Simon Whitechapel

For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither...
     Swinburne, “The Forsaken Garden” (1866).

In the morning she went down to the beach to see what the big storm had wrenched free of the sea’s embrace and set out for her there like a pirate-turned-merchant. The waves were still lashing in and out like the tail of an irritated cat, hissing hugely with foam, and she paused to tug out a strand of her long black hair and wrap it thrice around a rounded pebble of quartz.

“Here, Mother,” she said, and flung it out as far as she could. Her eyes leaked salt from the pain of the tugging, a secondary sacrifice to the unwilling sea, and now she began to comb the beach, moving along it as she danced up and down the sand-slope to the rhythm of the waves, plucking the hem of her dress higher when she misjudged, lest her mother scold her for wetting it, and stooping ever and again to turn over promising coils of sea-weed with a brine-whitened stick of driftwood.

This was how, the previous year, she had found the tiny statuette of a goddess, battered but still beautiful, and her heart was beating faster now in hope of another such discovery, seeming fueled on the storm-scrubbed freshness of the air. The tail-waves lashed, she danced along the beach, jabbing and turning with her stick; and then she found it: the black ring pressed into the sand by the weight of weed that had lain on it. Her excitement held her frozen for a moment and a wave, with hissing glee, came rushing up the beach to catch her.

But she merely plucked her hem higher and let the cold seawater, tingling with foam, rush around and over her bare feet. Was it trying to reclaim the ring? Oh, but it was too late: with a deft jab, she had thrust the white tip of her stick through the perfect black circle of the ring and deep into the sand; and when the wave hissed back, there was the ring, turning for a moment wheel-like on the stick-axle in the depression the water had dug around and beneath it.

“Mine,” she said, and lifted it clear of the sand on the stick, letting it rattle down the white length a few fingerspans. It felt heavy and when she shook it off onto the palm of her left hand it sat there almost proprietorily, as though in contradiction of her claim.

“Mine,” she said again and pushed it over her ring-finger; and almost fell over not with the fact of the ground shifting and re-shaping beneath her feet but with the shock of it. The sea was a long stone’s-throw away and she was standing on springy turf beneath an altered sun. She turned, still gaping with surprise, and then fell over in earnest, for the momentarily forgotten ring, too large for her finger, slipped off and she was back on the beach again, sprawling on soft sand as a triumphantly hissing wave rushed over her, soaking half of her dress.

Swearing, she struggled over onto her knees, groping through the water for the fallen ring. As the wave fell back down the beach she saw it moving with the water, sliding down the sand-slope, and crawled to it with a cry, seizing it so hard with her left hand that she brought a handful of sand up with it. She turned her hand over, opening it cautiously and probing through it with the fingers of her right hand.

There. She had it again. She waited for the next wave and then washed the ring free of sand with the hissing water, holding the ring tight between thumb and forefinger, taunting the sea. Then, her dress clinging tight and cold to her legs, she stood up and examined the ring carefully. It was some black stone she could not name, carved in a perfect circle for the finger of a woman or youth, she thought, and there was, yes, there were letters on the inner curve, carved with Lyr knew what patience and effort. She squinted, tilting the ring back and forth, and slowly spelled them out.

“MA-GA” — she shook her head — “MA-GRU. MA-GRU-SER. MAGRUSER.”

But what language was that? Was it the name of the owner or of some favorite god or goddess? MAGRUSER. She walked up the sand-slope, out of reach of the waves, and pushed the ring back over her finger, holding it in place this time and bracing herself against the shifting and reforming of the ground beneath her. And she was back on springy turf a long stone’s-throw from the sea, turning where she stood, the ring held firmly to her finger as she surveyed her new world.


There was a villa down near the sea, not a century-hammered ruin like all the villas she had ever known, but a perfect complete villa, as though the Romans had never left, with a wisp of smoke rising from its red brick roof. Bending her finger to her palm to hold the ring safe in place, she began to walk towards it. Look at the beauty of the garden, the roses opening bright faces to the morning sun, the grapes purple and heavy on flourishing vines! She sniffed, her mouth filling with water as a breeze brought her a rich odor of cooking, some dish she had a name for no more than she had a name for the black stone of the ring.

Now she was among the roses, approaching the villa and sniffing again as delicate or powerful scents tickled or pressed at her nostrils. What was that hanging at the door of the villa in a golden cage? A burst of silver notes answered her and she smiled, remembering her own bullfinch.

Puella nefaria!”

She spun on her heel. A tall woman, who must have been bending over a flower-bed as she passed, was striding towards her, face thunderous with anger beneath elaborately styled gold-blonde hair. The narrow painted lips opened again, ready to hurl another imprecation, but she never learned what it was, for her left hand had flashed to her right and wrenched the ring off. Another world crashed in on her, heavy, wet, cold, roaring dully in her ears. She was choking, struggling to swim upwards, heart hammering in her chest as she screamed a prayer to Gwyanned inside her head.

She broke the surface of the returned sea and was sick with relief, emptying her stomach of the bitter water she had swallowed and spitting sour strings of vomit as she swam clumsily ashore. She dragged herself up the beach, her knees rasped and bruised by the sand as waves hissed past her and back again, slowly losing their strength in their attempts to drag her back to the embrace of the sea. Finally she was free of them and could stand again, knuckling at her mouth as she turned and looked out to the wave-combed water where she had surfaced. Deep beneath it that villa lay with the black ring that had drawn it from the sealed past.

Top of Page