From the Circus to the Sea

Callanish always knew when the storms were coming, because the graces told her. Under clear skies they stayed silent in their cages, their movement slowing as they starved. But when storms were due they couldn’t be at rest. They’d pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stuck out at defensive angles. Callanish couldn’t help but feel their disquiet.

The morning slipped by in silence, broken only by the shift and coo of the graces. Callanish spent most of it on the front porch of the house, sitting right at the edge, feet tucked under herself so they wouldn’t touch the water. The sea here was busy with fish, but Callanish would not catch them. She knew that fish had to eat something, and all living things grew from dead things, and there was no point being squeamish about it. But it was different when you had seen the bodies, when you knew their names, when you had laid them to rest with your own hands. In eating the fish, Callanish would have felt that she was eating the bodies. Sometimes, she had to laugh: surrounded by a fish-rich sea, she had enough food and water to last her a lifetime, but she could have none of it.

A Resting was due that afternoon, so after her morning of silence Callanish went inside to prepare. The grace was ready; when she entered the house he was huddled in the corner of his cage, head under his wing, feathers puffling around the metal bars. He seemed to know that this was the closest he’d ever get to the sky.

‘I know the feeling,’ said Callanish to the grace, and she dropped five sunflower seeds into the cage. She wasn’t supposed to feed the graces, but she believed that some people deserved a longer remembrance. She’d already met some of the crew who were coming for the Resting, and her stomach clenched to think of the quickness in their smiles, their relief when they saw that the grace was so small. Real grief, and Callanish didn’t feed the grace. Those people didn’t need the grace’s death to tell them when mourning was over. Ships rarely came back to check the graces anyway; the birds were bred to be tiny and they could not live long, caged without food or fresh water. Callanish didn’t feel bad about her occasional feeding of the graces. It was such a small crime.

This is an extract from my novel-in-progress, The Gracekeeper. I started the research in March, while doing the rewrites on another novel, Rust and Stardust. For my research I read about circuses and carnivals, island geology and the sociology of isolation, British folklore and the mythology of King Arthur, bereavement practices and funeral rites, coastline erosion and maritime superstition and storms at sea. I loved every minute. After six months of research, I was ready to start writing.

The Gracekeeper is set in a flooded world where the only land left is a series of tiny archipelagos. The novel has two protagonists: North is a bear-girl on a decrepit circus boat, and Callanish is a Gracekeeper, which is something between a hermit and an undertaker. The scenes on the circus boat, the ones from North’s point of view, slipped easily into the rhythms of my normal life. I live in Glasgow, on a main road, constantly surrounded by the noise of traffic, ringing phones, passersby, sirens, my cat yowling, and my girlfriend popping in and out of the kitchen to make tea. I’m used to people and noise, and that chaos was perfect to get into the mindset of North’s world, both backstage at the circus and belowdecks on a cramped boat. (I don’t have a bear, but the constant demands for food and trail of fluff from my cat were enough to let me pretend.)

The scenes from the point of view of Callanish, the Gracekeeper, were trickier. She lives a simple and lonely life on a floating house in the middle of the sea, surrounded by dying birds and disintegrating corpses. I could joke here about that not being a million miles away from daily life in Glasgow. But the truth is that I’m not used to silence. I’m not used to isolation. I’m used to my girlfriend’s warm feet in bed and a constant stream of strangers outside my window and my phone beeping with texts and tweets and emails. None of these things were a part of Callanish’s world, and I couldn’t cut the ties holding me to my noisy life. I needed to get away.

To get into Callanish’s world, I planned to spend October alone in a cottage by the sea, writing and reading and immersing myself in my made-up world. So as September came to a close, I cancelled every one of my responsibilities and ran away, from the circus to the sea.

I stayed in a seaside chalet twenty steps from the beach. At high tide, the approach to the bridge was swallowed by sea. At low tide, the sand stretched out ahead of me, silver gleams of water caught where it had lingered too long on the sand.

Every morning I made coffee and stood with my bum against the heater until I could unhunch my shoulders, then wrote all day. When I needed to remind myself about this world I was creating, I went outside. I stood on the deserted beach, the sea lapping at my boots, and cupped my hands around my eyes like binoculars. The only sound was the constant shush of the sea. It was easy to pretend that the entire world had been flooded, that I was the only person still alive, that this tiny foothold of land was the only steady thing left on the whole planet.

Every evening I walked along the beach as the sun set, my nose running with cold and my fingers numb in my coat pockets, and I felt so full of joy that I could have cried. For my work, for my life, for my mum, for my girlfriend, for my dad because it’s just over a year since he died and I still don’t know what to do with those emotions. Soon after the tide had retreated the sand felt steady, but if I walked too close to a rock my boot would sink three inches into sandy slush; I’d pull it out with a schluuuuuck, feeling the sea slipping through the lace-holes. The green and black seaweed made the rocks into a fairy landscape: moats, rivers, caverns; all in miniature.

Every night I slept soundly, ocean-lulled, and woke to wood pigeons, which in my head I call whippoorwills, though I’m not sure they’re the same type of bird. I felt like myself. I felt that I’d found a new world, and found myself anew within it.

I made a great start on the novel, writing 20,000 words in two weeks. Coming home was like waking from a dream. I’d missed home – its noise, its drama, its pace and intensity and colour. I’d missed my girlfriend’s warm feet in bed. But I’ve tried to write Callanish since coming home, and it’s difficult. The words won’t flow. It’s hard to slip into that imaginary world when it’s so far from the world around me. When I was in a chilly cabin with the sea shushing at my window, loneliness made sense. I miss the cold mornings and being the last person still alive.

I’ve learned how to be alone, how to tell stories in the isolated world I made. Now, to keep writing, to keep moving forwards, I need to learn isolation in a crowd; the intimacy of silence.

“With the crowd’s applause still ringing in her ears, North settled the bear in the shell of their boat. After performances he needed to be groomed, fed, soothed. She’d worked hard to get him used to the golden chains, but he knew they weren’t natural and shuddered back from them every time. North had never hurt him, and never would. Other animals could learn by cruelty: jewelled whips for ponies, short-bladed knives in the haunches of lions. But that would not work on bears. They learned steadily, through rapport, a dialogue built up over years. The problem was that her bear seemed to barely remember her from day to day. She believed that he loved her, but he sometimes looked at her as if she were a stranger.

Faulty memory, like everyone said, and that’s why North’s job was so hard, but also why she had a place in the circus at all. There were many circus boats – all of them less decrepit than the Excalibur – but none of the others had a Bear Girl. In a world with such little land, a non-farmable mammal as large as a bear was a rarity. And that meant that North was a rarity too.

She went to tug closed the coracle’s canvas top, then pushed it back instead, letting the night’s chill soothe her tired eyes. The wind was strong enough to cover all other sounds: the chatter from the other coracles, the lazy slap of waves on hulls, the distant shush of leaves from the centre of the island.

Above her, the stars outshone the meagre lights on the land. All the answers lay up there to those who knew how to see. Without knowledge of the sky, no one would know where to find safe port, when to sail hard and when to seek anchor. North gave her prayers to the stars and the tides, just as she did every night. They deserved worship for being the only reliable things in the world. Except, perhaps, for one other.

North fastened the canvas and slid under her bear’s warm frontpaw. His heart beat a thud-a-thud against her back as she let the waves rock them both to sleep.”

Kirsty will be reading from the novels Rust & Stardust and The Gracekeeper at these upcoming events:
Wed 21 November // 6pm // Scotland House, Brussels (with William Letford & Allan Radcliffe)
Sun 25 November // 6.30pm // Lovecrumbs, West Port, Edinburgh (with Elaine di Rollo)
Tue 27 November // 7pm // CCA, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow (with David Vann & Regi Claire)