The second of the Troubadours Series about the Pfiffmaklers, a travelling theatre troupe, and their adventures
Although the second of a series, it can be read out of order if you choose
1 A Sea Without Tides 1851 The Far Edge Of Mecklenburg
A quiet village on the edge of a forest; hard white frost three days lying; freezing fog closed over the heights of trees, barns and roofs; thin wisps curling down corners and boles.
Water barely moving, lapping gently against heaps of stranded kelp sprinkled over with hoarfrost, sparkling like the sand clearly visible beneath the imperceptible shiver of the waves.
Soft sound of oars, creak of wood as feet brace, a body moving with the rowing; long white necks of goose barnacles swaying beneath the ramshackle pier that has lost half its planks, is more spirket than spar; rusted nails worked loose, square heads bent and broken; two swans paddling slow circles beneath.
Beyond the Joshua Tree - an ash pollarded into the shape of the cross, sprouting new growth in Spring, dropping leaves in Winter as it is now - a fog bow materialises as the newly risen sun refracts from the mist. And from the dark maw of the forest comes a small sow, red pelt raddled, snout greying with age. On her heels a young man, quick-stepping, sharp-featured, head uncommon – large protuberance, like a hard-swollen bladder, growing from the base of his skull and all up one side – hidden beneath a wide-brimmed felt hat. Pig and man careful about the village, passing beneath the fog bow, heading down to the pier.
Oars drawn in, the boat allowed to drift silently towards the shore on the slight rock of waves, the two swans keeping to the shadows as the erstwhile rower puts out his hands, guides himself in, holds his breath. Watches and waits, looks and listens. Hears a soft tread on the shingle bank.
‘Is it you?’ he asks, using no names.
After a few moments, the reply.
Making his way through the fog to the water’s edge, lifting up his pig and getting them on board, the rower pushing off with an oar, then forward-stroking, taking them out into still waters and away.
The inhabitants of the quiet village on the edge of the forest beginning to wake, rustling up their fires, rubbing cold hands, blowing into them, holding their clothes up to meagre flames to warm smocks and shirts before shrugging them over their shoulders.
The inhabitants of the quiet village sighing as they glance out of their small windows, open their doors to frost and fog wondering how much longer both could stay, and both so uninvited.
No idea that a man on the run has filtered past them only minutes previously, only sign of him being the tracks he’s left in the frosted grass if they were looking, which they were not.
No idea he is being rowed away by his rescuer out there beyond the pier.
No sound coming from the sea as on clear days, when you can hear men talking five hundred yards from shore.
They make their salutary genuflections to the Joshua Tree and head through the disappearing fog bow into the dark forest to whistle up their sheep and goats.
To start their day as they always did.
Normal folk going about a normal day.
Quiet folk in a quiet village on the edge of a quiet forest.
No notion of what will be set in motion because of the young man who has passed unseen about their village and boarded the boat that is taking him over the water to the island.
Told once, by a travelling theatre who’d passed through their village a few months previously, just after Michaelmas, that everything was connected, that actions here have consequences there; one small happening able to turn into a huge one, like a snowball gathering mass and speed as it rolls down a hill. A play that hadn’t gone down well, because no one in this quiet village quite believed it.
They’d not booed; neither had they clapped.
They simply couldn’t understand it.
History seeming to have passed them by.
Their village on the farthest edge of Mecklenburg: an isolated fringe on Germany’s sprawling shawl, the outside world of no concern to them, nor them to it.
Folk waking to frost and fog, as today, or maybe to light and sunshine, maybe Spring and all the new growth Spring brings with it; or maybe a high Winter wind whipping up the water, rolling spindrift over the shingle banks and up into their streets and, on occasion, into their homes.
Simply the way things were, and always had been.
No mystery to it, no matter what the Pfiffmaklers had tried to tell them.
Folk merely getting on with getting on.
Folk waking into a morning no different from any other.
None the wiser a week or so after the young man had been and gone, the fog down again, when two more strangers fetched themselves out of the undergrowth once the village folk had departed into forest gloom; strangers who’d followed tracks and traces, scattered conversations, leading them to here: to the path skirting the Joshua Tree and its village, strangers going down to the shingle and the dilapidated pier.
The older man shaking his head, growling, anger never far from him, rage his natural bent.
‘We almost had him.’
‘Almost,’ his companion agrees, gazing off towards the fog-bound sea, cocking his head, hearing the shockwaves hitting the rocky outcrop to their left caused by gannets’ distant diving a couple of seconds after they’ve gone plummeting into the sea. Stray birds brought in by recent storms, far from their normal course. Soft noises but distinct, once you’d figured out the timing, linked the action with the consequence.
As they’d done with their fugitive.
Follow a crow long enough, Mergim had once told the older man, and you’ll find carrion.
Some Albanian saying from Mergim’s homeland, and he’d been right.
Only weeks, or even days, behind their prize and closing fast.
Only the fog, rolling in from the Baltic with seasonable regularity, slowing them up.
Yet here they were, all the same, standing by the dilapidated pier of this quiet village on the edge of a forest at the very edge of Germany, as the sea lapped against its shores and the gannets dived and the swans paddled and the Joshua Tree threw off a few more leaves as it stretched its arms towards an unseen sun.