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'The Swan Song of the Hay Ensemble' by Alan Kennedy

LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist 'The Swan Song of the Hay Ensemble' by Alan Kennedy


The Swan Song of the Hay Ensemble


‘Holly Hay! Don’t pick those scabs. They’ll weep.’

But scratch she did. She rubbed, scraped, clawed. Every time Holly dropped off to sleep, the bedbugs sucked her blood, leaving her chest peppered with scarlet sores.

‘Mom. I need to go...’

Mother should be cooking Sunday breakfast; apple fritters with lashings of Ella’s tomato jam. Holly cuddled up to Poppy, but her twin’s icy knees jabbed her back.

‘Mom! Robyn? Snuggle up, Ella. I'm freezing.’

Her older sisters responded with their customary early morning sullen silence. Holly’s head peaked out from the blankets. Father's accordion lay in its usual place on the floor. Mother’s dried acacia bark for the fever aches dangled from the rafters. Death Angel mushrooms girdled the windows to keep the squirrels and rats away.

Mother sobbed over the latest epidemic she found out about at the washing stone.

‘Another one? When will it end?’

Her sisters’ eyes stared at the ceiling, but the girls weren’t moving. Holly peered through the open door. On the kitchen stool, Mum perched, head in hands, a spider’s web covering her hair down to the pine counter.

‘Mummy!’

But neither Ivy Hay nor Holly’s sisters would ever answer again.

Despite a black emptiness crushing her heart, Holly finally leapt up; her bladder fit to rupture.

‘Always wee in the bushes, sweetheart. That way, you're protected. Be careful where you squat. With the early spring rain, the toadstools are sprouting everywhere.’ Mum sometimes called them Destroying Angels. ‘Nothing beats them for keeping the vermin away.’

A crashing through the undergrowth cut her sobbing short. Wild boar rutting, or even worse. Since that gate-crasher at Holly’s eleventh birthday party in the summer, no Townies had slipped through the quarantine roadblocks. Dad soon got rid of him, holding the man’s head under the water before shoving him down stream. If only Father had never touched his pox infected face.

In two weeks, he was gone too.

Behind the giant fronds of the maidenhair ferns that circled the back of the cabin, Holly cowered quivering in her flannelette bed gown, her chattering teeth locked tight.

The crashing continued.

A sharp-pitched whine.

It was no hog.

***

‘Maw. A shack.’

Two dishevelled teenagers and their parents lumbered into the glade in front of the Hay's cottage. The boys’ father whacked the backs of their heads.

‘Lads, make yourselves useful. Scout the edge of the barnyard. Check if there's any grub lying about, dimwits, any grub at all.’

The youngest one with the squeaky voice, Dell Waddle, fired a pebble from his catapult at the window, missing the glass by a good two feet. He prised the rickety gate off its hinges and tapped on the door with a long willow branch.

‘Hello. Anybody...’

No answer.

His brother, Ben, loped past him and barged the door with his shoulder. The stink of death propelled him out, and he careened backwards over the woodpile. The ginger-haired whiner inched in, holding his nose.

‘Paw. They’re toast.’

‘Cover your gobs, lads, and put your mitts on. Drag them stiffs out, useless morons, drag them out, dump them on yonder woodpiles. We’ll torch them later.’

‘Look, Maw. Nosh.’

‘Ron, did you ever clap your mince pies on such lush mushrooms?’

Hidden under her sister Robyn's cork kayak, propped up against the back wall, Holly shivered both from fear and cold. When the Waddles trooped inside, she popped her head out from under the canoe.

Through the window, Dell was cramming handfuls of Mum’s pest-repelling fungi into his mouth.

Holly stared, aghast.

‘Don’t swallow the toadstools. They’re…'

But no sounds came out.


Within minutes, the boy lurched out, doubled over.

‘Maw, I feel…'

A loud vomiting interrupted Dell’s wail. A gush of blood spewed out before he crumpled, twitching on the grass.

Even though she shouldn’t have, Holly’s kindness took over, and she scrambled out.

Ida Waddle startled at her abrupt arrival, especially at the girl’s lengthy white neck Mother maintained was proof of immunity, but Holly elbowed the gawping woman aside.

‘Don’t touch his mouth. Turn him on his side.’

Holly selected a jar of Ella’s salt water and rosemary elixir from a basket of bottles which hung from the rafters and drained it down the lad’s throat with a rubber tube. Once he emptied the contents of his stomach, she mashed blue bread mould and honey into tiny balls, poked them through his cracked lips and held his jaws shut until the mixture dissolved.

The seizure gave way to occasional tics, while the rest of his people observed ogle eyed.

‘Are you a hexed?’

Holly wasn’t clear what Ida meant.


The Waddles soon forgot about the near tragedy and peered around the kitchen for other titbits to eat. They drank Father’s fermenting apple juice Mother was keeping for the spring festival.

‘Despite the two-day-long hangover, your dear father loved a good Granny Smith wine, that’s for sure.’

‘Mum. Why do we have to learn all this?’

‘Holly and Poppy Hay. One day, you'll thank me.’

Holly wasn’t certain if she was grateful for having saved the boy’s life, for in the following three hours, they scoffed all the dried fish, salted boar and smoked venison.

The Hay family had enough garden vegetables to last a season, her parents were always proud of saying. Next to five apple crushing stompers, rock hard acorn flour scones, baked apricots and walnuts were hidden away from the rats under a pile of plastic bags salvaged from a run-aground river barge.

The boy’s mother, Ida, checked Holly over.

‘Them bites. Can’t stand bedbugs, me. You can kip on that lousy mattress. We’ll have the hammocks.’

All night long, Holly imagined snuggling up to her sisters in the flames whenever the Waddles lit the woodpiles. Ella’s homemade lavender perfume wafted from the pillows. She scanned every book on the shelves she and Poppy had devoured; Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, Walden, Woodland Life.

‘Mum, Ella, Poppy, Robyn. Please take me with you.’

***

The timid dawn sun caught Holly whetting a flat witch’s stone from the River Adder against the granite outcrop Father used as a jetty for his skiff.

‘Horrible hateful boys. I hate you, I despise you, I detest you,’ she recited as a rosary. When the edge got sharp enough to slice a blade of grass in two, she sheared her head and other places where new hair was sprouting. However, Dell and Ben soon found alternative body parts to torture. Ears, nose, fingernails being their favourite.

They bullied her constantly that first day.

‘Holly, bring this, take that.’

Even when she collapsed exhausted, they would tickle her feet till she vomited. In the corner where Ron Waddle tied her up, Holly hugged her knees, swayed back and forth, gulped down her tears and sang.

‘Flow the air of the south, soaring with grace.

Rush the breeze...’

‘Stop that evil racket.’

Holly rubbed her face where Ben Waddle slapped her.

‘Stupid hexed. You know warbling spreads the fever.’

Dell joined in. ‘You are the ugliest, whiniest monster in this stinking wood.’

When they ganged up on her, Ron did little to intervene, unless she was in real physical danger, more to keep her from being too battered to work than anything else.

‘Skinhead misfit.’

Ben pointed at her extra toes and the flap of skin joining them.

‘Cop a gander at her webs. Just like the rest of her lousy pack.’

Holly wept, seeing her family still on the woodpile.

Ron Waddle started leering at her and whipped her until she chopped enough firewood to cook. The Waddles were useless Townies and treated her like a servant. Only Holly understood how to ignite the wood stove, where to look for eggs, forage for food, what herbs to eat. Ben crept up on her when she was washing up and hit her if she sang.

The Hay Family Ensemble was a vocal group until the new law outlawed music and Father was arrested. Mother and the girls used to go to the gnarled beech near the fifth pool in the middle of the forest to make up melodies. After leaving prison, Hannibal Hay was too scared, too scarred to join them, but sometimes, on the path back, accordion reels jigged their way through the forest until the alarm bells he set up alerted him.

He always hid his instrument before they arrived.


Every time Holly passed by the pile, Poppy’s six-toed feet sticking out had blackened a little more. She refused to light the bonfire before doing the ritual Mother, Ella, and Robyn taught her. It had to be done right, or they weren’t properly dead. But the Waddles wouldn’t let her sing. More than hated it, they trembled at the sound. Ida spanked her whenever she tried.

‘How could anyone love a banshee that wails so and looks like you, with your snake neck and your six… whatever they are?’

Although Holly grew up sheltered from this type of comments, she was aware of the suspicion different looking people aroused in Townies. Every moment that passed by without her family’s funeral was an affront to her. To shield the smell, she threw honeysuckles, violets and sweet peas on top of her mother and sisters. She would find the means to send them off in a fashion they deserved. The same loving way they bade farewell to Father.

After she prepared the Waddle’s lunch, Holly trudged into the cider press to fill up the flagon. Ron Waddle had already drunk the contents of the wooden barrel behind the house Father had put aside to make apple vinegar for curing the fish. In the last days of the second plague before the collapse of the government, they banned strong drink as some religious fanatics declared alcohol exacerbated the symptoms, but Father swore by the healing properties of apples.

Ida and Ron tossed Father’s accordion and all the books on top of the bodies, which were, by then, giving off the rich aroma of decomposing flesh.

‘That pong’s turning my gut. Let’s light up, burn them stiffs, my brood, burn them crispy like. Where is that goofy geek?’

‘Once we get it started, Paw, shall we chuck the little webbed-footed mutant on as well?’

The Waddle adults went to town with Father’s liquor. The violence that Mother always warned her accompanied strong drink seized them. They swore at each other, at the boys, but mostly at her. She hid under the canoe again where they’d never think of searching.


Holly waited till the Waddles keeled over and, following paths only she knew, fled into the forest. Although she made out drunken shouts, if they were after her, there was one hiding place she’d be safe in.

The cave behind the waterfall where Holly Hay sat alone was once a haven the Hays used whenever a fast thaw threatened to flood their house.

Childish figures of stick men and women dancing round a fire, words of forbidden songs, Father’s portrait Poppy made of leaves and swan feathers, adorned the walls. The crashing water formed a splash pool fifteen feet deep, filtering gradually into seven smaller lagoons further downstream before weaving into the River Adder.

Holly often swam with the swans in the fifth pond in which Father had reared grayling for foodstuff. The ‘gilded lady of the stream’, as he called it, was one of their staple food. Because of the fish’s shimmering yellow scales, Father joked he was feeding them gold to keep the girls’ hair honey blonde.

As the surrounding trees and the roar of the fall absorbed the sound outside of the clearing, nobody overheard their songs. This secret cavern was where the Hay sisters slipped away to sing. Where Mother told Holly her favourite story.


A female swan drifted too close to a pylon and plummeted to earth. In a nest by the cascade, her single egg lay unhatched, unloved, at the mercy of predators, until a heavily pregnant woman discovered it and cradled it between her breasts and her belly.

Four weeks later, the cygnet hatched the same morning as her twin babies. Holly Hay was born with two extra vertebrae, a sign of immunity, according to her mother.

‘The bugs will perish before they worm down that gorgeous neck.’

When Holly picked up the voices chanting Mother’s song, her arm hairs prickled.

‘Flow the air of the south,

Rush the breeze...’

Robins, wood warblers and song thrushes flocked round, the baby swans nodded in time, the surface of the pond rippled.

Five white-clad figures climbed out from behind the gnarled tree.

***

As if she were stalking a deer, Holly wrapped herself in giant marsh ferns and darted between moss-carpeted boulders down to the pond.

Such music.

Where did they arrive from? So, the Hays weren't the only family who sang. But every time Holly peeped out to snatch a glimpse, they vanished, the sweet-sounding airs dissipating like a dandelion’s seed head. When she edged round to crawl her way back to the cave, they started up afresh.

Holly leapt up from behind her hiding place.

‘Hello.’

The cygnets in the pool swivelled their necks at her cry before resuming their daily task of sucking up the pond weed.

A contrasting melody filtered over from the opposite riverbank. How did they move so fast? If the Waddles discovered them, they’d shoot them with their slingshots. She would have to be very prudent not to be caught, but the sound entranced her, ensnared her, rooted her to the spot.

Where did they come from?

Who were they?

Holly hummed a song Mother lulled her to sleep with. The five singers waded over to the bank, near to where Holly was squatting. They looked her up and down, stroked her neck, and pointed to theirs.

‘You’re like me.’

When the music ban took root, Holly’s grandfather, who was a bagpiper in the family group, coached them all how to imitate the instrument’s patterns with their voices.

‘Your singing reminds me of Pops.’

Once again, she started the lullaby. One by one, they added textures to Holly’s tune. Not simple harmonies, but intricate honeyed embroidery. Fun cheery trills. Impossible grace-notes.

However, all the communication was by nods, smiles, and hand signals. They uttered no words.

‘Maybe they're dumb.’

When Holly turned round to pick up a twig to scrape a drawing in the mud, they melted away. She sat tight, waiting, but they didn’t reappear. The birds hushed.


Bursting out of the thicket, Dell and Ben pinned her to the ground, tied her up and dragged her back to the house.

‘You’ll be nursing more than a slapped arse, much more, if you ever beetle off like that again.’ Ron blew on his reddened hands. ‘Now, kindle them fires and let’s get shot of the stench of your putrid family.’

‘I won't. You’ll have to kill me.’

Father always maintained his apple brandy was the strongest in the valley. Ron Waddle, obviously worse for wear, lurched towards her with a length of rope.

‘Don’t tempt me, sunshine, do not tempt me.’

They trussed her up against the bonfires and tried to coax a flame out of two bamboo stalks. With that wood, they would be rubbing for days.

A high-pitched note rang out over the Adder.

‘What the hell’s that?’ Ida scanned the water for the source of the noise.

‘The swans, idiot, just the swans.’ Ron’s narrow blood-shot eyes blinked with the reflected light.

‘Swans don’t make sounds, you oaf, you clod, you nincom...’

Holly cowered as Ron raised his fist.

‘You cheeky little b...’

Mid-punch, he clapped his hand over his mouth, as a second descant from behind the shack joined in, a semitone above the first.

The glass in the windows cracked. The fillings in Ron’s teeth splintered.

A third voice echoed down the chimney. Ida soiled her already filthy dress. Dell and Ben clutched their backsides as they fled through the forest.

A fourth.

A fifth.

***

Ringed by undulating highlands, below a gloomy sky, by the River Adder, the beech forest is still leaf bare. November’s showers left the floor of the woodland full of mulching undergrowth and spring’s thaw is several heartbeats away yet.

‘A fire-risk.’ Mother's constant watchword. ‘Winter will be deep and harsh.’

Holly squats by the riverbank, rhythmically rubbing two beech twigs together over a heap of pine needles, animal droppings, birch bark and dried dandelion fluff. The bouquet of dung, herbs, and flowers blends with the smoke as the melody of her leaving lament skims over the water.

‘… vast ridges, I see,

lofty peaks I will scale

the tracks, the scree,

The crests beneath the spray…’

In the thrushes’ and wood warblers’ songs, the barking of the foxes, the slapping of the stream against the shore where the flames are catching, the noises of her life up till that moment still resound. When Holly was little, Mother would strap her hands to the bedpost.

‘Don't pick the scabs. They’ll bleed.’

Despite her father making balm from beeswax pellets, hazelnut oil mixed with pine kernel butter, Holly screamed with anguish and itching. Before putting her to bed, he sprinkled her with baking soda and salt. To no avail. Every night, after their parents dropped off, her sisters loosened the knot, kissed Holly’s oozing wounds, sang her a lullaby in the forbidden way.

‘We are all here, my tiny one

We are all here, my joy, my treasure…’


Humming that very same chorus, her new friends bid farewell and drift to the piles of wood where her family lies still, scrubbed spotless, resplendent in their finest dresses. Silver-grey wisps from the funeral pyres shield the sun as Holly heaves Father's dinghy into the river and floats downstream, her sisters’ harmonies echoing on through the crackling flames.

Five orphan cygnets, the tail end of their down just cast, manoeuvre round the last remnants of ice, hoovering the riverbed for pondweed.

They are coming of age.

As is she.

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