People think that nothing ever happens "down the Shore," as we hereabouts call the oceanfront parts of New Jersey. Not true! In 1926, the concrete-hulled S. S. Atlantus was being towed past Cape May toward its final resting place -- as part of a rather strange plan for a ferry slip -- when a storm blew up and capsized it.
It's been sinking ever since.
When first I started going to Cape May, some thirty years ago, the Atlantus was quite an imposing wreck. Now . . . well, as you can see, it's a shadow of its former self. Pretty soon -- maybe not in my lifetime, but "pretty soon" as events down the Shore are reckoned -- it will sink entirely beneath the sea.
And yesterday's tuckerized story is . . .
Standing on the top of Maes Howe, one of the great passage cairns of the world, one can see the Ring of Bookan, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Barnhouse Settlement, all of them gems of Neolithic survival. Neile Graham knew, because she’d stood and seen. She’d explored the cairn inside and out.
But it was the Viking graffiti that caught her heart.
Some 850 years earlier, a group of would-be Crusaders had taken refuge in the cairn during a prolonged snowstorm. Bored out of their wits, they cut runes into the stone interior. Staring at them, Neile felt the urge to recast them as poems. The entrance to the cairn was low and one could not enter standing, for example, which explained the scratches she made into haiku:
Fair Widow Ingebjorn
Is loveliest when she stoops
To crawl in the cairn
They were male and crude and away from home. Neile understood these guys perfectly. They were like little boys. One of them wrote:
It is sure true what I say
That we hauled treasure away
From this tomb –
It took three days
While another, riffing on the first, scratched:
North-west of here’s a greater treasure hidden
Deep within its stony midden;
Great will be the pleasure
Of he who finds that treasure.
Neile could hear the smirking laughter and see the shoulder-punches when those lines were unveiled. There was no treasure, of course, any more than there were trolls and elves. The grave-builders had buried their dead with clay pots and little else. Still …
Wouldn’t it be fun to looking for that treasure? Not expecting to find it, of course. But open to whatever came?
Her knapsack, maps, and hiking gear were in the car. So Neile was able to start off straight away. She took a compass bearing and north-west she went, across the low dun lands of Orkney.
Some timeless time later, Neile saw a terrifying sight.
Long ago, Orkney had been densely forested. But climate change and the human need for cooking fuel had undone that. There were in all the island many isolated trees but no true woods. Much less an actual forest.
There are those who, confronted with the impossible, back away from it, deny its very existence, and spend the rest of their lives weakly explaining to themselves that it was all for the best, nothing good could have come of it, it probably didn’t happen the way one remembered it at all. Underdone beef and undigested potato.
Neile wasn’t one of those. She strode boldly onward.
Elves and trolls closed in about her. Together, they disappeared into the dark forest.
Above: Photo of the Atlantus (I have no idea why it was spelled that way) by M.C. Porter.