Fiction by Daniel Ayres
None of it is hers. Not the thundering sea. Not the teasing pale light lingering on the horizon. Not the wind in its infinite onslaught upon this scattering of islands sitting in forgotten seas.
Her feet venture a little forward. Her hands, two shades lighter now, dig into his cagoule and spread over her belly. Empty as a seashell. Salt kissed air coils in. Out. In. Out. The ceaseless storm rolls over and through. She blinks out hot tears. They submit to the rush of the wind.
Hers is a different wind. A life scattering wind, womb-warm and thick with fertility. It is a wind that ushers trade across oceans and back again. It is fierce, in its own way. But it doesn’t hiss, like his. It is an uprooter.
It was blowing its own tropical storm the day she first laid eyes on him. She ran in the downpour, taking refuge in Miss Mallee’s Internet Cafe. Took her normal desk tucked away at the back. She was glad of the monsoon rains that met her tears like old friends. Stuck on the wall beside her was the postcard of a grinning man ploughing a paddy field with his water buffalo in tow. A scene as old as time. A scene as old as Thailand. A scene her father had once filled. Above it a Bryde’s whale drifted through blue space. Both pictures were ribbed and discoloured by the heat. Both she looked to, as one might to a guru.
Just a smattering of curious clicks led her to him. Outside the road had turned to a river of brown. Miss Malee was balancing a bowl of tom kha kai on her belly, slurping over the storm. The humid air was coconut-spiced. The fans whirred from within the computer. The website took form.
Change your life—marry a man from the Faroe Islands!
His iceberg eyes blasted out like a beacon.
Calm and kind Faroese fisherman seeks loving relationship and offers
place in his home for a special lady.
She checked her postcards for approval. The Bryde’s whale seemed to be smiling. She knew it to be an auspicious animal for Thai fishermen. The man pictured in her father’s space looked on encouragingly. Tentatively, she typed “Hi.”
Then she was here, one of a small minority of Southeast Asian women chancing a new life on the Faroe Islands. But on his little speck of an island, she was the only one.
Few Faroese women remained on these isles. They set their sights beyond. Denmark. Norway. The World. They sought new opportunities. They sought to escape the real risk of breeding with their relatives. They sought to diversify the bloodline. The men stayed behind and filled traditional roles. Farmers. Fishermen. Like him. She and others were drafted in to fill the void.
The surging wind scolds her, thrusts her back from the cliff face. She scours the ocean for a sign. Some signal from his gods or hers.
She kneels and faces the wind. Imagines his gods. They are wrathful giants and hammer-wielders. Hers are peaceful smiles and temples soaked in gold.
Out there is his domain. The wild waves his plaything. He’ll be rocked back and forth, pulling in sea-bounty gulping for one last go at life. He’ll swig whisky and smoke with the friend that can’t look her in the eye. His belly won’t churn, like hers. He was born to ride the waves.
He laughed at her that one time, when he brought her out to sea. “You turned green,” he said. It had taken her two entire days to reacclimatise to the land. But something in him then reminded her of her father. A simple pride. He reaped the seas just as her father ploughed the land.
One monsoon was enough to take her father away. He stumbled, drunk, upon his own plough. She and her sister stared into the rust and ruby wound. He grinned, then paled and thinned. The wound grew septic in the heat. Things thrived in there. Things that wanted him dead.
Their land was stripped away. He had debts to pay. They were allowed to keep the house in which her mother would sit upon the steps, as if a lost child come home. Concrete blocks rose where her father had once churned the earth. The wind no longer blew through. As they grew, their home shrank. It became a shack, stifling in the heat.
She sought solace in the bed of a teenage lover. She wanted him to fill whatever the wound inside her was. The one her father had left behind. He obliged, and something in there too took root and grew. She came home to find her little sister pushing her own half-starved stomach out in the mirror. “I’m pregnant!” she pretended. She screamed at her. Told her not to play such games. Then she crept into bed, found her own firm belly and rocked back and forth.
Her baby came out like rivers of mud.
It was then she knew she had to go.
She pulls out the smartphone to the howling wind. An arrival gift from him. Her companion. Her spy. Her hourglass. It blasts its own alien glow into the day-night low-light. She wills it not to be so, what she’s seen. But it’s there, clear as crystal upon the glowing screen. A photo flung across continents. Her home. Her shack. Burnt out. Just a husk of what it once was. The questions rise like tides. Was her mother in there?
She calls out against the wind. A strangled scream. It’s snatched away without a care. Her words mean nothing here. They are as foreign as trees might be. Behind her the landscape sits unchanging. The sheep huddle closer. The cottage in which she lives braces itself against the weather as it was built to do. By now, she suspects, the fire inside will have dwindled or died.
His words she still couldn’t swallow or speak. They weren’t like hers on the page, curved and curled and dotted and soft. His was a language filled with spears and knives. Vælgagnist. Møguliga. Steðga. The words sat in her throat like awkward stones.
Except for one. She liked to play it on her tongue. Útlongsul. A longing for the outside world.
Mostly they communicated in simple English, like seabirds skittering, never delving beneath the surface. They spoke less in person than they had online.
She bled when he entered, as if it were her first time. She was slight, almost half his size. He treated her gingerly, but still she felt it reach too far. She wasn’t built to accommodate this. She waited until he slept and then shuffled to the toilet, grasping the pain in her palms.
It got easier. He’d come home smelling of fish and the wind. She’d ready herself, ease him in. She liked it afterwards, when he’d hold her. She’d curl into a ball and nestle ever backwards, as far as she could go, wishing she could hibernate. Wishing she could get inside. But then the mornings would come, told not by light but time, and he’d haul himself up and out and she’d be alone again.
His island was Skúvoy. She hadn’t understood at first, when he told her that the Black Death came in the fourteenth century and left only one woman alive. All she heard was: “Everybody dead. Only one woman left!” He took her to the cottage where the woman once lived. “The loneliest woman in the world,” he called her. Afterwards they climbed to the island’s highest point. She was stunned by the freshness of the air. By the whip of the wind. By the starkness of the beauty. It was there he first dared to kiss her.
On one of those first few days he led her out with a smile. “I have something to show you”. It was a shack beside the cliff, not much smaller than the one she called home in Thailand. “It’s a hjallur,” he said. “Just wait until you get inside.” When they did, she froze, and her stomach turned acid sick. The air was tainted and stained. An entire sheep’s corpse hung from a hook. Its dead eye stared at her blankly. Its skin was beginning to turn blue.
“We call it skerpikjøt,” he explained. “It’s a speciality. All the salt in the Faroe Islands flavours the air. We build the hjallur next to the sea so no flies can get in.”
She paled a shade when she left the hjallur. The colour never really returned.
Her sister paled too. She watched the change unfold on her Instagram and Facebook feeds. Fourteen to sixteen. Girl to woman. It looked like she was being drained from within. It was cream designed to lighten the skin. Her eyebrows grew sparse then disappeared to be replaced by pencil lines. She wore short skirts and posted photos taken with farang. She worried about her. But when she messaged, she never received a reply.
Perhaps she felt abandoned. Perhaps she didn’t know about the money wired to their mother. Perhaps she didn’t know about the times her mother would Skype her in the middle of the day-night low-light, looking drawn and desperate, in that same internet cafe. The very same desk. She could practically hear Miss Mallee slurp. Could practically smell the tom ka kai.
Salt drenched black hair lands in her mouth. She pulls it out, reveals her face like curtains to the light. She can just make out the silhouette of Sandoy island to the north, where Laarni lives. If only she could skip across seas like the ancient giants.
Sandoy was a short ferry ride away. Laarni, a Filipino weathering the Faroese storm with greater ease. She had a kitchen filled with ingredients. She had a full home. She had a family.
The husbands would sit and drink and talk their ancient talk. The wives would shut themselves in the kitchen, so they could savour the smells without them being tainted by cigarette smoke. Laarni would pulverise pastes into existence that enriched the very air.
“You have to be more tough,” she told her once, smashing a garlic clove with the pestle. “It not easy here. It too dark and cold. It different. The men different too. Sometimes they don’ understand us. But you got’ be strong with your man too. First he say I eat Faroese food everyday. Ha! I say. Like it a joke. But it no joke. So I try, you get? I try. But it no’ food. So I say you don’ get to keep me here until I get all the food I want. I say no baby for you. I stamp my foot like little girl. I say I go home. Guess what? Somehow he find all this.”
She gestured to the kitchen shelves stacked with ingredients. Cinnamon sticks. Star anise. Kafir lime leaves. Mustard seeds.
“Other thing too,” she said, leaning in close. The men mumbled Faroese words beyond the door. She picked up a baby corn and started hammering away in the mortar in a series of speedy tap tap taps. “Asian man like dis. Oh, oh, oh!” She replaced the baby corn with an aubergine and repeated the gesture, this time much slower. “Faroese man like this. Uh, uh, uh!”
She laughed then, truly laughed, for the first time since being on the islands. She laughed until her stomach ached and felt good. She laughed until the air around her changed, and for a moment it was like being at home in the days before the monsoon and the drink swept her father away. A warm, spiced, laughing life.
They sat and ate. Watched the men try and handle the spice. Laarni had added extra chillies. “Watch this,” she said, “it hard for us, I make it hard for them too.” He flushed red and sweated. She smiled at his watering eyes.
When the men slept, Laarni found her sitting on the edge of the bathtub, staring at her paling hands.
“I see you in pain you know”, she said, putting an arm on her shoulder. “It OK. Once you have baby, everything OK. Baby bring a part of you to the island.”
Now there’s nothing inside.
The sea air rushes in. Out. In. Out. Empty as a seashell.
The waves are topped by gushing foam. She wonders in which spot of ocean the saffron scarf is now.
In that first bleak winter, she’d spend hours with eyes fixed not on the land, but upon the screen. Scrolling on various devices through dishes from home. The supply of food snaps was as endless as the Faroese wind. Som tam. Gai med ma moung. Miang kham. Dishes as foreign to him as skerpikjøt was to her. Her mouth would fill and her belly burn with vacancy. She yearned for spice and colour with all that she had.
She’d post her own pictures from time to time. Snaps of barren cliffs or lonely boats, sad-eyed puffins or bright blue postboxes in the middle of nowhere. She’d send them out like paper ships. There’d be smattering of likes. Then they’d sink, forgotten. She wondered where her pictures lived. Winking away on a server somewhere, even colder than she.
He came home one day with bundles of yarn and she lit up like a kitten. YouTube taught her how to knit. As the sun beat its four hours of dim light outside, she’d feed herself into the click and clack. Knitting was meditation. Solace from the Wi-Fi and the buzzing stimulation. Solace from the skies that ached with darkness and creaked with pale light. In the yarn she found the colour she craved. Chilli reds. Lime greens. Mustard yellows. She knitted him a scarf in saffron, and he received it with a generous smile. She liked to picture him wearing it out on the boat.
Then the wind stripped it away and fed it to the ocean.
That was when their communication began to fail.
The smartphone in her hand is cold and hard. No softness there, no life. She screams again, this time forcing herself up, up against the wind. She casts it in. It falls and cracks against the cliff, spilling its innards out. Chinese plastic and Congolese metal part ways and greet the frothing foam.
She’s lost where her breath begins and where the wind ends. All of it is discordant and wild. Then comes a hush. A blink. A focus. There is something, something in the water. Its back breaks the waves and makes a mirror for the moonlight. In the wind’s lull, she hears the rush of air, sees a jet of water rise from its blowhole. She falls to her knees and says thank you in each of her languages. The whale answers with a prehistoric cry, and submerges back down below.
She runs. Back. Scattering over soaked earth. No monsoon born rivers. No laughing kids. No clucking chickens. No palms or paddy fields or flies seeking buffalo hides. Only this ancient wind-washed slope and the cottage that she cannot yet bring herself to call home. But in her palms she holds not pain but something new.
He is out. Upon his ocean home. Neon shards glint where the fire once burned. She sniffs. The air isn’t right. It’s stale. It’s infected. The Wi-Fi router glints in the corner. The little thing that pulled her over oceans. She thrusts herself down to the ground and pulls the plug. Its dancing eyes die. No longer will it dictate. `
She breathes. Relieved. A weight lifts.
She stands and strips off every layer. His cagoule soaks in a heap on the floor. Naked, she makes her way to the shrine in the corner. The little space she’s made her own.
Here sits her golden Buddha. Here sit the postcards stolen from the internet cafe, still bearing the ripples of humidity. The man grins out, the light bounces off the buffalo’s watery eye. The Bryde’s whale’s smile seems deeper, like it knows something. She smiles back, and with hands still shaking, lights a candle and an incense stick.
Ruptures stir within her. She gathers and gathers and blows. Blows out a tuneless song as old as time, a forlorn call for a land long lost. She sucks in, in, in. In incense clouds and inspiration. She lets the perfumed air swirl and heal at her core. She lets her eyes droop low like her Buddha.
She sees the smartphone, cracked open against the rocks like a gull’s egg. She sees the sheep, hung alone to ferment the air. She sees its vacant stare.
She sees the field freshly ploughed. She sees them all. Father. Mother. Sister. Lover. The children that never grew. The Bryde’s whale swims in to view. She whispers thank you to every one.
She pulls her focus back to the Buddha. She emulates his little smile. She pulls the breath as deep as it will go, until it swills and lingers and soothes wounds old and new. Out she blows.
It all begins to fade a tone. In. Out. In. Out. The perfumed air rolling in and out, a pattern older than time itself. The wind seems far away, the day-night low-light somehow less boundless.
She breathes and blows.
Here, she’ll create her own storm, and find a home within it.
[This piece was selected by Valerie Waterhouse. Read Daniel’s interview]
Daniel Ayres is a British writer inexplicably born in Uganda, reared in England’s West Country and now based in Berlin. A lover of all things surreal and fantastical, Dan is increasingly drawn to writing stories and poetry that wrestle with the momentous impact social media and technology is having upon our day-to-day lives. He also likes stories with cats in them. You can check out some of his words here: https://www.clippings.me/danayres