There is no Medieval Monday this week (it is Monday in case, like me, you’re stuck in the Twixtmas fug of uncertainty).
Instead I want to share the piece I entered into the Elizabeth Goudge writing contest at the Romantic Novelist Association Conference. The challenge was to write the opening 2000 words of a romantic novel on the theme The Girl from the Sea.
And I won!
(I was really not expecting to that I didn’t even have my shoes on under the table)
I get to keep the trophy for a year and the piece was published in the RNA magazine. Even better than that, I now have a story that is demanding to be written. It will be one day, as soon as I find the time between contracted books to do it (if anyone wants to pay me to write it, that will speed things up a lot).
I hope you enjoy it and as always, I’d love to hear what you think.
Effie Cropton was not a religious woman but when she saw the basket tossed atop the waves near the brigg, the first thing that popped into her mind was the story of the infant Moses in the bulrushes. She was so surprised at the memory from one of her childhood Sunday School lessons that when she heard the cry of an infant she assumed it was part of that memory too and dismissed it, turning her attention back to gathering toothed-wrack and dulse from the rocks.
When she heard the thin, despairing wail for a second time she looked up, searching for the gull that had made the sound but none circled above her in the midwinter sky.
As the sound came for the third time she could not mistake it for anything other than a human child. Effie pulled off her shawl and bonnet and kicked off her sturdy clogs then waded into the sea.
The basket had floated closer to the jagged grey rocks and the sea was as cold as you would expect for Yorkshire on Midwinter’s Day. Effie almost turned back, but the cry came again and she pressed on. The turning tide threatened to pull the basket further out to sea and Effie was waist deep before she succeeded in grabbing it by the handle. She fought to make her way back to the shore against the strong current, struggling as her sodden petticoats wrapped around her legs. She crouched where the shingle became sand and looked at her salvage.
The basket contained a baby girl. She looked no more than a month or two old, with wrinkled rolls of fat on her legs and a sullen, grey sheen to her skin. She was naked and lying on a seal fur the colour of the brown down on the child’s head. It was the softest thing Effie had ever touched. The girl screwed her face up and gave a high, angry wail. As well she might do, given her situation. It was a wonder she had not frozen to death, as Effie felt she was about to do.
She stared up at Effie with dark brown eyes edged with flecks the colour of caramel. Her pupils were too large, giving the impression they belonged to a face older than centuries and the hairs on the back of Effie’s neck began to prickle as she looked into the old eyes. Effie picked her up and held her close. The baby began screaming in earnest and rooting for a breast. The cry was of hunger not fear. Effie’s son was six months old and the sound and warm nuzzling face caused her milk to gather in a hot rush. She unbuttoned her blouse and guided the small mouth to her nipple. The baby latched on with a strength that bordered on painful.
“You’re starving, aren’t you, chick,” Effie murmured as the baby pulled determinedly. While the child nursed Effie walked back to the shore, searching the horizon. There was no sign of a shipwreck, though out beyond the Brigg in winter they weren’t uncommon. Effie would find no answers staring at the sea and in the meantime they would both be in danger of freezing. She looped the basket over one arm, wrapped the girl in her shawl. She had reached the top of the steps cut into the cliff towards her cottage when a voice hailed her.
Tom Danby, the blacksmith was walking along the cliff path as he did most days.
“Good afternoon, Mistress Cropton.” Tom pulled the tricorn from his head, smoothing his unruly blonde curls down and gave Effie a smile that was in truth a little too warm for a single man to give a married woman. She returned it cautiously. Effie’s marriage was two years old and John Cropton was ten years older than his wife. They were content with each other, especially when John departed for a week at a time on the whaling ship Serenity. That is all she would say on the matter, but sometimes she wished Tom had finished his apprenticeship soon enough to have asked for her hand.
“How is young Jack today?” Tom asked. He looked at Effie properly and gaped. “You’re soaking wet!”
“This isn’t Jack.” Effie drew her shawl back to reveal the small head. The baby looked pinker now she was warm and fed and her silken hair had dried to match the colour of the seal pelt exactly. She explained how she had come upon the child.
“Shall I ride to Whitby and see if the poorhouse will take her?” Tom asked.
He meant well but Effie clutched the child tighter, baulking at the thought of surrendering her to the stark walls.
“I’ll take her home with me until someone comes to claim her.”
Tom promised to ride to Whitby and bring news if anyone had lost a child, and walked on with a lingering smile back at Effie. She collected Jack from a neighbour, dressed the girl in one of his old smocks, put the basket and fur on top of the wardrobe and forgot about them.
Tom Danby knocked on the door of Effie’s cottage three days later. It was dusk on Christmas Eve. He told her with a grave face of the only shipwreck he had heard of. The Serenityhad been caught in a storm on Midwinter’s Day and lost at sea with all hands.
Effie accepted the news quietly. A sailor’s life was treacherous and a sailor’s wife waited for this news whenever her man set sail. She thanked Tom and acknowledged – but did not accept – his generous offer of any help she required at any time of day or night. Then she closed the door and wept for her lost husband.
Effie became a widow at the age of twenty-seven. Once she had done weeping she dried her eyes and dyed her clothes black in the copper before the hearth. The girl watched with her solemn eyes. Effie wondered if the child had been caught in the same storm that took the Serenity. One life saved in place of all lost seemed inadequate an exchange, but it was at that moment that Effie decided to raise the child herself. Her son would have no father but would have a sister. She sat in her rocking chair and nursed the children, one to each breast.
A year passed. Effie dyed her summer dresses black on Midsummer’s day while the children rolled on the rag rug and giggled in their own private language, and when autumn came she bought cloth of deepest grey to make herself a dress for winter. Tom Danby visited weekly. If he hoped Effie would come round to his way of feeling he never showed his disappointment.
Effie lived quite contentedly with her son and foster-daughter, but no name seemed to suit the girl, either fancy or plain. If she had been a boy Effie would have called her John and made the name stick. Most of the time Effie called her Chick. She seemed agreeable enough to this as she shuffled after Jack on her bottom, or crawled on hands and knees determinedly towards the sea. Effie tried not to fret. A name would suggest itself eventually.
It was a year to the day when a knock came at the door at dusk. Tom had called by earlier, bringing a cake and news that seals had been sighted. Effie was a little ashamed that her heart did not speed up at the thought he might have returned.
A man filled the doorframe. He was barefoot but wrapped in a thick seal-fur cloak of dark brown with a hood shading face.
“It’s late,” Effie said. “Do you need some help?”
He raised his head and stared at her with eyes the glass-green of a winter sea. Effie’s heart stopped beating then sped to double speed.
“I come to speak of a child.” His accent bore a touch of Scottish and a hint of something from further away at the edge. His voice was low and slow and made Effie think of cowrie shells and surging tides. The tone sent ripples undulating up and down her spine but his words made her belly clench.
“Which child would that be?” Effie asked.
The man dropped his hood back and shook out thick, dark hair, the same colour as his cloak. His pupils grew darker and larger.
“I speak of the child who possesses a sealskin. That child is mine.”
Effie’s hands tightened on the frame. She glanced back at the cradle by the fire. The children had not woken at the sound of voices. The wind was bitter and flames danced in the grate causing shadows to run over the ceiling.
“You’ve waited a pretty amount of time to claim her.” Effie folded her arms, blocking the doorway. Her heart thundered, though whether from fear or because of his captivating eyes, she could not tell.
“I had no choice but to wait.” The man scowled. Even with his face crumpled in frustration he was exceedingly handsome. More so than any man Effie knew.
Something in his tone caught Effie’s heart. There was sorrow beneath the frustration. “I have no proof you have any claim over anyone. Come back tomorrow.”
“I must take her tonight. The Midwinter tide turns and I cannot stay.”
“Do you have ship waiting?” Effie asked.
He laughed. “Something like that. Please give me my child.”
He made a feint to the left and when Effie moved he ducked and slipped past her to the right and into the house with swiftness she did not expect. He strode to the cradle and held his hand out over the sleeping children then withdrew it slowly. He turned to Effie with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“You’ve nursed her?”
Effie nodded. “She was famished poor mite.”
The man ruffled his hand through his hair and gave her a rueful look.
“You took my daughter in. You gave her your milk and you have cared for her for a year. You have as much claim as I do.”
His eyes were a different colour to the girl’s but their expression was so similar Effie could not deny they were kin. He gestured to the fur he had cast over his shoulder.
“Where is her skin?”
The basket was where Effie had left it a year ago. When she placed it on the table and pulled the fur out she was astounded to see the colour had deepened and it had grown in size.
“This can’t be the same fur!”
The girl’s father laughed softly. “This is her skin. It will grow with her as she grows.”
Effie whipped her hands away as if she had been scalded.
The man crossed to Effie, moving with a grace that was odd in one so large. He picked up the fur and held it lovingly. The child stirred in her sleep.
“I don’t think you understand what you have brought into your home.”
Effie bit her lip and began to back away. The man took her gently by the shoulders to hold her still but when she looked into his eyes she saw no threat. He tilted her chin back with a cold hand and regarded her seriously.
“Effie Cropton, will you keep my child safe?”
She nodded, wondering how he knew her name. He pressed something small and hard into her hand. She opened it to discover a pearl.
“Then we have a contact, you and I,” he said.
He paused at the door and looked back at Effie, dark eyes flashing. “Her name is Morna. I will return at Midsummer’s Night on the turn of the tide.”
Effie clutched the pearl and watched as he slipped away into the moonlight.
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