The Nightingale Upon a Well-Sewn String

Ella T. Holmes

At the fringes of Dog Swamp, wooden stalls and kelp-pink tents are choked with people buying candied fruits and winter goods. But of course, Paterson’s eyes find the Two-Whistle Tavern.

‘Need oil,’ he reminds us, breathless from coming over the hill. ‘For the lamps.’

‘Price’ll be outrageous.’ Dad fixes his lightkeeper’s hat with two hands, meaning he’s already decided to foot the cost. It’s expected that he wears his scarlet cap with all its polished iron pins tonight; the festival is as much a celebration of us who work the lighthouse as it is of the sky whales that protect our town.

I count myself part of that, even if, according to the Light­keeper’s Manual, brasswork is all that women may contribute.

Paterson sighs, overloud. If he’d started the day off cramping and passing clots, I’d understand, but it’s only that I took my time sewing before we left—with good reason—that he’s unhappy. Making pessaries is a delicate process. One must keep the rounds of linen clean, sew them right through the middle, and leave enough string that it can be pulled easily from the body. And it must be pulled often, for chances of infection are greater than a nightingale singing after dark.

I carry them in a linen bag in my pocket, with my last shot-jar of Ms. Rosey and Sons’ Cure for Women’s Complaints. I need to buy more while we’re in town, and when I say so, Paterson mumbles under his breath. Dad and I share a look. Saying anything to Paterson about his attitudes only aggravates him, so we’ve agreed to ignore them.

‘Think I’ll head off for a thimbleful.’ Paterson pulls his flask from his brown coat. Announcing he’s about to leave us for a drink is rather like a seagull saying it’s about to take your bread while already swallowing it.

Dad flips me three silver crowns, which I snatch from the air with a deftness born of catching brass parts when we dismantle and clean the lighthouse chimney. ‘Spend it wisely, Anthia.’

The crowd’s so thick that I go from one tent to another as slow as a damp wick taking to light; I’m only halfway down the second row when I need to take a breather on the ramp of the iron-work house.

Against the white-rock hills and grey skies, Nightingale Lighthouse stands as a tall pillar of night-black stone on the highest cliff. I can’t wait to go home. More than that, I imagine myself as the Lightkeeper, like my father and his three fathers before him.

Dad doesn’t have to shoulder his way through the crowd—it practically parts for him. He’s always said our red hair makes us easy to spot, and this time I’m glad of it.

‘Got the oil?’ I ask. ‘I haven’t been to Rosey and Son’s yet.’

‘Aye,’ Dad says, unabashedly using his hat to cushion his hold on the can. He’d take the solitude of an outhouse over a crowd like this, and I’m the same. ‘I stopped by, but they weren’t big on lettin’ me in.’

‘Were Theo and Phillip in?’

Dad nods in realisation. ‘Right, right.’

When Rosey’s sons aren’t there, the store’s a safe place for women only. ‘I’ll go there now, then we can head back. Might be easier to watch the whales from nearer the lighthouse, anyway.’ I glance at the horizon. ‘First breach isn’t far off. I do want some candied oranges, though.’

Dad fixes his hat on and changes the oil can over to his left hand. ‘I’ll get the oranges and let Paterson know we’re headed home. Meet on the hill?’

A nod, and we split ways.

Unlike Dad, I get to the little hill in time. Just as the sky, hidden behind darkening clouds, is surely turning the citrus colours of Dog Swamp oranges, the magnificent white whales take flight. A hundred or more, breaching the ocean’s surface and sending arcs of water through the air as they flap their rounded flippers, soon finding that the air will carry them without it. They swirl above us, sleek and salt-white, their blunt-toothed mouths open.

It’s strangely poetic to me that these beautiful animals, who eat the storms which would otherwise flood us in winter, should be the same animals we hunt in summer to light our lamps, lubricate our clocks, and bone our corsets. The same animals which, if left unhunted, would eat so many clouds that there would be no rain at all.

Shadows swim inside the clouds. A whale keens, then another and another, high and broken, as a father-whale—no, a dozen wooden ships descend.

Bronze harpoons protrude from their dark bellies, the figureheads of muscled men on their prows bearing the white chest paint of the Scarsh from across the sea. I blink like they’ll disappear. Nobody hunts in winter. Nobody hunts here. But the shooting of harpoons rings through the air—very, very real.

People scream, running away from the cliffs and back toward town. From the little hill, I spot Dad in his scarlet cap, hurrying the last twenty paces to the Two-Whistle Tavern sitting right between us, where Paterson’s still drinking.

Do I run? Wait for him?

The salt air is suddenly sharp, the cold suddenly reaching under my clothes and groping my bones.


Harpoons lodge deep in whale belly after whale belly. Metal clinks as the Scarsh drag them aboard their vessels. A baby whale’s shriek cuts to silence, and I look up to see the harpoon rip from its eye as it comes down, right above the tavern.

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Photo by Nathan Jennings on Unsplash