THE SHITBIRD SHACK

Twelve men, good and true, they fled persecution and the effeminate decadence of Europe in search of a truer, Godly way. For many months they sailed the tropical ocean that lay south of the Known World, until at last they beached upon a tiny island, one that had been previously visited (and promptly forgotten) by the Portuguese. Here they established their settlement - setting to work with righteous fervour, hewing houses from the native timber, finding sources of fresh water, learning to kill and cook the flightless fowl that populated the island. Life was good; and the Lord saw that it was good.

They lived thus for several weeks before it fully dawned on them that something crucial had been overlooked: they had neglected to bring any women. And once this realisation had lodged itself in their hearts, they fell into doleful depressions, becoming surly and frustrated and unwilling to labour. As time wore on they began to perceive feminine curves in such abstract things as the twist of a tree trunk, the downy breast of a bird, the curl of a wave on shore; and their frustration grew by degrees. Within their immediate means were two possible remedies, but one was a mortal sin and the other an outright abomination, so neither could be countenanced. In the end, they opted for a third solution: they demolished their dwellings, using the remains to repair their ruined boat, and set sail once more upon the epic blue. They would seek out other places, where female companionship awaited: and nothing was going to stop them.

 

Mauritius, 1679

 

 

Warm water, clearer than air, washed gently over milk white sands, lapping a northern bay of another island discarded by wandering Portuguese. Dara Seitz, waded in up to her knees, braced herself against the soft sucking of the tide and hauled on the thick rope that would draw her father’s tiny fishing skiff up onto the beach. She wore somewhat masculine attire – short breeches and an outsize doublet – but there was no mistaking her feminine curves or the torrent of blonde hair that streamed in the slight breeze, glittering like spun threads of gilded silk. Dara was twenty years old, and possessed of a subtle beauty that stole upon one like certain types of music: if on first sight it made little impact, repeated exposure would leave such an indelible impression that you would find yourself puzzled as to why you were not smitten instantly. It was a beauty synthesized from contrasting details: a long face with a firm, heavily rounded jaw; a delicately pert little nose; a high forehead; a narrow, gently downturned mouth, always slightly open to reveal prominent front teeth. Dara’s pellucid pale blue eyes were small, slightly almond shaped, spaced rather wide apart. Her look was serious but not stern, and hinted at dreams and depths not yet fully articulated: it was a look that made one wonder, and with time might turn that wonder to fascination.

Dara was strong; as good a worker as most men, and this was a source of both pride and puzzlement to her father. Defined muscles in her upper arms and calves could be glimpsed as she secured the boat, and its netted, silvery thrashing bounty. In truth Dara was not entirely comfortable with the idea of being a woman, and when she laboured it was easy for her to forget the burden of her sex. Unfortunately, on certain days, she could be forcibly reminded - this was to be one such day.

Task completed, she trudged up the beach, above the tideline where her father stood, watching with paternal appreciation.

“A good haul, my stripling – should make it worth our while coming this far.”

“Only if they stay fresh,” Dara countered. “We ought to be getting back to the Settlement right away, not stopping off here.”

“We have time,” said Herr Seitz patiently. “Besides, I haven’t been to this part of the island for years.”

Dara caught the vaguely wistful tone in his voice. She touched his arm lightly.

“Did… you used to come here with Mama?”

“Yes, back when we were courting. I used to row her out here – we were always looking to get as far away from the Settlement as we could. We imagined this was our very own secret place.”

“I wish…” began Dara uncertainly, “I wish I remembered her.”

He patted her arm tenderly. “You were too young, Little One – no need to worry over God’s plan for us. But this was a good place for secrets: in fact, I’ll show you one.”

His arm in hers he led her above the sands, to the tangled fringe of vegetation that would, if they continued, merge imperceptibly into thick forest. Unerringly, Herr Seitz located a small mound of dried and compacted grasses, hollowed at the top so that it resembled a miniature volcano. Its shape had become blurred by time and erosion, but was still quite distinct. Within the hollow were several smooth pebbles, and fragments of white that could have been eggshell.

“Looks like a nest,” observed Dara, faintly disappointed.

“You’ll find them all over this part of the island, if you look hard enough, especially in the wooded areas. All long abandoned, just crumbling into nothingness – who knows what kind of creature made them?”

Dara frankly didn’t much care. All she wanted was to get home, and dispose of their catch. They were in the process of sliding the skiff back into the surf when it happened. There was no actual pain: it merely felt as though some giant fist had grabbed a hold of her stomach muscles, and pulled. She folded up like paper, finding herself abruptly on all fours in the hissing foam, feeling curious empathy for the trapped fish still twitching helplessly in the net. She looked up to see her father’s concerned face peering down from the boat. She essayed a wan smile, but he just shook his head.

“It’ll be the Shack for you, m’dear,” he said sadly.

*

Once more at sea, the group’s situation soon deteriorated further. Tropical storms ambushed them, snapping off masts as if they were twigs and spinning their vessel round like a top, until all sense of direction and control had been lost. They began to drift helplessly, unable to effect repairs, lapsing into despair that caused them to use up precious provisions.

The sky continued to abuse them. Having hurled monstrous winds and driving rains at them, it now cleared abruptly, throwing down merciless burning sunlight from glaring, empty blue. Parched and blistered by day, by night they were plagued by distressing, demonic dreams. In these dreams the women they longed for, for whom they had made such a sacrifice, were transmuted into red-eyed succubi, leading them on with false visions of Paradise; sapping their strength with sinful nocturnal visitations.

Francis, the leader, struggled to keep his band together. He instituted strict rationing, but even so, one by one the supplies ran out, including fresh water. A man fell sick, and with appalling quickness, died without a struggle. After his burial at sea a fear, raw and cold, crept upon the remainder. They fell to bickering and squabbling, which soon turned violent. A fight erupted, and by the time Francis managed to quell it, a man had been left badly injured. Improperly tended, his wounds turned septic and he too died. Bereft of food and water, the survivors contemplated the unthinkable; but they were still men of God, and thus this second corpse was interred into the deep, with all due ceremony.

They tried to fish, and they tried to snag the seabirds that occasionally wheeled about them, but fatigue, hunger and dehydration had weakened them to the point where any action requiring coordination of hand and eye was impossible. In their desperation they took to sipping seawater – tiny amounts at first, but exponentially increasing. They knew full well the consequences, but as the brine began to invade their minds, as chronic thirst became so much a part of them they could no longer distinguish it as such; thoughts of devastating clarity came collectively upon them. They realised that, for their hubris, God had abandoned them: now, they were doomed. And with that revelation, so awful and complete, there came a strange sort of peace. The end was nigh, and like animals caught in lethal traps, they were accepting.

*

The Settlement was sturdy, built with unmistakably Dutch economy. Within its high, stockade walls, four structures were particularly noteworthy: two were chapels; the third was the residence of the Governor; the fourth the home of his Deputy. Governor and Deputy attended separate chapels, in keeping with further inherently Dutch traits of duality and balance. Beyond the stockade, where grew sugar, spices and fruit, where pigs and dogs roamed semi-feral, there stood another structure; one that caught the eye only in terms of its peculiar design and physical isolation. This was The Shack, and most of the time its existence was not commented upon, or even acknowledged, by the settlers, whichever chapel they called their own.

Within the comparative opulence of the Deputy Governor’s residence, an interrogation was in progress. As ever, it involved the only negative element in an otherwise idyllic household: his eldest daughter, Lena van Pederen. It would have been somewhere around age ten that Lena had first been labelled ‘difficult’ – now she was twenty-two, but ‘difficult’ remained a prominent appellation.

Lena had the face of an angel, which was part of the problem – she seemed constantly in defiance of it. Her complexion was perfect – it put one in mind of some sort of cream-sodden dessert, and a light dusting of pale freckles only made it more exquisite. Rounded cheeks, chin and impish snub nose were all softly sketched and gorgeously feminine: her mouth was a taut longbow with near-permanent creases of a smile at the corners. Her vivid jade eyes were wide, fringed by lush dark lashes, and set beneath striking gull-wing brows. Her hair hung in wild spirals like falling fire, a gamut of tints from fired earth to flashing gold, depending upon the light. One could not flatter Lena by stating that she was beautiful – she already knew this full well.

With weary resignation, the Deputy Governor took up a small switch, hewn from native wood, and wafted it theatrically before Lena’s face.

“I will ask you one more time, child – during the time of our Great Oppression, what was the Catholic priest’s cipher for imminent danger?”

Lena shrugged sourly. “Why should I care, sweet Daddy mine? There’re no pogroms anymore, not now we have verzuilug – the Prods may still hate us, but they tolerate us. After all, does not your very position stem from heretic indulgence?”

Her father sighed, reigning in a trembling fury. With a gesture he bade his daughter bare her feet, and she lifted them so that they rested on the edge of a chair. The scything motion was altogether too practiced: at the first lash across her exposed soles, Lena flinched a fraction but was otherwise unmoved.

“The Rosary,” the Deputy Governor enunciated, emphasising each syllable with a stinging stroke, “was held in the left hand, the crucifix hung inverted. You will learn this, child: as all your younger siblings have already. For the heretics cannot be trusted, and one day it may save your life.”

Afterwards, with ironic paternal tenderness, van Pederen scooped his daughter up in his arms and gently carried her to where the penance would be completed – the Shack.

*

Francis opened his eyes with a slow, mighty effort. The sky had a soft translucence to it that spoke of pre-dawn, but that was not what had stirred him. Something was different: there was an absence; a thing missing that had previously been ubiquitous. It took his enfeebled mind some time to realise that the boat had stopped moving. Struggling to raise his head, he saw that their vessel had foundered upon a shallow reef, and beyond, rising green and miraculous, like the mountaintop after the Flood, was land.

His incoherent cries stirred the others from their stupor, and all were equally stunned to discover first that they were not dead, and second that in his mercy, the Lord had sent them deliverance. Spastically, like crippled clowns they tumbled off the boat and into the shallows, lurching over rocks and corals toward the welcoming beach. Flinging themselves across cool sand they could see the tree line – here succulent fruits hung from verdant vines, just like Eden. Surging the few final yards, they gorged themselves on sticky sweetness, offering up hosannas between mouthfuls. In His mercy, God had saved them, given them a second chance – this time they would not squander it.

*

Supported on a complex lattice of poles that ensured its floor was some three feet above ground level, the Shack had no windows, but there were narrow slots high in the walls that admitted daylight and fresh air.

Wider ones, placed lower down, permitted food and fresh linen to be slipped to the inmate(s), as well as granting access to a water trough fed from a crude butt. There were two circular holes cut into either end of the floor: the first was for simple excretion; the second dropped into a deep excavation that was periodically fired – this received whatever rags became soaked in crimson unmentionable. The single door – in actuality a mere hatch - could not be opened from the inside, once securely chained. Quite when the Shack had been built was lost to antiquity, as was the origin of its current use. All anyone could say was, back as far as could be recalled, this was where their women had been put, when the time of uncleanliness was upon them.

Dara was of course intimately aware of her own cycle, and normally it failed to coincide with any other of the Settlement females. Thus she was shocked, once her father had gently ushered across the threshold, to perceive a figure already within. As the door slammed behind her she blinked in the sudden gloom, trying to make out the face.

“Well, look what the tide washed in,” said a golden yet cynical voice. “The fisherman’s daughter who wants to be a son.”

“Lena van Pederen,” replied Dara, with wary resignation. “It can’t possibly be your time.”

“Of course not: I had a fight with Daddy. This is his new tactic, to put me in here when I get vexatious, whether I’m bleeding or not.”

Another vicious cramp seized Dara, crumpling her to the floor. When the spasm passed she cautiously picked a piece of rag off the pile and stuffed it into her breeches. Making herself as comfortable as she could, she awaited the humiliating, inevitable seepage.

“I hate this place,” she muttered. “It smells.”

“That’s because of the birds,” said Lena sagely. “They used to hang them here in winter.”

“Birds?” Dara’s curiosity was suddenly piqued. “What birds?”

“The walghvogels – the shitbirds – I believe the English call them ‘dodos’. Despite what everyone thinks, people really did used to eat them: they would be salted and kept here for winter foodstuffs. Even after all these years, you can still smell their flesh.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Because, dear, my daddy just happens to be Deputy Governor of this island, in case you’d forgotten. He has records going back even to the original colony. I like to rummage in his bureau while he’s away, read the old documents– you learn all sorts of interesting things.”

“Yes – it seems you Papists have plenty of time for anything other than work.”

“Oh, my: prickly when the moontide is upon us, aren’t we? Under the rules of verzuiling I could sanction you for that, but I will be merciful. For I am nobility, and you, dear Dara, are a mere peasant.”

Dara knew, from painful experience, that trading insults with Lena was akin to goading a shark. Nonetheless, she was about to unleash a venomous riposte when the cramps intervened – the most vicious seizure yet. She exhaled violently, through clenched teeth, sagging forward. As she did so, she caught the light from the upper slats falling across her ersatz companion, and what she saw almost drove her own discomfiture from her mind.

Lena had been crying. Broad, faintly glittering streaks of salt besmirched those perfect cheeks; the green eyes, still moist, were fringed with raw red. Glancing down, Dara saw how awkwardly Lena was sat, with her knees drawn against her bosom and her feet lifted off the floor. The soles were swollen and distorted, stripes of scarlet soreness flaring angrily across them. Despite herself, Dara experienced a wave of sympathy for Lena’s obvious pain.

“What… happened to you?” she inquired, haltingly.

Lena shrugged in the half-light. “Daddy knows many ways to punish me – and I’m a very bad girl.”

As she said this, fresh tears crawled discreetly down her face. If Dara had one weakness, it was that she could not bear to see another human being in distress. Spurred to action, she picked a rag off the pile and dipped it into the water-trough. With decisive jerks of her wrists she wrung it, then grabbed one of Lena’s ankles and pressed the cool cloth beneath her arch.

“This should help the swelling,” she said, gently dabbing the tender, ruched flesh. Lena, too taken aback to resist, sighed softly as her stinging pain was immediately eased.

“That’s… kind,” she whispered, uncertainly. She reached out, and lightly touched Dara’s cheek. Dara tried to smile, but it crinkled into a grimace as fresh waves of gut-wrenching agony assailed her.

“We’re a pair, aren’t we?” Lena sighed. “I can’t walk, and you can’t stay upright – how in Our Lady’s name are we going to manage?”

At that moment, gasping for air, Dara didn’t really care – all she craved was some distraction from her discomfort. She clutched desperately at a passing thought.

“These shitbirds,” she inquired feebly, “where did they make their nests?”

*

Tentatively, the group began to move off the beach, and explore the island’s interior. They had no way of knowing whether the place was uninhabited, or populated by savages. Indeed, it was not entirely impossible that they had come full circle, and washed up upon the shores from which they’d fled, a seeming eternity ago. The terrain rose steeply, plunging into dense dappled forest; but compensation came in the form of fresh water, trickling over moss-encrusted rocks into meandering streams of silver. They stuck their faces in the precious fluid and drank and drank until their stomachs could take no more, and it spewed from their mouths in crystalline vomit.

Later Francis, foraging on his own, made a discovery that proved beyond doubt they were on new territory. Slipping through the undergrowth like some unkempt, half-naked shadow, he came into a clearing and face-to-face with the most extraordinary creature he had ever seen. It was a bird, roughly the size of a domestic fowl, yet so obscenely fat it resembled some absurd plumped-up cushion, festooned in fine down of pale grey and umber. Curling, snow white plumes adorned the ridiculously atrophied wings and tail, and the whole tottered on mustard coloured, scaly feet that were sturdy enough but too small for such grotesque bulk. The massive head was likewise out of proportion to the body, and would have been fearsome had it not been attached to such a ludicrous corpus. The naked face, a pale bottle green, tapered into a colossal bill sheathed in ivory yellow horn. The overall effect was like some bastard offspring of a lammergeyer and a turkey, and Francis recognised it immediately for what it was. This could only be one of the Almighty’s failed experiments - a discard from the perfection of Eden.

The thing regarded him with vacant, cyan-irised eyes, but seemed to have no fear. It aroused in him an intense mixture of contempt and disgust, as well as a more primal urge. For though outside of accepted Creation, this blasphemy was unquestionably composed of meat: something he had not tasted in weeks. With a sudden surge he sprang forward, delivering a thunderous kick to the creature’s flank. It tumbled over, cawing in distress, and feebly tried to peck him with that ponderous bill. He lunged, grabbed its neck, and with a swift wrenching movement broke it. Suddenly the thing was limp and heavy in his arms, and he was moved to tears of triumphant ecstasy. He carried his prize back to his companions, and with their bare hands they ripped the bulbous carcass apart and guzzled the soft flesh, raw and bloody. Such niceties of civilisation as cooking and carving could wait: for now all they could countenance was survival.

*

In the afternoon heat the Shack became a stifling, airless box. High scented and sweating, the girls became fractious, their brief truce of mutual suffering smothered by enforced confinement.

“You’re so unladylike,” Lena snapped suddenly, apropos nothing. “Why do you have to dress up like a man, hauling on ropes with the common navvies? They despise you, you know – snickering behind their hands at ‘Dara the boy-girl, who’ll never land a husband’

“So what? I have things to do, and it’s better than mooning about the stockade like some courtesan – I’ve seen you, with your fan and your palatine, waiting for the ships to come in so you can give every passing sailor the eye. You daughters of the Madonna are all harlots.”

“Why you impudent little sow – I should box your ears for that.”

“Try it, I’ll break your arm,” Dara spat. All through this exchange, she was aware of her anger increasing even as her cramps abated, but she did not fully appreciate the significance until she felt a slow, sticky trickling across her inner thighs. Glancing down, she started as she saw a vast crimson stain spreading out across the crotch of her breeches, the feeble rag hopelessly overwhelmed.

“Good grief,” snorted Lena, who had just noticed the scale of the disaster, “You look like a mortally wounded cabin-boy.”

“I’m such a mess,” Dara wailed. “What am I going to do?”

“Well first off, you’re going to take off those britches so we can clean you up.”

As decisively as Dara earlier, Lena grabbed a clean cloth and began to soak it. Dara glanced up fearfully.

“You can’t be serious.”

Lena rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Seitz, you may think you’re a man, but you’re not – you won’t have anything down there that’s going to make me swoon. Now be a good girl and get ‘em off.”

Awkward and ashamed, Dara did as bidden, trying to keep her legs positioned in such a way as to deny Lena a view of anything. Lena was smiling wickedly as she handed her the damp cloth, and Dara hung her head as she dabbed at her crotch in a delicate, ludicrously ladylike manner.

“Beats sitting in a drying pool of your own blood, doesn’t it?” said Lena, chuckling as she took back the cloth. She wrung it thoroughly, squirting effluent that ran like fluid rust, then examined the soiled britches. “Maybe if we boiled them, we could salvage your manhood – but in the meantime, stand up.”

She snapped her fingers, like an impatient schoolmarm. Dara rose slowly, cheeks burning, unable to look her companion in the eye. Lena briskly tore a wide strip from her own petticoat, knotting it about Dara’s waist in a manner that combined loincloth and nappy, but hung discreetly like a skirt.

“There,” she announced proudly, “now you look like a woman at last, and a fine one, too. Why pretend to be a man?”

“I had to,” said Dara dolefully. “Papa wanted a son – someone to carry on the trade, and the line. But when Mama died, all he had left was me. I’ve tried to be a help to him, but I’ve always had the burden of being not quite the thing; second-best; a mere female.”

“I don’t think you’re second best, Dara,” Lena replied softly, and for once her voice was devoid of irony. “I don’t think you’re second-best at all.”

Dara didn’t know what to say. She felt stupidly feminine and vulnerable, her continuous seepage muddling her emotions into a miasma. She curled up on the shack floor, letting the heat overwhelm her, and drifted into soft, clammy sleep.

*

They probed deep into the forests, hoping to find more of the fat birds, for though their soft flesh was insipidly flavourless, they were nonetheless the easiest of game. But the creatures proved frustratingly elusive, to the point where Francis wondered if he had not, in his desperate hunger, conjured them from the recesses of his own imagination. And then, one morning, foraging solo as he preferred, he made a second, even more significant discovery. Barreling out from thick undergrowth in front of him, squealing in a mixture of fear and annoyance, was the unmistakable form of a feral pig. Francis was so stunned that he made not the slightest effort to secure the animal, which could have fed them for days. But the ramifications were not lost on him: the pig must have been brought to this place; and if it was here, then so might be people, even (dare he so much as think it?) women.

Fuelled by hope, he ran back to his fellows’ rough encampment, their manifest destiny now obvious to him. They would salvage enough timber from the boat to construct a raft, and use this to navigate around the reefs, probing the island’s shoreline until they found the settlement he now knew with absolute certainty lay waiting for them. But unfortunately, he was unable to put his plan in motion immediately, or even outline it verbally upon his return.

Before all else, he was forced to confront the matter of The Abomination.

*

The heat of the day began to ebb at last, the dipping sun turning sea and sky a pale cerise. A breeze, cool and sweet as rainwater, drifted through the slats into the shack. And with it came food, a platter stealthily placed under the hatch by a cowled figure that scuttled discreetly away.

“That was Mother,” Lena snickered. “I’d recognise her waddle anywhere.”

“I thought Papa would bring something,” Dara mused. “I hope he hasn’t forgotten me.”

“So what if he has – you can share mine. There’s too much here, anyway – I bet Mother feels guilt for letting Daddy shut me in here.”

“Why do you vex your parents so?”

Lena chewed thoughtfully. “Dunno – maybe because all my siblings are so insufferably sweet and well-behaved. Someone has to be the troublemaker.”

“Doesn’t your conscience ever bother you? Aren’t you a sinner before God?”

“You forget, dear – I’m a heretic. My sins are already forgiven, or at least they are once I confess to Pere Anders. A few Hail Marys, a bit of bowing & scraping, and my soul is pure as a newborn babe’s. I bet you Prods wish you had a system like that – might stop you being so uptight all the time.”

“You’ll go to Hell,” breathed Dara, in all sincerity. Lena snickered.

“What, for being a naughty girl? Or just for being Catholic? Anyway, you know nothing about sin, or forgiveness. Remember I told you I’d read Daddy’s records? He’s got chapel diaries, kept by former Padres, all the way back to the original settlement. You wouldn’t believe what some confessed back then: really revolting sins. Maybe I should try that one day - give Anders something really juicy to absolve me of.”

Dara snorted. “You wouldn’t dare.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that you are all mouth and no petticoat, Lena van Pederen. You act the tearaway, but I reckon that deep down, you’re pure as the Virgin herself - I bet you couldn’t commit a mortal sin, far less confess it afterward.”

Dara could sense Lena bristling in the twilight. Nothing was said, but there was a sudden and intense rustle of activity.

“What are you doing?” Dara inquired cautiously.

“Winning a bet,” was the bald reply. The next thing Dara knew, a wad of expensive taffeta had been flung full in her face.

“There,” Lena snapped, “certainly no petticoat now.”

Dara quickly disentangled herself, but immediately found herself shocked rigid: Lena had bunched her dress up around her waist, and now sat with her sturdy legs wide apart, exposing – well, everything.

“What in God’s name are you up to?” Dara hissed. She tried desperately not to look, but it was like ignoring the only picture on a bare wall, nigh on impossible.

“A mortal sin, you said. Well, I can think of one right here and now.”

Ostentatiously, she licked the fingers of one hand, then began to lower it slowly, inevitably. It was just dipping below her stomach when Dara’s own hand snapped like a whip, grasping the slender wrist.

“No,” she snapped. “Lena, you mustn’t.”

“You’re hurting me,” Lena mewled, pouting. Dara relaxed her iron grip, and Lena withdrew her wrist, rubbing it preciously with her other hand.

“Here,” said Dara, dumping the discarded petticoat in Lena’s lap. “Cover yourself – you’ve proved your point. I really believe you’re capable of anything.”

She shuffled back into a corner of the shack, as far from her cellmate as possible. Morosely she put her head in her arms and prayed for sleep and, ultimately, deliverance.

*

There was no question Herr Seitz would have taken food to his daughter, had not events overtaken him. He had been sat on the beach, mending his nets and enjoying the sunset, when his keen eyes glimpsed a dark shape that floated erratically around the distant headland. It struck him first as some inordinately large chunk of driftwood, or even a mat of floating seaweed: but as it bobbed uncertainly between the reefs, riding the incoming swell, he realised its motion was not uncontrolled. It seemed alive, with many limbs protruding from its dark centre.

The net fell from useless fingers, as it began to dawn on Seitz what he was looking at. Even so, he could only stare stupidly as the raft and its dismal human cargo pitched among the breakers, coming ever closer. At last, he jumped up, and went pelting along the beach in search of someone in authority.

*

The night brought on a strange cool that was almost chilly, the shack’s interior reducing to vague charcoal shadows that could only be perceived if you did not look at them directly. Oblivious to a commotion faintly audible from the distant settlement, Dara sat with her head buried in her arms, vainly seeking sleep.

“Dara?” Lena’s voice seemed to drift on the night breeze, carved from starlight.

“Leave me alone.”

“Look, I’m sorry I upset you – it was only a bit of fun. Are you still bleeding?”

“Of course I am – why d’ you want to know?”

“Because I want to make it up to you. That makeshift thing I put on you must be saturated by now: why not let me clean you up and change you?”

Dara considered silently. She could feel the endless seeping, the fabric about her loins drying and chafing like an old bandage.

“You mustn’t look,” she muttered.

“Hell’s bells, Dara, it’s dark – I can barely see my hand before my face, let alone your nether regions.”

Dara drew herself up into a sitting position, cautiously peeling off her erstwhile underwear. She could hear the mellifluous splash of water, and perceive Lena moving as some great, faintly luminous mass. And then suddenly, shockingly, a cold wet cloth was thrust between her legs, driving the breath from her body in a single gasp, overriding any chance of protest. The icy chill faded almost instantly, but as cloth was tenderly dabbed against her groin, it was replaced by a new sensation, at once deeply soothing yet somehow disturbing.

“Please don’t do that,” Dara whispered, unable to keep the quiver from her voice.

“Oh, stop being such a priss. I saw the way you faffed about earlier – if you’re going to get clean, I’m going to have to do it for you.”

The rag was pressed hard against her; she could feel the palm and fingers that propelled it. Dara fought to control her breathing: the blissful sensation was intensifying, spreading, making her lightheaded. Yet there was no denying the vaguely sinful edge to the feeling, that made her afraid: she thought about protesting, but no longer trusted herself to speak coherently. It was like some form of pleasurable torture, and she longed for it to end; yet, was deeply disappointed when it did.

“There: good as new, and modesty intact.”

Again Dara felt a humiliating onrush of emotion, ascribable to nothing save pure femininity.

“Thank you,” she gasped in relief. Then, hesitantly, she added: “Would you… like me to rub your feet again?”

“Do you want to?”

“Seems only fair.”

Dara’s eyes were slowly adjusting to the ashen gloom. She saw Lena lay back, her bare leg rising in a silver arc. She took hold of the foot that was now clearly visible, free from swelling and revealed in all its shapeliness as though carved from warm white marble. Gently she massaged beneath the soft arch with both thumbs, hoping Lena wouldn’t notice she was trembling.

“Mm, that’s so soothing,” Lena sighed contentedly.

“You have beautiful feet,” Dara blurted, with no clear notion as to why she said it.

“They’re too big,” Lena giggled. “Mother says I have the legs of a carthorse.”

“No - they’re beautiful,” Dara whispered. She studied the appendage before her: the smooth s-curve of its upper surface, pale veins like lightning forks standing subtly proud; the minor toes hanging curled while the big toe thrust defiantly forward; and beneath, the billows of soft flesh rippled like clouds cut from satin. Dara could not contain the feelings that raged within her, any more than she could turn back the flow from within. Faintly giddy, she turned Lena’s foot a fraction, and put her lips to the tip of her big toe. She felt Lena shiver slightly, gasping in astonishment, as she drew the toe slowly between her lips, dabbing her tongue gently against it, savouring the flavours of sand and salt spray and clean island loam. She suckled it, shameless as an infant, her eager fingers kneading the soft underflesh to pulsing butter.

“Oh Dara,” Lena moaned, “that’s so gorgeous – please don’t stop.”

Dara couldn’t stop – that was the wonder and the terror of it. Spreading the minor toes like vanes of a fan, she sucked each in turn, curling them between her lips like crayfish. Aware of nothing but her own harried breath and pounding rhythm in her breast, wrists and temples, she put out her tongue, letting it slither across the yielding corrugated sole like a snake skimming over dunes. It seemed as if, by taste alone she could tell where Lena’s feet – her precious, tender, alluring feet – had walked. With graciously efficient motion, Lena lifted her other leg, presenting Dara with a mirror image of the worshipped extremity. Grasping Lena’s ankles with long, lean fingers, Dara inverted her attentions for the new arrival: she licked her way hungrily from heel to little toe, then savoured each individual digit in increasing order. And all the while Lena sighed sweetly as a cherub supping ambrosia.

“Shall I tell you a secret?” Lena breathed. Dara didn’t trust herself to answer; didn’t trust herself with anything now: something warm was flowing from her body, not exclusively menstrual.

“You were right, earlier – I have been hanging around the beach, but it isn’t just to watch the men; and I’m certainly not pining for any scurvy sailors. I’m watching you, Dara.”

Dara froze, her grip on Lena’s ankles slackening involuntarily.

“I watched you working – longer, harder than any of them; watched your muscles tense as you hauled nets, pushed boats, stood tall in the high tide like you were part of it. And I couldn’t help wondering if capacity for toil was your only manly attribute.”

Lena shifted, with a faint rustle of clothing: Dara thought she saw a hand move stealthily.

“What are you doing?” she hissed, suddenly panicked.

“You know what I’m doing,” was the bald reply. There was a whisper of fingertips encountering faint, crackling friction, a moist sound like the splitting of soft fruit, a scent of rock pools left by the morning tide; a catch in Lena’s breath as a soft spasm rippled through her.

“No,” panted Dara, terror gripping her heart. “Lena, please, don’t…”

“You can stop me, if you want,” said Lena, voice calm but husky. “We know you’re stronger than I am.”

Dara pressed the soles of Lena’s feet to her cheeks, feeling their pliant cool but also the pulse thudding within. She closed her eyes and held her breath as Lena’s body rocked beneath her, riding a swell of its own making.

“Oh Dara, it’s beautiful,” Lena bubbled, her voice eager and childlike. “It’s like falling, and floating, being free of everything. You’re beautiful; you make me beautiful: it’s all rushing together, it’s… oh, Mother of God, it’s happening…”

Her body shook, the motion violent as waves surging on high rock, and she cried out with feverish abandon. Dara, divorced yet intimate, felt the trauma of distant thunder, and knew nothing save her own abhorrent complicity in this vile act. Never had she felt so ashamed, more like a beaten child than any would-be male. Glutinous tears crawled luminous down her cheek.

With florid elegance Lena folded her legs and knelt up, bringing her lovely, ghostly face directly before Dara – her eyes seemed to sparkle with the light of a thousand stars. She smiled, a moonlight glow, brushing Dara’s tears aside with the back of her hand. And then she kissed her: a dry-lipped, fleeting sip of honeydew, innocent as a baby’s pawing; but enough to claim Dara, body and soul. She collapsed sobbing into Lena’s arms, riven by conflict: desperate to be anywhere but here, yet knowing she was precisely where Destiny intended. She pushed her face into Lena’s shoulder, unable to face her; Lena nuzzled the twilight gossamer of her hair. Dara felt nimble fingers working around her waist; strong nails unpicking the bows that guarded her modesty. She went rigid, her heartbeat a drumroll of fear.

“No, oh no: Lena, I beg you…”

“Hush, my dearest,” Lena’s tone was patient, maternal. “This must be.”

“But…why?”

“Because you have to know how it feels, Dara – you have to understand. And also, because I want to.”

Gauzy cloth fell away, and Dara felt sudden chill about her hips and thighs. She began to shake uncontrollably.

“I’m still bleeding,” was her final, feeble objection.

“I don’t care: the blood is a sacrament. This is no sin, my darling Dara: this is a sacred act.”

Dara started as a single finger stroked her intimate, forbidden seam, and it parted with a frothing rush. She moaned and panted frantically as it intruded into her despicably, gleefully compliant body; a long, slow, sustained thrust that opened her like a tunnel. The fingertip withdrew with equal, agonising lassitude, and Dara gasped as hitherto unknown musculature flexed, her inner self pulsing and contracting, sucking as greedily as she had upon Lena’s toe.

“Am I hurting you?” Lena’s whisper was anxious. Dara shook her head, beyond words; face still buried in her tormentor’s shoulder. The second push was firmer, more decisive: Dara’s body offered no resistance, indeed she seemed to calm a fraction, the moans gentler, the breathing less frantic. She didn’t feel at all free or floating; rather, she felt massive, bound by an awful, irresistible gravity; her whole being centred upon a crucible of molten gold that simmered between her legs. At each succeeding thrust – deeper, harder, faster – sparks flew up from the pot, setting tiny fires in her stomach and breast, spreading flame to all extremities of her being. Her burning body began to rock, to pulse with the driving rhythm; the crucible bubbled excitedly: she knew it would soon boil over, and she knew fear but also surrender. There was nothing now save for her own flesh and the relentless digit probing, pushing, forcing – utterly alien and yet utterly welcome within her.

Streams of gold spilled over the crucible’s rim, and Dara cried out. She raised her head, looking over Lena’s shoulder: it appeared as though a sun was rising where blackness had been, red and blinding – she wasn’t sure if her eyes were even open. Everything was melting, turning flaming yellow – every nerve, fibre and sinew liquefying in a mighty, clenching, voluptuous burst.

“Oh God,” she cried, and stared into the heart of the neo-sun. Pulse upon pulse of light filled her, pounding her like surf, reducing her to quivering gel; abandoned to a force beyond her control or comprehension. Then slowly, subtly, the waves abated - the phantom sol set as it had risen, leaving a russet afterglow. Dara felt spent, weaker than she’d ever known; but she was alive, guzzling in the shack’s tainted air was though it was purest nectar. Somehow she found herself lying on the hard floor, while someone rained tender kisses upon her face.

“I love you,” she whispered, up into the darkness.

*