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Richard de Nooy

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Delft – A Short Story | Pandemonium: Ash

“They eat the slime,” says my guide, pointing to the dusty herd milling around on the shoreline. Several horses are kissing algae off the rocks, tails swishing a warning that alert hooves await those that cannot wait their turn.

“Have they always done that?”

“Here on Delft, yes. They also swim out to sea sometimes and dive above the deep reef where seaweed is plentiful.”

“They swim underwater?”

“With great power and grace, yes.”

“How did they get here? Did they swim?”

“The colonist pirates brought them. A Dutch captain named the island after his hometown. That was their fort,” he says, pointing to the island’s only tree, a giant baobab half hidden by crumbling walls.The lower branches have been stripped of leaves. The canopy begins at the height of a rearing horse. “Our forefathers were enslaved to build the walls with coral taken from the shallow reef at low tide.”

“Why would anyone choose to live here?”

“This was once a fertile island, with orchards, vineyards, a spring that had gushed sweet water for centuries.The colonists chose a perfect place to build their fort. But that was before 1883.”


“First, giant waves washed over the island, dragging almost all the inhabitants to their death out at sea. Only the strongest swimmers survived. Eleven men. And then the ash began to settle in thick layers. It choked the vegetation and clogged up the spring until only a trickle remained.”

“Sounds nasty.”

“The horses saved my great-grandfather’s life.”

“Did he eat them?”

“No, when he was carried off by the waves, he found himself upon a living, biting island of hide and hair.The waves eventually rolled off into the distance, leaving the water trembling. My great-grandfather did not know which way to go, but the horses had no doubt. And so he grabbed a tail and was towed through the drifting debris. Bodies popped up all around him. It was then that the fish man appeared.”

“A fisherman?”

“No, the fish man.That is what they called him. He too was towed back to land by the horses. A stranger. No one recognised him. He was naked and spoke a language they had never heard before. In my family, we still say ‘fish man’ when one of the children shrieks with pain or laughter, for that was the sound the fish man made. A high-pitched, whistling chatter.”

“Like a dolphin?”


(Read the rest of this story and five others in “Pandemonium: Ash”, a free chapbook that can be downloaded via various sites.)


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