Zachariah whittles a fistful of twigs into makeshift arrows, and lines them up on the ground beneath the points of the compass he’d traced earlier with the tip of his finger. He circles the toe of his boot over each arrow in turn: north, south, east, or west? The girl is a quick learner and soon she is busy making maps out of treasures she scavenges, a cleaned-up fishbone, a mottled blue pebble, a red autumn leaf.
He says, “Squitty thing you be, like a leaf in the wind.”
She spins circles round him, arms outstretched, and tests the current of the wind. Giddy with spinning, she signs him questions. If she runs until church-day will she get to the moon? He laughs. “No diddies on the moon,” he says, “just on the land, once upon a time. Step dancers and music makers, gravel cutters and horse dealers. Most of them dead now or cooped up like pigeons in caravans that go nowhere.”
He walks most days to keep to the rhythm of what once was, letting her glide in his shadow like a moth. The world slips and slides around them; it is both friend and foe. One night a family of mice make a nest out of his second-best hat; another evening he bakes a hotchis in a jacket made of river mud. Hotchis is his name for a hedgehog. He says, she must walk her own way, not follow him. That’s when he makes her the arrows and teaches her the points of the compass.
“Can’t you go back to where you came from?”
She shakes her head, but he knows she is lying. If she used words before, she doesn’t now, and it puzzles him. She is light on her feet. If she flew, she’d be a pipistrelle bat. Bats used to hide behind the plates on the dresser in the house by the waterfall in Betws-y-Coed. That was when he’d lived a more regular life, back in the settled world.
“Ye’ll know where you come from, won’t you?”
She shakes her head. If she looks from left to right, three times, fast and sharp, she is making a point. He’s learnt that much, if little else.
He’s only really known her for a month or two, this girl or young woman – he still has no idea how old she really is – who has come from nowhere. One minute, he was admiring the estuary before him, a gold basin filled with winter sunshine and edged with frost-covered reeds, then suddenly, there she was by his side, pulling at his coat sleeve. A small person in a man’s jacket, a mud-spattered net petticoat over leggings and broken-down converse trainers. All bones and angles and a purple bruise closing one eye. She looked as though she’d fallen from a circus high-wire into the middle of a dust-bowl soup kitchen. He thought, hello, it’s Charlie Chaplin in a fancy-schmancy skirt. She didn’t speak, but mimed: sleep, hunger, in quick succession.
“Slow up,” he said.
She pulled off her trainers. Judging from the state of her blistered feet, she must have criss-crossed the whole of the country . They were a riot of mud and pus. She hopped and played the fool, clutching the battered shoes to her flat chest. He asked her questions, but she went quiet, stood on one leg like a sooty heron and eyed him with a sly look he didn’t much like. She was maybe giving him the once-over, thinking he was easy pickings, all alone, by a river, and past his sell-by date. He turned on his heel and walked away. When he reached the jetty, he sat down and rolled up a large pinch of coltsfoot in some cigarette papers. Another tug on his coat sleeve and there she was again, trainers hugged to her chest, her body quivering like a hare with a dog on its tail.
“Be gone, girlie!”
Three shakes of her head, her hair long and tatty, like old lace. He continued smoking and she sat down beside him, watchful and intent, as though he were a living picture show. He told her as simply as he could that he was a nobody. He lived on what was left of his wits and the odd song; if nothing else showed up in the day, he took himself off on a walk.
“No money, no luck, no trouble. The Holy Trinity of St Zachariah.”
He realised she was lip reading when he saw how carefully she studied the movements of his mouth. Then she stood up and began her own speech using her quick-moving fingers. It was quite a spectacle. She seemed to have arrived by air at some point from overseas.
There were others with her once, but not anymore. Something went amiss. Someone died. She unknotted a filthy scarf, revealing some wrinkled banknotes and a handful of cherries. He didn’t recognise the banknotes, but the bruised fruit in her skinny little paws brought a lump to his throat. What a time to discover sentimentality.
A squitty thing, but a persistent one, as it turned out. After teaching her the points of a compass, she turns him into her good-luck charm. It’s a bleak mid-winter and he must outwit a world of frost and hailstones. He eases a couple of planks away from an abandoned boat hut close to the river, and they squeeze through to find shelter. The girl makes fires out of driftwood and traps birds in a net she makes out of her skirt. Dinner is blackbird pie, served with spuddies she digs up from an allotment. At night, she sleeps, curled inside the husk of an old fishing boat; he stretches out by the door on a pile of flattened cardboard boxes. Sometimes, when the wind really blows up, he sings a song as if quietening the hearts of the two of them, although he knows she can’t hear him. She is a deaf-mute. That’s all he knows about her, apart from her name, the one he gives her as she claims not to have one, or maybe she is simply trying to erase who she might have been. No skin off his nose; each to their own. But he must call her something, so he calls her Cherry, because that’s what she was carrying when she arrived in his world, like a wee goddess of the harvest in fallow times. She nods her agreement.
Winter, and the icicles hanging from the eaves of the hut, are as thick as his arm. They rootle in bags left outside the town houses for charity collections and find bits of clothing that can be used for bedding. Early one morning, Cherry finds a bedraggled nylon quilt, its stuffing breaking through a pattern of pink roses. The quilt is her favourite find and she wears it home like an emperor’s cloak, held together with hands that are patched blue with cold. He still can’t decide if she’s a stunted adult, or a child-too-old-for-its-years, but the quilt gives her an air of regal splendour.
The season spins its course and Cherry takes to walking by the estuary, in the first light of day and then again at dusk. She takes his Stanley knife with her, and cuts intricate webs of lines and stars into the river ice; later she starts on a series of portraits depicting a man, a woman, three children, a clutch of dogs and any number of horses. He learns as she draws. He discovers she is a diddie, the name he knows himself by, but others would call a gypsy; her father played an accordion, and traded piebalds. He isn’t able to work out where she lived before she came to this world of ice and cherries. He assumes some calamity turned her mute, but it could be she was simply born without speech. Nor does he discover what happened to the man with the horses and the dogs and an accordion that spilled out a hundred tunes. She scatters a pile of twigs into the air. Gone, she mouths, silently. Gone. But to a starlit heaven, or a watery grave, who can say? She can’t or won’t.
Ice, wind, hail, and rain, and, occasionally, a few hours of brilliant sunshine, so low on the horizon they must shade their eyes from the glare with the palms of their hands, like a pair of wizened old sea dogs. Once, he was going back to where he came from, he says, but he likes his life by the estuary. It’s just the way of it, and maybe she is turning out the same way? Using her language of signs, she asks him how he came to the estuary, and he explains he stumbled on the place when he was six sheets to the wind and whisky was his curse. Got himself sober on a programme offered by an outreach worker who carried flasks of soup and spare blankets in the boot of his car. “Never,” he said when the young man offered to find him a hostel place. “Because home is where my people are, or failing that, the grass that takes the measure of my foot.” The outreach worker repeated his offer, but it was the soup that did the trick.
“Renewed the fire in good, old St Zachariah’s blood, it did, and put me back on the road. From the road, I made it to the river, and then here to the estuary.”
At Christmas, an angel as big as a car is fixed to the church steeple. Cherry admires it, claims she’s never seen the like before. Makes quite a song and dance in the
churchyard, signalling her liking for angels and trumpets.
“Should it maybe be playing an accordion, do you think?”
She laughs at his question, and it is as if the angel has started blowing his trumpet and Jericho is on the slide all over again. Her laugh is filthy and ugly; it’s out of keeping with her skin-and-bone exterior, and he is tempted to wrench open her mouth and stare down into her throat to see what devil lives inside her. Once he becomes used to it, he finds the incongruity rather wonderful. No voice to speak of, but a laugh like a punch, and one strong enough to drown out a bugle-blowing angel.
Rain, and hail. The cold is vicious against skin already cracked open and made raw in the claw of winter. The boat hut creaks and trembles, the icicles on the roof split open, threatening concussion to anyone walking below. One night, she goes to visit the angel on the steeple and fails to return. All he finds is the map she leaves behind on the iced-over river, a fractured constellation of frozen stars.
The weather turns, the ice melts. He hears rumours in town, along the river, of a body gone adrift, caught, and brought to rest in a tangle of reeds. But it is not she; he knows, because she travels still, guided by the maps he once showed her, buried in the earth, the trees, and the sky. And now he is the one who follows, tracing the signs she leaves in her wake: a conker wrapped in a twist of sheep’s wool, a bunch of berries threaded in a cradle of birch twigs, a jay feather floating in a puddle. It is she, he follows, a winter’s angel, bone wings fluttering and shaking through his dreams, his wanderings. Her maps take him back to the estuary, where he waits. The estuary is a gold basin, lit up in the late afternoon sunshine; the reeds are tipped with frost. He waits, a frozen star; he waits for the sound of beating wings.
Penny Simpson’s short fiction has been published in Mslexia, The Mechanics Institute Review and Best of European Fiction. She was longlisted for the 2021 V.S. Pritchett Award and short-listed for the 2019 Bridport Short Story Prize. Currently, she is creative writing lead on an NHS social prescribing project for people with long-term health conditions.