by Joseph Surtees

She sits across from him on the train and says, 'Can I tell you a story?' 

His first thought, she’s beautiful, with unwashed hair long down her back and the black eye she has tried, poorly, to conceal with makeup. The fading bruises on her upper arms. His second thought, who is she? He’s never seen her before, in her red summer dress, thin and short despite the freezing cold, with small scars on her legs creeping under its hem.

'It’s the story of Bran the Blessed and Branwen, his sister,' she says. 'He was the King of the Island of the Mighty.'

Unsure of himself, the man says nothing. The young woman reaches out to hold his hand. He doesn’t want her to touch him, doesn’t want anybody to touch him really, but can’t bring himself to move away. As her fingers close on his and tighten, he tries to remember when in the past he has been touched like this, there must have been a time, but he cannot picture it. Then he looks down and is shocked to see (knows he cannot see, should not see) salt crystals emerging from the corpse-cold air, growing over their hands. 

She’s slender, much younger than he is. Her eyes are hazel, like another’s, with tiny red bloodlines running outwards into the white, haemorrhaging through the earth towards the sea. What colour are his eyes, he wonders? Now, he suspects, nobody knows, except this girl, with his hands in hers. Agitated dust billows through the train’s old heaters and leeches past his face. He blinks. When he opens his eyes, she’s still there. 

'He was a giant,' she says. 'There was no house built that could contain him. So he lived under the sky, roaming the Island of the Mighty bringing joy to his people. His sister, Branwen, accompanied him. She would dance through the forests and through the driftwood on the beach.' 

Beside him on the table is an old-fashioned children’s toy, a wooden soldier in a red uniform standing on a wooden barrel. The wooden barrel has a spring in it, with a plastic base. If you push the base the soldier collapses, when it you let it go again he springs back to attention. Before she arrived he was playing with the toy and imagining there was no skin on his face, with the white bones of his skull exposed and grinning at the world. He makes the toy collapse, then spring back to attention. It’s very cheap. When he bought it he had not wanted the soldier to last forever. 

'One day', she says, 'the King of Ireland sailed across the sea. He had heard of Branwen’s beauty and grace, her fidelity, and wanted to marry her. Bran the Blessed, her brother, approved.'

Today it’s snowing, frozen fields flash past, but yesterday it was warmer, and there was rain. He remembers how the earth became sodden as a hundred people with ashen faces and folded hands spoke through him. He thought later about what words he could have said in response to their platitudes, repeated again and again, all of which seemed to him to have another meaning. He holds inside for a second the sense of dropping dirt into a hole in the ground, but that feeling drifts away in distraction as he notices the salt crystals that pin their arms down are spreading. 

'Branwen and the King of Ireland married and had a child, a son, whom she loved. But the King of Ireland mistreated Branwen; he would not dance with her and locked her away.

'He said it was because she was too beautiful to be in the world, but that was a lie.'

As she speaks an old woman, seated behind, twists to hear the story Her hearing is going. As she turns the old woman's bones scream, and she can feel the years of dirt beneath her nails. Before the story started, she had been trying to remember her husband and realising she could no longer picture his face or remember the sound of his voice.

The young woman is talking softly. The man watches her and imagines the veins beneath her skin pulsating. He traces them, from the fingers that hold his, along the inside of her arm, across her shoulders. He imagines veins encircling her face, encasing it, imagines them, warm and solid, running down her body, through her breasts, her stomach, and down her legs. 

'But Branwen was clever,' she says. 'A starling would come to the window of her cell each day, to perch between the bars and admire her beauty. So she taught it to speak, and sent it across the sea to tell her brother of his sister’s plight.'

Behind them the old woman starts to hum a tune, a dance tune, a minuet, left foot, right foot, a gradual progression of notes rising and falling to lead the dancers. It fits with the story, she thinks, as she runs one finger down the inside of an arm to simulate the feeling of hands upon her. But her skin is so soft and thin she feels almost nothing. 

Outside the snowstorm is worsening. It will be claimed this was the heaviest snowfall in southern England for thirty years. The train continues towards the coast, although the track threatens to turn to ice and shatter beneath the passengers. 

'Soon after, sentries saw a strange sight. Crossing the Irish Sea was a mountain parting the waves, and beside the mountain a forest afloat.'

One, two, three; one, two, three; the minuet plays on behind them as the old woman thinks about stories, the stories families tell each other about themselves. The old woman recalls the story a man told a sensible young woman years ago, the first thing ever said by a man to a beautiful young woman, about love at first sight. The image of that man hangs now on the edge of her vision, and beneath her fingers her flesh feels solid for a moment. Then the moment breaks.

'The King of Ireland asked Branwen to explain what his sentries had seen. She laughed and told him the forest was the men of the Island of the Mighty, taken to their ships to rescue her. The mountain was her brother, walking across the Irish Sea.'

They are close to their destination now. Outside the storm is impenetrable. Inside the salt that encases their hands has spread to cover the carriage. The old woman is covered over; all that remains free is her face, framed by interlocking crystals. She is remembering her body lying on a soft bed, in a hotel, after the most magical day. In her memory, beside her is a figure in a suit, younger than he was the final time she saw him. He is turned towards her, transparent, and she is transparent to him. He will kiss her soon, she knows this. 

Outside the snow covers the land, gradually piling up above the fields. Inside, the salt begins to blacken, it weighs all three down and the train is weighed down with them. It slows its rhythm and then a scream of brakes softens its speed. The man can see the breath coming from the young woman’s mouth, frozen droplets drifting upwards.

Snow is called pure, he thinks, but how can something that has no mind, no body, no form, that is transient, that leaves no impression, impresses no change upon the watchers, how can that be called pure? He does not look outside but looks at her. She is pure he thinks.

'There was a terrible battle between the men of the Island of the Mighty and the men of Ireland. It raged on for years, for centuries. To the warriors, it seemed sometimes as if they were dancing, with their blistered feet leaving imprints in blood.'

The sound of the train’s brakes is louder now. The black salt crystals have begun to shatter, to break and scatter. He picks up the children’s toy. The old woman has stopped breathing.

The man and young woman pass her as the train stops in the station. They perceive she is dead, but do not stop. As they step off the train into the snow, the floor of the carriage behind them is covered in crystals of blackened salt.

They walk from the station, hand in hand, and their footprints in the snow are deep. There is the smell of the sea in the air. To their left a copse of plane trees stand, leaning over the earth, as if falling forward. Their white trunks are camouflaged against the snow-drenched world. He wonders who planted them and why. Plane trees are often planted in cities. They soak up pollution, which seeps into their bark. But there is no industry here. Nothing has ever been built here. For years this was a fishing town, hundreds of small boats leaving no impression upon the sea. Now there is nothing left. 

They turn away from the station and towards the town, which rolls down in front of them towards the unseen beach. They are alone, the train moves off, cutting its way through the snow. Within this quiet world, the clank of its wheels gathering momentum shrieks out, like an owl in the dark. But neither of them turns.

'Bran the Blessed would not be stopped. He loved his sister and would avenge her, even if she asked him to cease.'

They pass small cottages. Whitewashed, in the snow their windows throw out light like suns, like avenues into a furnace. Inside he can imagine families, generations, talking and laughing and passing down ways of being. He sees a grandfather, bringing out a wooden carving, something of permanence, which his grandchildren will pass onto their grandchildren. He imagines it as a black dog.

Against the snow, the red of her sundress stands out. The bare skin on her legs seems to contract in the cold. They look like bone. Only now does he realise she has no shoes on. Her feet slough through snow, leaving a trail behind, a riverbed, quickly filled from above. The man takes off his jacket and places it around her shoulders. She does not comment on it, or pull it close around her. 

They arrive at the beach, sloping down towards the murky sea. It is snow covered, but he knows that beneath the snow are stones, piled in multiple shapes and colours, up and up and reaching down, God knows how deep. They give the covering snow a pockmarked look. As it falls upon the sea the snow waits for a moment before melting.

To their right is a concrete pier punching into the waves. But they turn left. He knows where they are going. Along the beach, where the town ends there used to be a castle.

The snow is up over their ankles now. It doesn’t seem to halt them. 

'There was such slaughter,' she says, 'as Bran the Blessed and the armies of the Island of the Mighty fought the men of Ireland. For years the battle ranged, for decades men fought and died, then women, then children. They could not help themselves.'

He slips his hand out of hers and moves it around her waist. She moves away from his hand slightly when it rests on her hip, but then comes back. 

'Branwen had a son,' she says, 'and he watched too, as his Uncle and father raged and destroyed his mother.'

'Was he saved?' he says.

'All but seven men of the Island of the Mighty died.' She says, 'All the men of Ireland died. Bran the Blessed was poisoned. But before he died he asked those who remained to remove his head and bring it home to his empty Kingdom.'

He thinks again about yesterday morning; about walking over rain-slicked ground holding onto the corner of a tiny box. He remembers being surrounded by headstones, and realising they were the record of lives stretched back over time. As time regressed they got simpler and simpler, ornamentation dropped away, angels, cherubs, carved and glassy, disappeared, until all that was left was the brief acknowledgment of an individual’s existence. And after that, names no longer visible on almost sunken stones. 

'Branwen died,' she says.

The man's jacket has fallen off her shoulders now. It lies behind them in the snow. To their left the town rests under its blanket, low houses unbroken, tracking the seashore. There are no cars on the road. It could be centuries ago. On the beach small ships lie slumped on their sides, snowdrifts build up beneath their exposed hulls. Inside the wood rots slowly.

'Her heart broke,' she says, 'she saw her brother’s body turning to dust, she loved him and she hated him. She forgot about her son.'

They are at the edge of the town now. The squat houses subside into blank scrubland, levelled over the years by the wind coming from the sea. This is where a castle used to stand. Over the years it fell into disrepair and then decay, and in the end the people of the town started to take the stones that fell for their homes. Then they began to pull stones from the walls, ripping out the crumbling mortar. Eventually all that was left was the foundations, and then that was concreted over. Now if it wasn’t for a notice board you wouldn’t know there was anything antique here at all. Except the notice board is covered with graffiti, which makes the story illegible. So perhaps I’m the only one who knows, he thinks.

He sits down in the snow and she sits beside him. She can feel the stones beneath push upwards into her skin. He starts to unbutton his shirt. She takes off her dress and her underclothes. He takes off his trousers and underwear. They stand naked facing the sea. On the horizon, barely visible above the waves a field of wind turbines turn amidst the clouds. He can imagine the energy they generate running under the sea, imagine the electricity travelling to shore buried deep underground and entering people’s homes to power their televisions, their telephones, their cookers and radiators that families crowd around to keep warm and pretend the cold outside does not exist.

He takes her hand in his and feels the salt crystals beneath her skin. They do not move.

Joseph Surtees is previously unpublished. He lives in London and writes about memory. @JosephSurtees

Enjoyed this story? Sign up to Unsung Shorts and get a new short story delivered to your inbox every fortnight.