The ancient mariner’s face was as scratched and weather-worn as the inn’s façade, like a creature fabricated from the building itself. Ink-stained skin hinted of stories both exotic and hazardous, of a life well-lived in the arms of his favourite mistress, the sea. From my perch I beckoned the gnarled innkeeper for a second ale, the viscous liquid swallowing what bare light penetrated that murky place. Then gathering courage, I approached the venerable character, sliding my offering across the cold and greasy table to his salt-encrusted hands. I took the bench opposite without a word.
The mariner took up his ale and drank, never glancing at me all the while. Foam dribbled haphazardly down his chin into the tangled, grey beard. I studied his features and garments, comparing them to the description I had memorised. But the information was shabby and ill-preserved through its multitude of carriers, and I was learning that many old folk wore lines on their countenance that hid their true features. Yet I had to try.
“Are you The Mariner?” I queried, in sotto voce. “He who shot the Albatross?”
The man I faced paused only a moment, then returned to swallowing his thick ale. I waited patiently, hoping for an end to my search, my treacherous heart quickening.
“I hear the call of an albatross is shrill, piercing to the mind and soul,” I continued. “It is not for one such as I to judge, if a man should find himself harried by such sound… and seeks its end.” The man’s thick eyebrows raised at this, but he made no other indication towards me. I ploughed on in optimism.
“Perhaps there is more to the story than has been told? Please know, I seek enlightenment only for my own sake.” At this, the ancient released a sound like the bark of a sea lion. I was taken aback, more so when I realised this huffing was, in fact, a form of laughter. I sat back roughly, vexed and discouraged.
“No, no,” the ancient creaked, his barks subsiding to the gruff tones of a salt-burned larynx. “Peace, boy,” he placated, setting aside his emptied glass. His rheumy eyes peered cannily from the depths of his face. “Forgive a man his levity. Much I encounter amuses me, these days. You wish to find Coleridge’s man?” I nodded. Was it he? His knotted fingers beckoned slyly. Of course.
A moment, then I retrieved and tossed to him a shiny, silver crown, cleaned of filth to catch the eye – and tongue – of its receiver. He grinned his rotted teeth, and swiftly pocketed the coin about his person. I leaned closer, expectantly.
“I am not He,” the mariner pronounced, dashing my hopes upon those unrelenting rocks of despair. “But –” I paused in rising, searching those eyes for some faint promise. “You may wish to seek a place I know, where winds blow foul odours, sweet and pungent. I visited once, and recommend it not.
“Would you hear the tale?”
This story is a response to the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly competition, Furious Fiction. For August 2019 there were six specific descriptions that had to be included in the 500 word response, with one of the descriptions in the first sentence. They received over 1400 responses, so the fact that I didn’t win… I don’t mind.
I love the Furious Fiction competition. The first Friday of every month a new theme is posted, then you have 55 hours to submit a 500 word story, with the hope of winning $500. A number of shortlisted stories are posted online, along with the winner, and recently they have begun a longlist of authors as well. My current ambition is to reach the longlist. But I also love the challenge. It gets my creative juices flowing. Participating in Furious Fiction, along with some other exercises I’ll talk about later, was what got me back into writing.
I hope you follow the link and enjoy the other stories as much as I did.
Perhaps you’ll have a go next month yourself?
PS: Yes I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as my inspiration here. Check it out.