‘Don’t you move.’ Sam turns and leans across the deck to retrieve his bucket. The moment his back turned, he hears a splash. He jumps up and spins around to see a large silvery fish-tail disappearing below the surface of the murky river. Another flash of silver further on and she’s gone, taking the big, beautiful fish with her.

Sam beats his fist on the rail of his little boat and curses loudly. He grips the rail in both hands and stares after her. Has he really just seen a mermaid?

His stomach growls again and he pulls the line with its empty hook back onto the boat. He threads the last of his bait onto the hook and casts the line back over the rail. No sooner has he finished securing it to the rail, he feels a tug on the other end.

As he reaches to pick it up, the mermaid breaks the surface holding a plump fish in each hand. ‘She smiles up at him. ‘You thought I’d gone, didn’t you?’

Sam shrugs. ‘S’pose so.’ He grabs his fishing bucket and holds it over the side. ‘Put them in here.’

The mermaid drops one fish into the bucket and takes the other in both hands. She opens her mouth revealing a row of little pointy teeth. Sam is reminded of a shark’s mouth. He can’t help himself grimacing as she sinks those sharp teeth into the still wriggling fish.

‘What’s wrong?’ She bites off the fish’s head and starts to crunch the bones.

Sam averts his eyes and looks down at the other fish, which is floating happily in the bucket at his feet. He visualizes it cooked; he’s too hungry to be put off. Sam looks at her again, the long dark hair clinging to her shoulders and flowing over her upper body, and the glint of her silver tail shining through the muddy river water. ‘I’ve never met a mermaid before.’

‘Well, you still haven’t,’ snaps the creature indignantly. She devours the last of the fish, bones and all.

He leans on the rail and stares at her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Come closer and I’ll whisper.’ She gazes up at him with her big blue-green eyes and beckons with an elegant finger. He notices that the nail is narrow and curved, like a claw.

Sam is repelled and yet captivated by the creature. He crouches down and leans forward over the back of the boat. She reaches up to him and he puts his hands on her shoulders. Her hands close around his wrists, drawing him closer. Sam can feel her breath on his chest. Then, arching her back she flips her tail. Sam, caught off balance, is tipped off the boat and into the river beside her.

He flails in the water, unable to find purchase on the slippery river bottom. Although the river isn’t deep, Sam can’t swim and he panics momentarily.

‘Ha! Can’t swim, fisherman?’

He hears the creature taunting him as he splashes around. His hand finds the anchor rope and he steadies himself. Muddy water streams down his face as he finally stands up in the waist-high channel. He retrieves his sodden cap and jams it on his head. Rubbing the water from his eyes, he glares at the creature who is floating in a seated position a little way away from him.

‘What did you do that for?’ says Sam crossly, spitting out water.

‘Don’t you like to play, fisherman?’ she flicks her tail at him teasingly and an arc of water sprays over him.

‘I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but I don’t appreciate being soaked.’ Sam turns his back on her and is about to climb back onto his boat.

‘Oh, don’t be like that.’ She flips forward and swims towards him. She bobs up between where he’s standing and Porcupine’s stumpy stern. ‘I’m sorry,’ she looks up at him coyly with her big blue-green eyes.

Sam frowns.

‘No, really I am.’ She blinks her eyes at him and a fat tear rolls down her cheek. ‘I’m all alone, you see. No friends. No-one to play with.’

Sam relents. He reaches out and touches her face, wiping away the tear. ‘Look, would you mind if I sat over there on the island? I’d like to dry off a bit.’ She nods and he takes her hand and guides her to the edge of the sandbank.

Sam sits down on the grassy bank while she lounges on her front at the water’s edge, her glorious silver tail sparkling in the shallow slow-moving water behind her.

‘You were going to explain who you are before you tried to drown me.’

‘I didn’t try to drown you.’ Her eyes become even larger, the pupils black like saucers.

‘I’m joking with you, don’t you see? Playing. Like you said you were when you pulled me into the river.’ Sam grins at her.

‘All right, but I’m sorry for that.’ She smiles weakly.

‘All right,’ Sam says gently, stretching out on the grassy bank and resting his head on his elbow. ‘Tell me about yourself.’

‘My name is Shasa. I belong to the tribe of the Water People. You might know me as a water-meisie’.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Song of the Sea Goddess in paperback, ebook and audiobook. Audio available on kobo, Scribd, Chirp, Google Play and Audible.

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Little Inspirations: a gift

An enlarged view of my ‘Silver Locket’

This little pendant was given to me by Emma, my lovely mother-in-law, many years ago. It’s a pretty piece, which might have originally been a broach. I’ve worn it on a chain a few times but the loop which it hangs from is so worn that I’m scared of losing it.

It’s about the size of my thumbnail, very light and it tarnishes ever so quickly. There is no hallmark, so it’s probably not actually silver. It looks like a locket, but it doesn’t open, although it looks as if it might. Don’t you think that one, or maybe a particular combination, of those decorative pins around the edge might spring it open? But sadly, no.

However, it did spark my imagination.

Spool on a couple of decades and my little pendant was transformed. Now a fully functioning locket with a strange little face engraved inside, it became the eponymous star of my debut novel, The Silver Locket which I wrote under the pen name, Holly Atkins. My pendant even took pride of place on the cover, flanked by photos of family members on Emma’s side, whose identity has disappeared in the mists of time.

I often say, ‘never let a good character go to waste’, and followers of my most recent micro-fiction series, The Jade Camel, will discover a bit of backstory to two of its characters who first entered my literary world in the scene below.

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Excerpt from ‘The Silver Locket’

“So,” said Ceridwen, pushing back her long red hair, “you have something to show me.”

Laura reached into her handbag and drew out the locket.  She slipped it out of its wrapper and held it out to her.

“I found it…” began Laura.

Ceridwen held up her hand.  “No, don’t tell me anything about it yet.  May I hold it please?”

Ceridwen took the locket, as she did so she avoided touching Laura’s hand.  She drew in a sharp breath and closed her eyes, running her thumb gently over the face of the locket.  She sat there, motionless for several minutes, then clasping the locket in her fist, she opened her eyes, leant over and switched on the lamp which stood on the table beside her.

“Now Laura, I’d like you to tell me all you can about the locket.  Where you found it, what you’ve observed about it, what it means to you.”

Laura paused.  “It’s complicated.”

“Take you time, my dear.  Start with the facts.  Don’t worry if your story seems strange or fanciful.  That’s why you’re here with me now.”

Laura recounted all she could from finding the locket to the most recent dream in which the little face had been different from the one Laura knew.  While she was speaking, Ceridwen was carefully examining the locket.  As Laura finished speaking, she was studying the oval mark inside intently.

On the window sill, Cullen uttered a low, menacing sound.  Laura could see his silhouette through the blind, his back arched, head erect.

“Would you mind going to see what he’s growling about?  It must be something in the park outside.”

Laura went to the window and raised the edge of the blind.  A solitary figure in a brown coat was looking up at the window.  The figure was too far away for Laura to make out her face, but it looked awfully like the old woman from the churchyard; the same woman who had appeared outside the jewellers and whom Laura had seen hurrying away from the station.

Cullen continued to growl.  The woman turned and hurried away.  Cullen sat back down on the window sill and was quiet again, his fur settling back into place.

Laura returned to her seat.  “It’s strange, I keep seeing this woman in a brown coat.  It’s as if she’s following me.  But when she sees I’ve seen her, she rushes off.  Maybe I’m imagining it, but I’m sure that was her again, just standing there looking up at the window.  I couldn’t see anything else which might have disturbed your cat.”

“She could be following this.”  Ceridwen held up the locket.

“Why?  What is it?” Laura looked at Ceridwen.  “The little face inside… it’s starting to scare me.”

“Well, let me tell you a little about the charm within the locket.  Please don’t worry. I’m quite certain that there is no need for you to be afraid of the locket or its ‘little face’, as you call it.”

“You say it’s a charm of some kind.  That’s what the jeweller told me yesterday.  A charm or a talisman, he said.  What does that mean exactly?”

“These little pieces are very rare, although long ago they used to be quite widely made and circulated amongst the Roma peoples of Eastern Europe.  It is said that charms or amulets of this kind actually originated in Ancient Egypt and were part of their magical rituals or heka.  The oval shape certainly does resemble the cartouches from Egyptian hieroglyphs.”  Ceridwen paused.

“But that need not concern us.  Your locket with its hidden amulet doesn’t date back quite that far, although it could be as much as two hundred years old.  Who knows where a young gardener would have obtained such a precious object.  He can’t have known what it was, or paid the true value.”

Ceridwen went on: “An amulet is essentially something which is designed to bring good luck or to offer protection to the wearer.  It need not be made specifically for the wearer, but the wearer will benefit from the powers imbued in the amulet.  From what you’ve told me, and what I can feel from holding it, his amulet is a special one, known as a ‘reflector’.  A reflector amulet not only gives the wearer protection, it also mirrors emotions, usually from its wearer, but also from people around her, particularly if they are antagonistic or threatening towards her.  This amplifies the power of the amulet, offering the wearer even greater protection.  It is said that the expression on the amulet’s face will change according to the prevailing emotion.  I’ve never seen a one before, but I believe that is what you have here.”

“Oh,” exclaimed Laura, “do you think I have upset the amulet by finding it?”

“I doubt it, but tell me, Laura, have you been wearing the locket.”

“Only for a few days.  I started wearing it after I first found it, because it kept disappearing.  It fell behind the dresser and then between the cushions of an armchair.  But I haven’t worn it since I took it to the jeweller’s and he opened it.  I guess I’ve been a bit wary of the expression on the little face.  I’ve kept it close to me though, either in my bag, or on my bedside table.”

“May I take your hand now, Laura?  Please, come and sit by me.”  Ceridwen patted the seat beside her.

Laura perched on the chaise-longue and Ceridwen took her hand in hers.  She closed her eyes, gently massaging Laura’s hand, much as she had done with the locket.

Opening her eyes she said gently: “I sense that there is some turmoil in your life.” Ceridwen smiled.  “I detect that you doubt someone close to you.  You also have some important choices to make.  Am I correct my dear?”

“How you would know that?”  Laura pulled her hand away.

“I am sensitive to people’s emotions.  I can feel things just from a touch…”

~~~~~~~~~~~

The Silver Locket in paperback and ebook with the quote 'I enjoyed it so much that I read it in a day'.

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Little Inspirations: what’s in a name?

Lovely, isn’t it? This sampler, inherited from my husband’s side of the family, is by far the oldest piece we have in our house. We don’t know much about the family members mentioned, only that they were part of the Dodding family who were prosperous merchants living in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. The family made a fortune and built a fancy house then a risky investment in a coal mine in Birmingham, which turned out to have no mineable coal, led them to lose most of their money. The fancy house had to be sold, but that’s about all I know of their story. One thing I do know is that ‘our’ Elizabeth wasn’t related to the much more famous Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist, biographer and short story writer, although that would have been so cool – a famous writer in the family!

But that’s not the reason I’m sharing this particular family heirloom with you. It’s because it is a ‘little inspiration’.

I was pondering on what to post today, wandering about the house (as I do), when I found myself contemplating the sampler. As I stood before the sampler my thoughts drifted to a recent post by Jean Lee on ‘How do you name your characters.’ My response to this question, about which she expands so interestingly, was this: ‘Naming characters is like naming cats… I have to wait for them to whisper them to me.’

Then I remembered that it was while I was gazing at the sampler that William, from Following the Green Rabbit, whispered his name to me. The date is about right for the ‘olden times’ part of the story, and it’s a nice ‘solid’ name for his character. I’d already named his wife, Ellen, for my maternal grandmother. The name just seemed right, and it was she who inspired me to improve my cookery skills. Grandma Atkins gave me her recipe for Lancashire Hotpot which in turn became my first published piece anywhere!

Grandma Atkins’s Lancashire Hotpot recipe, published in the Sunday Times!

And the ‘little inspiration’ for Ellen showing Bethany how to card wool in the excerpt below? Well, that came from my former life in the 17th century.

So now, what better time to introduce you to William, as my young heroine Bethany first finds herself back in the ‘olden times’.

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Excerpt from Following the Green Rabbit

“There was this man. He was dressed oddly, in sort of sacking stuff, but he had a nice, friendly face and I wasn’t afraid. He reminded me of Papa in a way, you know how his eyes pucker up at the edges when he smiles?” Bethany fell silent.

Bryony looked out across the garden; she blinked quickly then turned back to her sister. “A man, you say, in the woods? What did you do?” She glanced towards the kitchen door and over to Tom’s work shed, but there was no sign of either of their benevolent and hugely protective guardians.

“Well, he held out his hand to me, and I took it. He said something, but I didn’t quite understand him. He had a funny way of talking.”

Bryony’s eyes widened. “You took his hand? Beth…”

“I know I shouldn’t’ve done, but…” Bethany closed her eyes and shook her hands in front of her, like she did when she knew she’d done something wrong.

Bryony stretched out and grabbed her hands. “It’s all right; gently now. Take a deep breath and tell me.”

Bethany breathed in and out a few times.

“That’s better. Pray continue,” said Bryony, imitating the voice of the frightful Miss C.

Bethany looked up. “He told me his name was William and he lived with his wife nearby. We walked a little way and we came to his house. It was built out of stones and had a sort of straw roof, like one of the ones from the olden days in our big history book, except it seemed quite new. There was another little building too, like Tom’s workshop, and there were chickens running about outside.”

“His wife was called Ellen and she was sitting on a little bench outside the house. She had a big mound of white fluffy stuff next to her. She said it was from one of their sheep and she showed me how she was straightening it out with two big brushes.” Bethany frowned, putting her head on one side. “What did she call it?” She looked up at the sky. “Carding, that’s it. It was called carding. She showed me how to do it. Then we went into the house and she gave me some milk and biscuits.”

“Then Ellen said it was getting late. She and William looked at each other, you know, that funny kind of look which adults give each other, when we’re not supposed to understand something.” Bethany rolled her eyes. “Then William said that he’d walk me back to the village, so I explained that we didn’t live in the village. And they gave each other that look again. So I told them where we lived, but they didn’t know our house. They said there was no big house over the other side of the wood; just more trees.”

Bryony frowned. ‘How could they not know Bluebell Wood House?”

Bethany shrugged. “Perhaps I didn’t explain it very well. You know I get muddled up with directions. Anyway, they asked me to stay where I was and they went outside for a little while. When they came back they looked happy again. William said he’d take me back to the part of the woods where he first saw me and I’d be sure to find my way home. So that’s what we did.”

“I hope you thanked Ellen.”

“Yes,” Bethany rolled her eyes again. “You sound just like Hodge.”

“Who’s taking my name in vain?”

The two girls looked round. Hodge was carrying a basket of washing to hang out on the line.

“Oh, nothing. We were just saying we should thank you for our lunch,” said Bryony quickly.

“Well, you’re very welcome and you can show me your gratitude by clearing the table there.” She balanced the washing basket on her hip and picked the little carved robin up from the table. “That’s a pretty little thing, so it is. Where did you get it?”

‘I found it in the w… orchard,” stammered Bethany.

‘Hmm,” Hodge pursed her lips and put it down. She shifted the heavy basket in front of her. “Just mind you carry those lunch things in carefully,” she said turning away and continuing down the garden.

They started to clear the table. When Hodge was out of earshot Bethany picked up the robin and turned to her sister. “When William took me back to the woods he gave this to me and said it was a present to remember him and Ellen by. I took it from him and looked at it, but then when I looked up he’d gone. I didn’t even get the chance to thank him.” She stroked the little carving. “The funny thing is that when he gave it to me it looked like new. The colours were all bright and shiny. Now it looks as if it’s really old.”

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FOLLOWING THE GREEN RABBIT
~ a fantastical adventure

available in paperback and ebook
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Location, Location, Location #5

Location No. 5 – Daresbury, Cheshire

The latest stop on our literary journey through my novels takes us to Daresbury, one of the numerous villages located in the rolling Cheshire plain, which was the inspiration for the village near Bluebell House, home to Bryony, Bethany and their tutor, Mr Eyre in Following the Green Rabbit.

Daresbury is not so physically close to Alderley Edge as the fictional village in the novel, but the overall impression of this pretty little village, with its narrow lanes and Victorian cottages, was the perfect backdrop for the action that was to play out in the story.

I first stumbled on this quaint little village (I’m hoping it still is) during a narrow boat holiday back in the 1980s. Searching for lunchtime refreshment, we set out from the canal, and struck out towards the nearest village, which actually turned out to be quite a tidy step! Even now, I remember the hedgerows that lined the narrow lanes, where we picked blackberries for a not-very-successful dessert that evening. We passed the church, and a little further along, we found the all-important ‘Ring’o’Bells’ public house.

Not at all relevant to my story, but of interest, is the fact that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was born at the vicarage in Daresbury. All Saint’s church has some wonderful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll inspired window in All Saint’s Church, Daresbury

There’s a print of this lovely depiction hanging in my bathroom. Was it from this connection that I unconsciously introduced a strange green rabbit into the story? We don’t actually visit the interior of the church in the book. If we had, it might have sent Mr Eyre down a whole new rabbit hole. But I digress.

The village green is a key location in Following the Green Rabbit, but as far as I recall, there isn’t much of one in Daresbury, and I found myself remembering the one in the village in which I grew up, in Upper Poppleton, near York, way across the Pennines in Yorkshire. I have the impression that there were stocks on the corner of the Green at one time, but I think that’s just my imagination!

The Village Green in Upper Poppleton

Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit’

The village was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from Bluebell Wood House. The narrow lane was lined with leafy hedgerows where insects buzzed. “We collected blackberries and elderberries for jam along here last year, Mr Eyre.” Bryony pointed out a row of tall bramble bushes. “Look Bethany, there are so many again, and they’ll be ripe soon.”

“And did you eat as many as you picked?” Mr Eyre said, laughing as he rummaged about in the bushes, examining the fruit. “I know I did as a boy.”

“Do they have blackberries in London?” asked Bethany.

“Well, not in the city itself, apart from in some of the parks. But I grew up in Kent. I only went to London later on.”

They walked a little further. “So tell me, ladies of the flowering vine and house of figs, what other useful plants can we find here in the hedgerows?” He rubbed his chin. “You know we really should’ve brought a flora.”

“A flora?”

“Yes, you know, Miss Bryony, a book for identifying flowering plants. No doubt your Papa has such a volume in his collection?”

“Oh yes, I’m sure he has.”

Mr Eyre plucked a couple of likely samples from the hedge and tossed them into Bethany’s basket. He crouched before her, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Maybe you could try drawing some of them?”

Bethany nodded happily.

“And I could label them,” added Bryony.

“Splendid idea,” Mr Eyre exclaimed, rising swiftly to his feet and waving his forefinger in the air. “Using the original Latin names, of course.” He spun around and pointed down the lane. “Now let us press on into the village.”

The lane broadened out at the crossroads at the edge of the village which boasted a line of neat brick-built houses arrayed around the village green. There were couple of stone water troughs for passing horses and, much to Mr Eyre’s delight, the old village stocks, which fortunately were padlocked shut, or otherwise, no doubt, he would have felt himself obliged to demonstrate.

The post office and general store was on the far side of the green. Mr Eyre lengthened his stride on seeing his objective and the girls almost had to run to keep up.

The little bell above the door tinkled as Mr Eyre opened it. Rosy-cheeked Mrs. Gilbert was standing behind the post office counter. She greeted the two girls warmly and asked when they were next expecting a letter from their parents. “So exciting dealing with post from so far away!” she exclaimed. Bryony answered politely and swiftly introduced Mr Eyre, who she noticed was twitching with impatience.

He rubbed his hands together. “Mrs. Gilbert, delighted to make your acquaintance. Tell me, have you a package for me? I am expecting one.”

“Likewise I’m sure, Mr Eyre, I’ll have a look in the back.” Mrs. Gilbert bustled through into the storeroom. A few moments later she returned with a parcel almost the size of a shoe box neatly-wrapped in brown paper. She looked at it inquisitively, peering up at Mr Eyre from behind her half-moon glasses.

“May I?” Mr Eyre put his hand out.

“A mystery parcel from my newest customer. What can it be?” she said curiously.

“Aha, you will have to wait and see, Mrs. G.” Mr Eyre replied, touching the side of his nose. He turned to the girls. “Miss Bryony, Miss Bethany, will you accompany me further?”

“Well I never did. Not a word of an answer,” said Mrs. Gilbert to herself as they left the shop.


Following the Green Rabbit is available in paperback and ebook.

Image Credits: GoogleMaps, haltonheritage.co.uk

The Epic Journey

what do you see 4 by chris hall lunasonline

He’d battled over the Melancholic Mountains of Mythndlore,

scythed through thick forests where Dark Shadows lurk

stumbled across Mind Leaching deserts and now

wading through the stagnant Green Marais

at last he’d found what he was seeking.

The light at the end of his personal

Tunnel of Angst

Finally, he types

THE END


Written in response to Sadje’s ‘What Do You See #4′ photo prompt.

This is Africa

this-is-africa-by-chris-hall-lunasonline.jpg

Here on the wild, west coast,

near the great continent’s southern-most tip,

rest a while.

 

Here Eve’s footprints marked the rocks,

her children decorated the caves and adorned their bodies

in shades of ochre and red.

 

Stretch out, open your mind,

feel the sun-warmed rock, absorb the stone-etched stories.

Isn’t this the magic you’re seeking?

 

Author Angst

Nothing to Say by Chris Hall lunasonline

Drag open cupboards! Rummage the dusty shelves!
Words spill out; letters separate, scatter across the floor.
Photos flame to ash, picture frames’ contents
ooze sludgily down the walls.

You fling open a window. There’s a beach, sunshine and the smell of the sea!
Waves lapping; a boy in a boat.
He points and you look
but there’s nothing to see.

A sudden squall
slams the window
shut.

Here’s a door; chained and padlocked.
There’s a message, curled and yellow, stuck to the frame
A single word, written in your own hand:
No.

You step away, anxiously.
You know. Now
is not the time.

Turn away, turn back!

You trudge step-by-step
over the disturbed contents
of your untidy mind.

Empty handed.
Empty headed?

You take a breath, drain the mug of tepid tea and realise that
Today, you simply have
Nothing to say.