Authors: Joan Thomas
ALSO BY JOAN THOMAS
Reading by Lightning
“Let us now praise nature’s folly,
which is the secret of her wisdom.”
The Ecology of Eden
The path is wide at first, carpeted with rusty leaves. When it narrows, Mary is the one who hangs back, her heart banging at the downdacious notion of walking into the Undercliff with a gentleman. He tries to usher her before him, but she says, “You go first, sir,” and with a little lift to his shoulders, he does. The path begins to rise and he climbs quickly, reaching out to touch the ropes of traveller’s joy that hang from the trees. He’s wearing the foolish wide pantaloons he calls trousers, their bottoms dark with sea water. Sir Foppling Fossil, Mary heard a porter say behind his back in the square. She keeps pace with him, her eyes on the muddy heels of his boots, and on the burrs that have found him and snagged up the hems of his trousers, and the chert protruding like knucklebones from the clay of the path
They come to a clearing where a great tree has fallen, wrenching its roots from the forest floor. The tree ripped the canopy, opening the forest to the sun, and anemones push up after their time. The gentleman gives a little laugh and hobbles over to the bench made by the fallen trunk and sits down – he’s finally felt the burrs worrying at his legs. “It will be the work of an hour to pick these off,” he cries. “I blame Mother. This is absurd attire for digging on the shore. But
a French tailor can do no wrong in my mother’s eyes. Did you hear what Buckland said when I came up?
– he said –
They are Toulon and Toulouse!”
She stands in the clearing and he picks at the burrs and jokes and talks as though they were in a public square and she a lady he encountered there. It’s a feint, this conversation. His face is alight with his interest in her, his baffling interest. By his pointedly settling at one end of the log instead of the middle, he conveys his desire that Mary should sit too. And now he is gesturing with his hand and she reads something new in his hazel eyes, something eager and imploring, a desire to plumb her depths
Mary stands where she is. Her silence is a powerful weapon, and she does not resist, she takes it up. Bees hum in the clearing, and the brown pods of stinking iris overflow with seeds the scarlet of fish roe. His top hat lies on the lush forest floor, a perfect shining cylinder. His hair is neatly clipped and his whiskers are trimmed into a perfect wedge on each cheek. Around his throat, a snowy neckerchief. He’s an exotic beast blundered into the Undercliff, this gentleman, and she’s a pair of forest eyes, watching. And then it seems her silence is too great, it means to smother her as well
Something quavers in the order of things. The ash tree falls, and flowers bloom after their times, and she sees a sinister rising of water, black brine leaping the seabed and crashing towards them through the trees. Not the twice-daily filling of the foreshore, but a terrible vengeance of heaving waves, drowning even the mariners and the creatures who swim in the sea, catching them, the two of them here where they never should be. And then one day someone will set to digging and turn up Mary’s wedge hammer and the snakestone the gentleman carries in his pocket. Their two chains of vertebrae, and their hips like fluted baskets. Someone will unearth their bones, their long, straight limbs crossed and mingled, their supple bones gone to stone, gone all to stone instead of dust
hey were powerful charms, curiosities. The people who came to Lyme Regis to take the waters would pay sixpence for the meanest little snakestone, and carry it for luck. Mary’s mother had worked the curiosity table until lately, and if a customer had trouble parting with his coin, she would fix a soft look on him and offer a charm against
. She was not bold in her manner and the gentleman would startle and wonder at her meaning. But usually he bought, after that.
Now that her mother had the baby to look after, the curiosity table was Mary’s job. Mary had come out early to get set up for the coach from Bath. Her wares were all organized on the table, and the square was still empty. There was just the brown hen tethered beside her, and the pauper Dick Mutch lying in stocks a few feet away in front of Cockmoile Prison. Mary sat deep in thought, her eyes on the moon, a useless, daylight moon, floating in a blue sky.
Wizening – it was a complaint particular to men. She needed a more general charm.
, she finally decided. She tried it out in a low voice: “They be a powerful charm against blindness.”
She watched the moon impale itself on the steeple of the shambles, and then she bent back over her wares: Devil’s toenails, sea lilies, thunderbolts, brittle stars, verteberries, snakestones. Mary had lined them up in rows by kind. The loveliest were the snake-stones, coiled serpents in gold and bronze – missing their heads, though, in their natural form. Mary’s brother Joseph had come home on his dinner break expressly to rectify this. He used a tiny stone chisel to make a pointed smile on the outer coil of each snakestone, unconsciously holding his mouth in the shape he was aiming for. Then he took up a drill to make the eyes. Six snakes had been so improved before he’d had to pelt back up Church Street to work. On second thought, Mary slid these six out, and made a separate row for them at the front of the table.
Just as the moon freed itself from the steeple, a silver bugle sounded from the top of the hill. This was the signal for every peddler in town to pour into the square. Then there was the coach itself, plunging down Broad Street in heavy pursuit of its wild-eyed horses, and in a flash it sat, a black and gilt cage, gleaming in front of the prison. The footman had a stool at the ready and the door burst open. First out were two small dogs, touching smartly down on the footstool, and then a collection of gentlefolk, dazed by their harrowing descent and by the brouhaha of the men in the prison, who stuck their arms through the beggars’ grate and set up howling at the sight of strangers. Last off were the poor, struggling down a ladder from their perch on the roof.
In a trice, the visitors were set upon. Mary got to her feet but she did not call out. It was not in her nature to hawk, and in any case, buyers always came to the table on their own. The curiosities drew them – Mary had often experienced this power when she collected on the shore. And indeed, two ladies strolling over to look at Annie Bennett’s lavender had spied the curiosity table
over Annie’s shoulder. And then Annie lost them, they were making their way eagerly towards Mary.
“What curious stones!” said the larger of the two, picking up one of the snakestones with her gloved fingers. “What on earth are they?”
“They were living serpents one day, but Saint Hilda turned them to stone. She were clearing the earth of serpents for the protection of innocents.” As she spoke, Mary deftly turned her boot to hide the clot of mud on the hem of her skirt.
The lady wore a red and blue braided jacket, all in vogue with the high-born since the war began. As though these ladies fancied they might be called upon to fight Bony! She held the snakestone up to the light, admiring the way the snake rested its chin on the round coils of itself with a smile.