‘From time immemorial, a toast has been raised on New Year’s Eve to Fortuna, an unruly and demonic goddess, but the last and most important one that remains. If controlled at the outset, she will be liberated from destiny and rechristened as good fortune (of the most humane kind). The evening of the old year covertly indicates a turning point: with a time that hangs in the balance as if on a seesaw; with a still life beyond, that is able to let itself be seen, then not yet seen.’ Ernst Bloch, Landscape Around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, in Literary Essays, (1998), trans. Andrew Joron and Others, Stanford University Press, p482.
Midnight, 31 December 1899. Elynge Ellett, the Sussex Marshes, Sussex.
She’s nothin’ like they say she is, you know. Green-haired, frog-faced, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel. I mean, most people don’t even realise she’s a woman. But I’ve seen ‘er, so I know.
Was down on the marshes, or the wishes, as we call ‘em. Dark it was, Samhain and no moon. North wind sent a chill right deep into your bones and them wish-hounds was howling enough to make your blood curdle. I was out looking for me poor son Jack, oh how I cursed ‘im for being lost so late at night and in winter too. He’d been playing by the wish-pools and so help me I’d told ‘im a thousand times if I’d told ‘im once: Don’t go down to them ponds, stay away, ‘specially at night when it’s dark.
He couldn’t ‘elp himself. Drawn to ‘em he was, like a sheep to summing – I forget the phrase now, too muddled I am, and muddied. Used to sit down there and make up stories, he said. ‘E said, she told them to him. Used to come back with a head full o’ wishes, he did. Shaggy hair all matted with mosses and a fistful o’ bright ideas. Stories about this and that – fairies, magic, witches, princes and heroes. His favourite was The Nixie of the Millpond: a magical tale of a young lad promised to the Nixie by his dad in exchange for riches. Down at the water’s edge this lad was, cleaning his knife from the hunt, when the water began to bubble and boil, bubble and boil, and up popped the Nixie, a green-haired, frog-faced, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel; she stretched out a dripping wet hand an’ pulled him down, beneath the water, never to be seen again. Except his true love wouldn’t have that. She went down to find him an’ cried her heart out, she did. Eventually being given a series of magical objects to help her get him back – a silver comb, a golden spinning wheel, and a magic harp. Oh yes, he told that one so many nights over, even I can remember how it went.
He loved those tales more than real life. Wanted to be ‘em all, to live in ‘em all. ‘E’d tell us his stories, or her stories if that’s what they were, and he lit up the dark nights with ’em, he did. Sometimes, people would come to ‘ear him, little boy as he was even then, and they’d stop by for the night and pay lodgin’s. ‘E’d croon his stories to a full ‘ouse some nights, and the fire always burned warm an’ bright when he did.
‘E loved the attention o’ course, and he started stringing out those stories for all they was worth as he got older. Weavin’ ‘em in an’ out of each other for nights at a time, gettin’ more an’ more fantastical always. Shocking really, some o’ the things he was tellin’ in them stories. The ways lovers carried on in ‘em – not just your ordin’ry men an’ women, either. All sorts goin’ on in there, as I said.
Well, the more absurd they started gettin’, the less people wanted to ‘ear ‘em. Losing money then, we was. People stopped coming to stay. But he didn’t seem to care. It wasn’t about that any more, for him.
Always, always, he wanted to go down to them pools and see her, so he said. To ‘ear her voice and listen to her stories. I couldn’t fathom it, and I didn’t want him goin’ down there. But he was getting to be a big lad and I could ‘ardly stop him, and I cursed that his father was dead and gone and couldn’t ‘elp. An’ as it got darker an’ colder, he seemed to want it more an’ more, strange as it seems, I know. ‘E always did seem to live on the opposite side o’ things from the rest of us.
‘E’d wake in the middle o’ the night and wander down there ‘alf naked, just to gaze into those murky, reedy ponds. ‘Ardly even seemed to notice when it was frosty underfoot an’ shards of ice cut into the gloomy water.
Then he started tellin’ stories about the dead, an’ that just wasn’t on at all. ‘E’d come back, hair drippin’ and wide-eyes starin’, saying he’d seen his dad, and his ol’ friend Jimmy, an’ all manner of others from times past and present, and that made people mad with fear an’ rage, an’ they closed the door on our lodgin’s for good then.
His skin got paler and his eyes grew darker as he wandered those wishes beneath the moon night after night. There was something beginning to eat him away on the inside, as she whispered like a worm her tales of times past, and things she said that was to come. Time was all awry to him; Truth was gradually undone.
I begged him to stop, to think about what he was doin’ to us, to himself even. But he was havin’ none of it. Wanted her and her stories more than he wanted us lot in the land o’ the living, that’s for sure. An’ the last time I saw him, he was heading off down to her again in the twilight.
She wasn’t as you’d expect at all, like I say. Green-haired, frog-eyed, sucker-fingered creature, with the tail of a six-foot eel.
Elynge Ellett: the undoin’ o’ my poor Jack.
[Story submitted as part of my Voices in the Archives term paper for the Creative and Critical Writing MA, May 2015. Also told live at the crypt beneath St Elisabeth’s Church, Eastbourne, for Water Week 2015].