The Lorelei Signal
The Book and The Sea
Written by George Jacobs / Artwork by Marge Simon
“Don’t go near the ocean.” That was just one of mother’s many rules. She had been a strange woman, sometimes cold, sometimes cruel. Someone who read a lot and didn’t go out in public. Many secrets and few if any friends. When she died, so suddenly, I wasn’t really sure how I felt. I didn’t know how to process it. I cried and felt happy and felt lost. She had been the whole of my strange, isolated life. But now I was felt free. No more tests. No more strange expeditions to forgotten places. For the first time the future fizzled with potential. I buried her in the orchard behind our cottage, under the blackthorn tree, but I didn’t honour her last request.
Mother had owned a special book. It was true that many volumes lined her shelves, some bound in leather, some in the form of scrolls, but this one was different. It was thick and old and bound in something black and soft to the touch. “Don’t touch the book.” That had been another of her rules. Childhood curiosity had been met with stinging flesh. She had a special stick which I grew to fear.
I did not understand mother and she rarely answered questions, though she asked many, of me and of the world. There were tests for me too, things I’d forgotten now; some of which she’d made me forget, some I choose to lose, leaving only a sense of fear and a heart that thudded against my chest.
I was her subject as much as her child, her assistant as much as her daughter. She took me herb gathering and mushroom picking, never leaving me by myself. And in the evenings, whenever we were at the cottage, she would pore over that special book. She would trace the text line by line with a long finger, muttering under her breath. I was not allowed to see the pages, was always given distracting tasks. With her last breath she’d asked to be buried with that book, a terrible look on her face as she spoke. “But don’t open it.”
“Of course,” I said. But even then, I don’t think I meant it. It lay under her bed, wrapped in satin cloth. For a while I sat on the floor, watching the book, freshly dug dirt still clinging to the bottoms of my trousers, pretending I hadn’t already made my decision, pretending I may honour my duty.
I unwrapped the cloth and ran my finger down the spine. It felt soft and old. Marks were etched into the cover, symbols whose meaning was beyond me. With bated breath I opened the book, prepared to have secrets and wonders revealed to me, the strange passion of mother’s life explained. The reason for her cruelty, the meaning of her desperate quests.
I stared. I started. I couldn’t read the words. Anguish and frustration filled me. Mother had taught me my letters, how to read and write. I was even allowed a few novels and an old encyclopaedia, the knowledge of which was yet another measure by which I was to be tested. But these letters were not English, all loops and curls and dots.
In desperation I shuffled through the cracked leaves of vellum, hoping for some clue, something I could process. There were no English words here, no shapes I could recognise. After a moment I came to some illustrations, all done in dark red ink and spanning the double pages. Many had an aquatic look to them, some were trees and plants. Some reminded me of what I’d seen in my encyclopaedia, but others were wholly different. Strange things. Things that almost danced in the dimming light, things that curled in my mind and summoned half remembered dreams. Something about those aged and faded illustrations chilled me. So much of the sea was here, and so much that hinted more. And I had always thought mother hated the ocean.
Something slipped out the book, something that had lain hidden between two pages. A photograph, black and white now faded to brown and cream. A little town front and centre, a dark sea stretching out behind to the horizon, its even surface punctuated only by a distant spire of rock. On the back of the photo, in mother’s spidery hand, a word. A name. A place. And these I could read.
It took a while to figure out where this seaside town was, for our cottage had no internet. I was forced to search through a stack of old OS maps I found in a cupboard, trusting they were not so out of date as to be useless. I scavenged what money I could find about the place and stood on the doorstep of our cottage, wearing my big coat and a backpack full of clothes and snacks.
I had never left without mother before, never been on my own, had never even spoken to strangers. People had held little interest for mother and she had not trusted them. Truth was in books, so she said.
There was a great terror in me as I stood on the cusp of the world, but also curiosity. I wanted to know things. See places. Meet people. Something about that photograph stirred a part of my mind I’d never really noticed before; it pulled me onwards. I checked one last time that the special book was in my pack and stepped out onto the path that led into the nearest town.
Cars drove past me and I shivered under their scrutiny. Soon the town loomed before me, its buildings crowded together and its streets teeming with people. I quelled my panic and headed onward. Finding the train station had been a task, querying passers by, then the mission of navigating the peculiar machine that at last sold me a ticket and ejected it into a little slot. At least, I thought, I hadn’t had to answer any questions. People seemed happy to help me, did not seem to find me strange, did not try to menace me.
My clubfeet ached and my breath was short. I made it into the train carriage and took a seat by the window. A handful of people were already sat down here, but I had seen no empty carriage. My fellow passengers sometimes looked at me and their fleeting glances made me uncomfortable. I was not used to company.
The train journey was long. After I got over my initial fear I managed to sleep a while in between connections, the clack-clack of the train strangely soothing. I had one of my old novels with me and tried to read to pass the time, but the motion of the train did not let my eyes focus without creating a kind of nausea in my belly. I starred out the window.
At last they called my destination over the speaker and I emerged, alone, onto a platform covered by a darkening sky. The air was wet and the wind blew strong. There was a sweet tang of salt on the breeze and I smiled, perhaps to spite my fear. I had completed the first part of my task, the part that was easily defined. It was an accomplishment. But then I thought about the unknown before me.
The brightly lit train pulled away and I was left behind. Darkness and stillness crowded around me. I realised I had no idea what to do now, no plan of any kind. My heart throbbed in my chest, my limbs felt hot and tingly. I put my hand in my backpack, feeling the soft cover of the book. I took some deep breaths, tried to picture calmness.
At the end of the platform was a sign with an arrow labelled ‘town’, and so I walked that way. The road was narrow, flanked by bushes. It wound on and on, twisting and turning. Beyond the hedges I caught glimpses of sheep and cows. Their soft sounds were pleasant to me; mother had let me befriend several animals, the prohibition on not talking to strangers to extending to non-humans. When I was very young, mother had kept a raven, and the remembrance of it lifted my spirits. Its funny little hops, the way it took food from my hand.
I rounded a bend and the road dipped downward. My breath caught. The sea! It lay before me, a churning mass, a leaden, suffocating, drowning weight upon the world. A thrill passed through me and I stood agape. Sensory information threatened to overwhelm me, activating some deep, hidden part of me. It wasn’t like the pictures. It was there. Just out of reach, spilling in through my eyes.
I don’t know how long I stood in awe. At last, as the rain spat freezing water on my face, my mind began to work once more. I walked on, holding my coat tight against my body, keeping my head down against the wind.
Soon I saw lights ahead and the road grew a footpath on one side. I found myself upon the highstreet, walked a little further and was among the buildings of the town. Most were already dimmed and locked, abandoned for the night as shop keepers and staff retreated to the residential streets. I saw no one, though it wasn’t especially late. The wind and rain lashed me, dampening my feelings. This place did not seem a happy town. Empty displays and boarded up windows abounded, chipped paint and cracked pavements. It had seen better days.
I wondered through the cold. Music and voices drifted round a corner, and I found myself in front of a pub. Even across the street I could smell the stale beer and sweat, a hint of fish. I was tired and did not want to speak to people, but I did not want to be alone and I did not want to sleep in the sodden street. A sign hung below a painted image of a mermaid. It said ‘rooms to let’. I went in.
I spoke quickly to the barmaid and paid in cash for a night, slipping away to my room before small talk could be made, avoiding the looks of the people at the bar. I couldn’t cope with any more interaction today, I’d already done my best. I entered the room and let out a sigh of relief, shutting the door and closing off the world for a while.
I took some food out of my pack and ate, and filled the little cup beside my bed with water. The room was panelled with dark wood, and oil paintings of the ocean hung upon the walls, their brush strokes thick and textured. I lay in bed a while, not really knowing what I was doing. Nothing since mother died had seemed really real. It didn’t seem real that I was here, that I had travelled across a country, that I was at the ocean.
After a while the noise coming from the bar below grew softer and I took out the book from my backpack. I hadn’t really noticed how beautiful the writing was before, how it danced about the page. Mother had read it, had loved it in a way she had never loved me. The things upon its pages must be important. If only I could make sense of the words. I fell asleep with it open beside me and the red inked images swam into my dreams.
It was already light when I awoke. I drew back the curtains and looked out over the town that curved down towards the harbour. The weather had calmed in the night and the sea shimmered in the morning sunlight. A couple of boats were out on the water, but the majority lay dormant at their moorings. They had that same, unloved look as the buildings. I opened the window to let in the sea breeze, savouring the salt on my tongue. The cries of gulls filled the air. A couple of miles out, a barren, rocky island projected from the sea. I looked at my photograph. It could have almost been taken from this exact window.
I dressed, put the book in my rucksack, and headed out. For some reason I didn’t want to leave it in the room. I felt I needed it close. It was a connection to my mother, and as much as I might resent her, she was all I knew.
I tried to be quiet as I crept down the stairs, but the owner of the pub spotted me. She was a large, weathered old woman. “Sleep all right, love?”
I nodded and managed a “Yes, thanks.”
“Beautiful day today.” She smiled into space. “You must have brought the weather with you, it’s the first nice day we’ve had in a quite a while. Will you be staying another night?”
“Yes please,” I said. “I’m going for a walk.”
“That’s nice, dearie.” She carried on smiling at me as I shuffled out the building and into the street.
The sun was up and the town was spread out before me. I tingled with excitement and fear. It was strange to think mother had been here. Been here before I existed, or so I presumed. It was a strange thought. I had never really thought about mother knowing people. Being young, doing things. In my mind she existed only as the strange old woman who studied and wandered and controlled my existence. I wondered if anyone that still lived here had known her.
I wasn’t really sure what to do today. Luckily, I found a small shop with a self-checkout machine, so I could buy some more food without having to talk to people. I wandered about town, trying not to only stare at my feet. I tired to imagine mother doing the same thing, wondering why she had been here, what she had done, why she had left and never mentioned it. She’d never really mentioned anything. She was an asker of questions, not an answerer of them.
There weren’t many other people in the street. Everyone I saw was old. They reminded me of the buildings, of the boats. Had seen better days. One shop in three had not opened up with the day, the doors still locked. I saw no children, and there was no chug-chug of boats returning from the morning’s successful fishing.
Eventually I found myself at the seafront. The raw smell of it was like nothing I had ever experienced. This close up it was almost overpowering. White gulls floated like blobs on the surface of the water and endless waves curled and collapsed, stretching as far as I could see. The size of it chilled me. I wondered how deep it was. What was down there. I thought about the images in mother’s book, thought about what they might imply.
I walked passed the harbour and along the beach, carried on until my twisted feet ached. I didn’t really feel myself here. I had read descriptions of people drinking alcohol, of being drunk. This seemed a bit like that, but maybe something else too. I didn’t really have the language to process it. But although I walked side by side with the ocean, I didn’t go in it. Didn’t even touch it. I wanted to. Part of me wanted to just leap into the water, dive down, be subsumed in it. But the larger part of me still held that fear, the fear mother had beaten into me. “Don’t go into the ocean.”
The wind coming off the sea was chilly despite the sun, and my legs ached horribly. I hadn’t ever really done much walking; my body was a spindly thing. I sat down amongst the rocks at the edge of the beach to catch my breath and rest my feet, taking shelter from the wind beside the sea wall. Sitting there had seemed random, a spur of the moment decision. But as I rubbed my hand against the side of the large stone boulder beside me, I felt something in its texture. I looked down. There was something carved into its bulk. It was faint and very weather, but I had no doubt that I had seen the same symbol in mother’s book.
I headed back to town, wandering what it might mean. Mother had definitely been here, or at least so it seemed. I wanted to look at the book, confirm things, but daren’t take it out in public. I walked back to the pub. I’d built up quite an appetite on my wandering, something that the cold food I had brought wouldn’t satisfy. And as well, there was the fact that I felt strangely invigorated. My body called out for strength. The newness of what I was doing, that mix of thrill and terror, it again spoke to that inner part of me. I felt I could brave ordering food in the pub. The old woman had not seemed too scary.
The food was delicious. I had a huge piece of battered fish and a bowl of chips. In the thrill of the situation, I even ordered a beer. I knew there was an age requirement, but I must have looked old enough, for a frothy mug of amber coloured liquid was placed before me with a smile. In truth I was not sure how old I was, so it did not feel like a lie.
I had found a corner booth, hidden away from the main bar area where the old men talked. It was mostly empty here, giving me space to think. The beer tasted horrible, but I drank it anyway. After a while I felt slightly hot, a smile coming to my lips. I took the book out of my pack, set the photograph to one side, and peered at the strange writing. I could still make nothing of it, but somehow it was pleasant to look upon, to trace the flowing letters with my finger. But what I was most drawn to were the pictures. Looking at them, I felt as if I were on the point of remembering something. Perhaps my dreams from last night, forgotten on waking. And there was the symbol that I had seen carved upon the shore boulder, surrounded by a cloud of spidering text.
The old lady came to collect my glass. “Another, love?”
Her eyes ranged over the table, over the book with its strange illustrations, over the photograph. “My, my,” she said. “That’s an old picture. Where did you get that?”
“From here was she?” She shook her head. “Most folks leave here when they can. Not much work, not much to do, not these days. Shame, really.”
I nodded, trying to look at her face so as not to appear too awkward.
“It was such a beautiful place when I were a lass, too. Used to go out on the boats with my dad, fishing, like.” She picked up my glass. “Sorry love, ‘spect you don’t want to listen to the ramblings of silly old me.”
She wandered back to the bar and I was about to return to the book, when a man stood up from a nearby booth, came over, and sat himself down opposite me. A thick grey beard and the pulled down brim of a flat cap covered much of his face. He was a big man in old clothes, and the skin of his hands was weathered and cracked. My body trembled. I panicked, and any thoughts went from my head. I was finding I did best with people when I had time to prepare before hand. I wanted to disappear.
He picked up the photograph. “I’ve seen this before,” he said, voice deep and gravely. “In fact I took it, many years ago. A summer’s day, arm in arm with a beautiful girl.” He shook his head then looked me in the face.
I squirmed under his gaze, conscious of myself.
“Yes. Your mother you said? I think I knew her. Damn.” He laughed and took out his wallet. From within one of the pockets he produced the twin of my photograph and laid it down next to mine. “What a strange day. Can you speak?”
He tapped the photograph with a fat finger. “I expect you have many questions.”
“Me too, I suppose. Where did your mother go all those years, I wonder.” He held up a hand. “Don’t worry, I can ask my question later, I can see you’re a shy one.” He lapsed into silence for a time. “She’s dead, I suppose?” he asked at last.
“Thought as much.” He sighed and ran a hand over his face. I saw traces of tattoos about his wrists, disappearing under his jumper sleeves. Where they symbols, I wondered with a shiver?
I tried to align my thoughts, to quell my anxiety. This was what I’d wanted, sort of. To find someone who would help me know about mother, though I wasn’t sure why. I supposed it was only natural. Under the table I began to tap my toes, trying to remain calm, trying to find my voice.
The man tapped the photo again. “We used to go for picnics on this rock. Take the boat out on Saturday afternoons, a hamper with some sandwiches and a bottle of wine.” He ran his fingers through his beard again. “Maybe…maybe you’d like to see it?”
I looked at him wide eyed.
“I thought you might like to see somewhere important to her. And maybe I could tell you more about her. You could tell me about her too, about yourself. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been on a boat, have you?”
The owner of the pub returned, my new pint in her hand. She set it down and smiled at both of us. “You’ve made a friend, I see,” she said. She reached down and squeezed my shoulder and I managed to not recoil. “Don’t mind old Frank, he’s a good lad.” She pointed a finger at the man. “But don’t you bother this nice woman, or you’ll have me to reckon with.” She laughed and returned to her work.
“Okay,” I said.
“Hmm… what?” said the old man, returning his gaze from the retreating woman to me.
“I’d like to go,” I said, my face angled towards the table. “I’d like to see the rock. Go on a boat. Go to a place that was special to mother. And hear about her. Know who she was, when she was here.”
“Okay.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “It’s getting late now and my eyesight isn’t what it was. But do you want to meet up tomorrow, down at the harbour, say around 7 am? If the weather’s good?”
“Okay. Well I’ll leave you to your pint now. I can see you need to process things.” He rose and doffed his cap. “Tomorrow, then.”
After that I felt in a bit of a daze. Everything today had been both invigorating and exhausting. Strange. I finished my pint and went up to my room. It was quiet in there, everything still. I stretched out on the covers of the bed, intending to pore over the book once more, and fell straight to sleep.
Dawn shone in passed the open curtains, waking me. I went to the window and watched the orb of the sun drag itself up out of the ocean, staining the whole vista like fire. Not a cloud in the sky. It was achingly beautiful.
I ate some biscuits from my bag, took a shower, and dressed. It was almost 7. I took my backpack, double checked the book was in there, and found my way down to the harbour, feeling tingly inside, all a bundle of terror, excitement, confusion. I breathed in the ocean.
I spotted the old man standing beside a small boat with peeling paint and he waved me over. He had to help me down into the boat and I felt a thrill run through me as it rocked under my feet, the water lapping at its sides.
The little motor burbled away, the smell of the fuel mixing with that of the salt breeze. “Another beautiful day,” said the man. “That’s two in a row.” He looked over at me. “Can’t say I’ve spent many beautiful days in a while.”
“You were a fisherman?” I asked, looking around.
“What?” He shook himself. “well yes, I was, all my life. Hard profession round here. Fish ain’t much ones for biting. Not anymore. But,” he sighed, “well it’s my home, you do what you can.”
I gazed into the water, watching it sparkle past the boat, debating within myself whether to dip my hand into it. I almost felt delirious.
“Your mother never let you near the ocean, did she?”
I shook my head. “How did you know?”
“Just a feeling. Your mother was a strange woman. A great woman, but a strange one. Do you have her book with you?”
I gulped, shrugged, and nodded slightly.
“May I look at it? Only for a moment, I promise.”
I didn’t want to give him the book. But he seemed like he knew things. And he was taking me on his boat, helping me in a way. It was only polite to do what he asked, I guessed. I opened my backpack and passed it over to him.
He thumbed through it, lingering on the red ink illustrations, the symbol that had been on the rock, grunting as his eyes roved over the pages.
“Can you…can you read it?” I asked.
He shut the book and handed it back to me. “Look,” he said. “We’re here.”
He pulled the boat into a sheltered area beside the rocky island. Driven into the stone was a thick iron nail, to which he secured the boat. We mounted the island, the rock slippery under my feet, and he led me around towards a small opening in the rock that I hadn’t noticed earlier. A couple of gulls took to the sky, screaming their indignation at our trespassing.
“We’d have our picnics in there,” he said. “Out of the wind.”
We entered a little cave, stepping along on worn stone steps. It was gloomy in there, but the sun still largely made its way into its shallow depths. “It’s not very deep really, and it's open at the bottom. Open to the sea I mean.”
As he spoke I could hear the slooshing sounds echoing up as the water moved in and out, flowing against the smoothed stone with the waves.
The old man went over to a curving ledge of rock and patted it. "Let's sit here."
I went over and joined him, the rock cool and damp even through my clothing. For a time we watched and listened to the water moving about at the base of the cave. It was like being in another world. I felt strangely peaceful. I closed my eyes.
"Not been the same since your mum left," said Frank. "And I don't mean just for me. 'Course folks will say it's just the changing of the times. Places proposer and places wither." He shuffled a little closer to me on our makeshift bench and spoke in a low voice, as if afraid of it echoing. "I know better though. Your mum did something, before she left, took something."
A creeping sensation crawled its way up my spine. I clutched my backpack. "The book?" I whispered. My earlier sense of peace and curiosity began to dwindle.
"I've been on the sea my whole life. It's not just a dead thing, a thing of water and fish. There's power in it. Magic even. That's how I've always felt. And your mother…well, she felt the same. Knew it even stronger than me. She used to come here, talk to it. Talk to its people, if you can believe that. I came with her sometimes, though I never really saw what she saw, I think. We shared something special here, just us two. Never whispered a word to the others either. Your mother was worried about what they’d say."
Two forces worked within me. I was enraptured by his words, felt strangely vindicated, knowing that in her ways and secrets mother had truly been different, not just cold and cruel. But another part wanted to run away. I am not good at reading people, but the man's tone, his words; something about them did not sit right with me. I made to stand and he put a thick arm across my shoulders, forcing me back down.
"All that summer our nets were full, and all that summer my nights were filled with love. I thought it would never end."
I glanced up and saw tears in his eyes.
"But it was not to be. That woman had loftier goals than fisherman's wife. Loftier goals even than talking to the sea. There was magic in her blood, so she told me. She never used the word witch, but I think that’s how she saw herself.” He frowned. “I never knew exactly what she did, what she took, but I always wondered. And since she left the sea has never been happy. Then yesterday I see you sitting in the pub, with that photograph and that damn book, and that look about you, and somehow I know. Know what she did."
He released his grip on my shoulder and stood up. The slooshing sounds of the sea had changed, just a little, splashes joining with the droning roar. For the first time I noticed the carvings in the rock above me, my eyes adjusting to the dim light. Symbols I had seen in mother’s book.
"Give me the book, please." he commanded. Not asked. There was no hint of ask in his voice.
Trembling, I handed him my backpack.
"Lot of knowledge in here, lot of wisdom." he said.
"If you give it back to the sea, that's the right thing to do isn't it?" I stammered. “That will make it happy? Help the town?”
There was a look of surprise on his face. "The book? No, not the book. The book was your mother’s." He reached out and gripped me by the arm, and before I could realise what was happening, flung me over the slippery rocks and into the water at the bottom of the cave.
I hit the water with a crash. The ocean whirled around me, getting in my mouth and up my nose. I thrashed about in terror and shock. I couldn't swim. He'd tried to kill me. I was going to drown. The water was so cold and my sodden clothes began to drag me down.
I sank, feeling the water crush me. Things danced before my eyes and the oxygen left me. I felt something. A hallucination. A hand. A hand gripped my arm. Then one gripped my leg. And another. They were real. For an instant hope rose in my mind, and then those hands pulled me downwards.
I screamed in a burst of bubbles, choking, salty water filling my lungs. My chest was tight. It burned. I felt dizzy. I was dying.
And then it stopped. The panic went, came, then went again. I could breath, could move again, the hands no longer pulling at me. Pain momentarily seared across my legs and feet and lungs, and then all was peaceful. I floated in the water, feeling strange, feeling better.
At last I opened my eyes and saw them around me, watching me. The people of the sea. The people mother had stolen from. The people who'd been calling me, though I'd not heard their words, their forms flowing and beautiful. I looked down at where my legs had been and saw only a gorgeous, iridescent tail, shimmering in the pale light that filtered down through the waves. My hands were clawed, my skin rough, everything different.
I moved through the water experimentally and the people of the sea around me watched on in pleasure, their fierce faces welcoming. At last I understood what had been stolen. Understood who I was and what had happened. I was home at last, and I cursed the woman I had known as mother.
Hailing from the English West Midlands, George is a lover of fiction and the outdoors. He lives in the UK with his wife and pets, and works with trains.