A short story to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first voyage to the surface of the Moon
She claimed that she could see the moon through her skin. Few believed her. Some had more buoyant benevolences, after all, who knew what she could do? Eseld was unlike anyone ever born to them, for she had no eyes.
Her family thought she was fibbing. She had first made the claim when an infant and so she had been indulged, except by her father, who beat her and told her to only speak the truth. It was the truth, she echoed. He hit her harder and so she sealed her lips to preserve the veracity. The moon replied. She saw it through her skin. She felt inclination.
Eseld was the image of her mother, except for the sunken semi-orbs where her mother’s eyes should have been. Those who had seen Morgelyn in her prime now saw Eseld swell into the same comely form. Her skin was parchment pale, just as her mother’s had been, but the daughter’s membrane preserved its translucence. From the day she was born her mother had kept her indoors. The unseeing reminder of her parents’ shame was best kept out of sight.
The isolation failed to trouble Eseld. She escaped whenever she could. She felt her way with tendril fingers, and by hearing odour and tasting sound. Her brother gave her a silver birch wand and she taught herself the recoil of soil, the suck of turf, the stasis of the fence, the united cacophony of the forest, and sixteen notes of stone. She knew the aroma of hay, the bending gratitude of uncut grass, the nasal moan of wet wood, the adenoidal greetings of three dozen kinds of flower, the scent of each breed of beast, and the tongue-touch of nine flavours of water.
She refused to do as she was told and was determined that she would not be contained. She walked the byways. She went solo to the market when she could slip scrutiny, but her siblings were vigilant and would rush to be her acolytes if they saw her alone and at liberty. Their vigilance didn’t stop Eseld. She’d always break free again sooner or later. She would find her way to the hidden meadow where the stone was unfallen, and took great joy in landing there when the moon was rising. She would soft-collide with the standing rock, then lean there, and feel the moon pull her to tranquillity.
She even went down to the beach and into the water, and taught herself to swim. She liked to do this when the moon was watching over her, for its presence was her compass, showing her the shore. She knew when the moon was high, was low, was recently set, or just about to slip from behind the earth. She could feel its song, even when in the water, and even when those with eagle eyes swore it wasn’t there.
The one person who never doubted Eseld’s claim was Kerrenza who lived in a slated shed in the first fold of the cliff above the harbour. Kerrenza, it was murmured, had been a seafarer, and the leathery woman took great pride in not gainsaying the gossip. In her youth she’d dressed as a boy, and then as a man, until her prowess with line, sheet and blade were such that she no longer needed to navigate in disguise. Then she’d prospected and prospered off the Spanish Main. She lived simply now, but was never short of sovereigns. She owned the boat her son plied, and had a share in three other ships, liars said.
It was Kerrenza who lay in wait with her son one night when the moon was fully waxed – though not yet risen – and who with Cadwur captured Eseld as she mothed by on one of her evening excursions.
“Don’t fret,” said Cadwur after he had felled her and held her tight beneath him.
“I’m not fretting,” she said, and sure enough she lay at ease like a bird whose instinct was to feign death and live. She heard movement and could tell, despite no sight, that it was the gait of old Kerrenza, who some said was a sea-witch.
“Make her to stand free,” said Kerrenza.
Cadwur opened his embrace, and Eseld sat upright in the long summer grass.
“Go to sea with us, moonchild,” said Kerrenza.
“Why?” asked Eseld, pleased to be addressed by what she knew to be her true title.
“To prove your lore.”
Eseld turned her face to align exactly with the source of Kerrenza’s sound. “You’ve never doubted me before,” she said.
“And neither do I now,” said the prior buccaneer.
“Then why ask it of me?”
“To prove it to this son.”
“I have no need to prove my worth to him or anyone.”
“The need is ours,” said Kerrenza.
Eseld knotted a many-threaded pull. She was hoisted by the pirate’s words, repelled by the scent of her son, and nudged by the nascent celestial queen. “How far?”
“We’ll scarcely leave the shore.”
“How many days will we be gone?”
“None. This night will do it.”
“From the harbour?”
“From the cove before it,” said Kerrenza.
Eseld stood up and perfectly led the way.
The sky was leaden pastry. No eyes would see the heavens over the bay through those clouds.
Cadwur took one oar of the launch and his mother the other. They sat Eseld in the stern at their feet and she settled into the gentle jostle, and then the sway, as they pulled against the rising tide. She could smell the salted surface and feel the press of air but it was not constant enough to be called a wind. Hence Eseld could not tie her bearings to the movement of the blow.
At first they cut out straight to sea but then angled their prow so that the tide might aid their progress without pushing them directly back to the shore. Then they twisted, and then described an arc, and then they rested on the oars. The crust above was still thick grey. Pin heads of light showed sparsely on the headland.
Kerrenza waited for her breath to settle then, closely studying her passenger, said “Tell us girl, when the moon rises.”
“’Tis already risen,” said Eseld.
Eseld slightly raised and aimed the palm of her left hand. “There.”
Kerrenza followed the indication and, in relation to it, logged the spark where she had set the lantern outside her house on the cliff. “Steer us,” said the old woman.
“Row then,” said Eseld, and they rowed while she corrected their course. After sixty strokes the rowers stopped.
“Now for Pridd’s Cove,” commanded Kerrenza, and at Eseld’s urging they veered almost a full half-lodestone, and headed for a westerly inlet. Once the pirate was content, they ceased their powering and let the boat sway and twist. When their chests were at rest, Kerrenza said, “Now for France.”
“I do not know France.”
“There,” said Eseld without hesitation, pointing towards Brittany.
“And our harbour?”
She splayed her fingers to show that she could not be so precise but indicated the correct way for their corner of the Cornish coast.
“And where sits the moon now?”
“Where she was but more loftily,” said Eseld and this time her indication was sure and as far as the cloud-blinded sailors could tell, entirely true.
And so they continued for another quarter of the night by which time the clouds began to break. Stars that Cadwur knew signalled to him and eventually the moon herself showed first as a brighter smudge, then as a shaded coin, and then in intermittent displays of a porcelain plate with shot engravings and embossed curls.
Eseld was flawless in finding the celestial chaperone whether or not the goddess stared through the clouds and Cadwur was convinced that this sightless cargo was the most commanding darkness seafarer he would ever encounter.
Long before dawn they were grilling fish in a cave in the rock ear below Kerrenza’s shack. They tested her one last time, while beneath the earth. Eseld could point correctly to the lunar sphere, and she could do so from the farthest depth of that cave.
“Marry me,” said Cadwur when they had eaten, and drunk granite water from the rivulet.
“I will not,” said Eseld.
“That way I can keep ee safe,” he said.
“Safe from what?”
“I can do that for myself.”
“They’ll not want ee on the ship.”
“I shan’t be on their ship.”
Kerrenza put her hand on Eseld’s wrist. “New family,” she said. “New England.”
“Riches beyond all thinking.”
“I have no need for other riches.”
“And the next tread on the path.”
Eseld drew sharp air.
Kerrenza saw the shock and squeezed tighter. “My bones are her farrow too,” she said, “but not so daughterly. I have never known moon-bone as strong as I see in you.”
“It’s not bones,” said Eseld. “It’s all.”
“Be it what it is,” said Kerrenza, “America is where we must go.”
“I will not,” said Eseld, and wrenched her wrist free of the pirate’s clamp.
They never took her home. They bound her tight with rope around the waist and hands. They stopped her mouth with a gag and kept her there all that day, while her siblings scoured the cliffs and shouted her name, and forged inland to holler into the ditches and gullies of the fields and meadows.
Eseld set herself. Bound darkness was her natural state. She was an ever-hooded falcon and knew when not to try to fly. After sunset two more of Cadwur’s crew were called to the cave and Eseld was carried, impassive and uncomplaining, back to the launch and then to sea to rendezvous with Skystone; Kerrenza’s ship.
There was a rumbling of mutinous disquiet among the crew, but Cadwur quelled it with profanities and threats. The wind was still not strong, but was gusting from the north-west and they unfurled their sheets and cut away from shore. The moon was up again, Eseld felt her tug, and knew they were headed for the ocean. They untied her arms but kept her on a line looped and knotted about her waist and fastened at the other end to the fore mast, so that she could not fling herself over the side and into the swell. Four days and nights they ventured, steering as they always had, by looking to the sun, or stars, or moon.
The recusant rumbles persisted. It was bad luck to have one woman on board, let alone two. What need of her did they have? They knew how to navigate and they had prospered well enough. Eseld was their magic, Cadwur insisted, with her they could sail when others dare not. She knew the exact trace and place of the moon even when thick cloud set a bandage on the entire sky. With her they could be more sure, more accurate, more swift. She was their sightless all-seeing compass. But not, the boatswain pointed out, if she continued to refuse to eat.
The fourth night brought the storm that all the seafarers sensed was due. The wind taloned at their sails. Furthermore, they soon lost any confidence in its direction, no longer sure which way it thrust them, and losing all notion of where the cardinal points might be. They untethered Eseld and took her into the hold and pinioned her there, pressing her against the stern so that she might tell them which way to steer. At first she refused, but then found joy, not only in their desperate state, but also in their disagreement.
The crew favoured an eastward course to find shelter, but Cadwur insisted they head west. The storm had come from the Americas he said, and was passing over. By sailing eastward they would stay within it and be smashed on unforgiving shores.
The sea stacked and slid, stacked and slid, spat and swallowed and spat. Their vessel compressed and twisted, and groaned oaths promising fractures. A fight broke out. The boatswain was killed by Cadwur and hence, amid the tumult, he calmed the fray. Then, chorused by the riotous drench and bellow of the storm, he breathed nettles to his captive.
“West,” he said.
At first she was silent. She could smell spent blood. “Bread,” she said.
They brought her food and she sucked Cornish ale through parched dough.
“West,” nettled Cadwur.
“Turn about,” she said.
They herded the sails and wrenched the wheel and struggled to keep the ship on the line that she commanded. Cadwur threatened death unless she led them westwards, but she made certain that they raced towards the east.
Eseld flotsamed the Skystone on the crags of Ireland, a place of which she had heard, but never considered she would know. All on board were drowned, save her.
As carpentry dismembered she clung to the swell. She swam weakly but knowing all the while she was steering herself away from the setting moon. She was thrust into a cleavage of a shoreline slab and there she wedged herself to await the ever-present leaver, who she knew would return the next night.
Before the moon rose, the sun did, and showed the wreck, and in the post-storm calm bounty-scenting carrion came down to claim their stormgifts. They found Eseld and took her to a farmstead where she was nursed to full recovery.
In time they learned of her history and one of the farmhands offered to travel with her across all Ireland and see her safe to Cornwall, but she refused, opting instead to settle there with him and in that decade she shed three daughters and a son. All four were born with good eyes but only the boy inherited her gift of moon sight. His soundings were not as resonant as hers but he could locate the lunar globe even when blindfolded and with his head beneath a sack.
As the boy grew, the gift became a mere feast day trick, but Eseld learned from their evening conversations that his attraction to the moon had a gravity that she could grasp. She confessed to him that during the fateful storm, she had been impelled to comply with Cadwur’s request and prospect westwards, because that was the way the moon always went, but some even stronger instinct had told her it was not yet time to travel in that direction.
“One night,” she said, “we will meet the moon.”
“How?” her son asked.
“By not being able to resist her pull.”
“We?” he asked.
“First we will need to build stronger ships.”
“And sail west?”
“Towards the moon,” she replied.
He never forgot that conversation, but neither did he ever leave Ireland. Generations later their descendants did. They sailed west, towards America; and they didn’t stop there.
This story is featured in the Papercuts paperback.
An abridged version was published in The Lancashire Post, 20th July 2019.
A selection of stories similar to this can be found in The Atheist’s Prayer Book
Personal recollections of the first Moon landing are described in my earlier post: Over the Moon on the milky way