© I J Noble
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A cold northerly wind had howled for three days and two long dark nights. Black turbulent storm clouds filled the sky. The sea in and around Cardigan Bay had been whipped into a boil of grey and white. At night there were no stars or moon to navigate any living thing out of that dark rage of nature. The wind had created monstrous waves that roared down the coast, pummeling the shoreline and beyond. They smashed relentlessly into a small island off the southwest coast of Wales. Their spray engulfed the island, and vast plumes of mist were carried high into the air. It made a bleak and hostile picture - although the image was laced with a stark, cold beauty.
The little island was Cardigan Island. Like a sentry it stands guard at the mouth of the beautiful and enchanting river Teifi. When it rains, water collects to form a pool on the very top of the island, a welcome drink for a bird coming in from the sea. Telynog had heard of this pool and tried to visualize this little hollow. Telynog was a duck, a mallard duck to be precise. If the truth be known, he was getting old and a little past his best - although his colours were still bright. Good colour is very important to a bird, especially when trying to attract the opposite sex of their species; good colour shows that a bird is fit and well; that he has good genes to pass on to his offspring.
A mallard’s head is a vivid green, and if you look closely, in a certain light and at the right angle, it flecks through a beautiful spectrum of colours. Is this a trick of light, or the magic of nature? The ring of white around Telynog’s neck is in sharp contrast to his dark brown breast. From a distance, these things make him look like every other mallard. But there are two things that separate Telynog from all those other ducks. One is a little chip out of the edge of his beak; the other a knowing look in his eye. His eyes are now firmly fixed on the island ahead. His mind is intent on the cool drinking water that is waiting for him there. He is tired and thirsty, and the island seems an awfully long way away. In fact, it looks not much more than a bump on the horizon.
But the wind that had buffeted him for the last two days was not quite done with him. It clung to his wings like a lead shawl, dragging him ever closer to the boiling sea – now just a few feet below him. Being desperately tired, he had an increasing urge to stop flying. How easy it would be just to drop down on to the water and rest his aching wings. What he would give to close his eyes for a few minutes. But he had to drive those thoughts out! If he did stop, his feathers would become waterlogged, and he knew if that happened, he would be too heavy to take off again; and worse, the constant pounding of the waves would drive him down, and he would be drowned. The image of these huge waves crashing down on him, helped to spur him on.
He ground out metre after long metre against the wind and the hard driving rain. The closer he got to the island, the more the wind seemed to blow, and the harder the rain beat down on him. The rain made his eyes smart and blurred his vision, making it almost impossible to keep them focused on the target. Two long hours had passed, but so had the distance; and it was almost a surprise when the sheer cliffs of the island appeared out of the gloom just a few metres ahead of him. With every beat of his wings the craggy face of the island seemed to be rising ever higher out of the depths. He began to doubt his strength. He was just too tired. His muscles began to groan as he put them to this ultimate test. But in that moment of doubt, another wave, head and shoulders above the rest, threw itself onto the rocks just below him. It sent a tremendous rush of air before it. Telynog’s exhausted frame was snatched up by the surge. A moment later he found himself engulfed in a halo of exploding water; the force of the spray got under his feathers; the coldness of the sea water took his breath away. The air was pushing him forward with such speed and ferocity that he thought it was going to drive him straight into the hard, grey mass that stood unyielding before him. But luckily, when the air hit the cliff, there was only one way it could go, and Telynog was sent soaring upwards. The turbulent air pulled and pushed him in all directions. The rock face flashed past just millimetres from his beak. He held his breath. He wanted to close his eyes. He was certain he was going to collide with the cliff’s jagged edges.
Just when he thought his wings were going to be ripped from his body, the rush of air stopped. In a split second the water from the wave started to drop back into the void. Telynog started to drop back with it. He gathered himself and began flapping wildly. But the drenching he had taken had made him heavy, and to spite all his effort he was still being pulled downward into the crashing sea. There was a narrow ledge just below him. It was his only chance. He veered towards it. A split second later he collided with it. The landing was hard, and he winded himself.
A duck’s foot is badly designed for holding on to rocks, but somehow he did manage to hang on. He pulled himself as close to the rock face as he could, and nestled down. All he wanted to do was sleep. His body was shutting down. He had no more to give. His eyes closed and he started to drift off to sleep. But it wasn’t to be. A fierce gust of wind ripped across the rock face and almost swept him off. He would have to make one more effort. When the next big wave came, he would ride its updraft. This time he would be ready to break free of it.
He did not have long to wait, and at what he thought was the right moment, he stepped off. The rush of air took hold of him and drove him upwards. In the blinking of an eye, he was out of the thermal, and being carried off down the length of the island by the storm. The ground was whizzing away under him, and he had covered a full thirty metres before colliding with a large clump of heather. Fortunately for him it was shaped like a hand, and like a hand catching a ball, the bush closed in around him, he couldn’t have hoped for a softer landing. He was down, and he was safe, and filled to overflowing with relief. If he had had the energy, he would have done a lap of honour around the island to celebrate. It was good to be back! Dare he even think that his luck was changing?
Before he slept he would drink his fill. He began to walk to the little pool that he had been swapped over moments before. It was a little oasis on an otherwise bleak landscape; no trees, no bushes, and no reeds to hide in.
Telynog made slow progress over the rough ground, having to weave in and out of the clumps of heather. Then with great relief, the pool was lying at his feet. However, when he went to drink, he found that the water was undrinkable. It had spoiled with the salt spray that had filled the air for days. It was a bitter disappointment. His plans were suddenly changed for him; he would still have to rest for a while and then he would continue on his journey. First he would have to clear a patch of ground so that he could lie down. Using his beak, he began moving several sharp twigs of brittle sun-dried heather; the remains of some cockle and mussel shells that were strewn around the pool; and the empty crab shells that had been so expertly broken into by the gulls. There were also some other bones that he had to move that were unfamiliar to him.
When he had finally cleared just enough ground to enable him to lie down, he collapsed into the space he had made. Every muscle in his body cried out in relief. His eyelids suddenly felt like lead and dropped shut. He needed sleep. He needed rest. His body was shutting down again. But the wind was still not done with him. It continued to harass him, ruffling the feathers on his back. There seemed to be no escape from it. He turned around in his little ground-nest, in an attempt to get away from it. But as if the wind were second guessing him, it began swirling around, tormenting him even more. He picked himself up, and turned back in the direction he had been lying in before. And immediately the wind turned to attack him from that direction again.
At that moment he was glad he was a duck, and not one of the gulls that had to call this desolate place home. Telynog thought that Mother Nature must have abandoned gulls. She seemed to show them no favour. They didn’t even have room to make proper nests like most other birds; they had to lay their eggs on narrow ledges, sometimes only an inch or two wide, where they were at the mercy of the wind. Some eggs were blown over the edge, their golden yellow contents spattered on the deathly grey rocks below. The eggs that had survived the wind’s best efforts - hatched the ugliest chicks imaginable. Even now they were not safe from the winds vendetta. The wind would lift the poor flightless chicks off their perches, and throw them down to their death, on the monstrous seas far below.
If by some miracle they escaped these perils, there were the rats that were always partial to the taste of a helpless chick or two. The puffins had left the island many years before, left to find a better home, a home without rats that stormed into your burrow and ate you alive.
The original rats had been the resident stowaways on the naval ship “The Herefordshire.” The ship was old and was being towed to the breakers yard. On the last leg of the journey it was caught in a storm. This cruel twist of fate caused the vessel to smash into Cardigan Island. As time would tell, the inhabitants of the island were almost defenseless against this invasion from hell. On that fateful night, it is said that the people of Cardigan, some four miles way, could hear the old steel ship quite clearly as her hull was dashed and scraped on the hard rock of the island. The people of Gwbert-on-Sea, some three hundred yards due east of the island, said it sounded like a wild animal defiant in its death throes. Others likened it to something out of this world, some monster from the supernatural; or perhaps an avenging sea demon attacking the land. The gulls and puffins were so scared by the noise that they scattered in all directions, and spent the rest of that night on the mainland.
The rats were quite used to the ship being pitched and tossed in heavy seas. They knew nothing of the danger they were in until the moment the ship hit the jagged rocks with a shuddering blow. The sound of rock-crunching metal echoed through the bilges. The terrifying sound in that coffined space must have seemed like the announcement of the end of the world. Moments later the water came flooding in. The wall of water carried everything that was not nailed down with it. Dozens of rats at the back of the ship stood little chance of escape, and were either crushed to death or quickly drowned in the ice-cold water. The fifty or so rats that had survived that first rush, scurried up the pipes in a desperate attempt to get out of the flooding bilges that had been their home. As the water rose ever higher inside the hull, they found their way up through the ship, and finally out onto the deck. The ship was now lulling from side to side in the heavy seas.
Every few minutes a huge wave would crash over the stricken vessel, taking anything that was unfortunate enough to be out on deck over the side with it. In a fit of panic several rats scurried across the deck in a bid to get to higher ground; their plan was to scurry up the communications mast. The three rats at the back of the little pack had mistimed their attempt, and paid dearly for their hesitation. They were picked up by a wave and washed over the side, where they were crushed between the hull of the ship and the rocks. For a few moments, the rocks ran red with their blood. Until the next wave washed away any trace of their existence.
The rats that had fared better had started to climb up the communications mast, and for a few minutes looked as though they had made it to some sort of safety. Then the sky was lit up by an arc of lightning, and in that moment night turned to day, and if any rat had been unsure of its predicament the stark reality of the situation was now more than clear to them.
In that same light stood the biggest, blackest rat that you could only meet in your worst nightmares. He must have been more then half a metre in length from the end of his nose to the tip of his tail. This was the King Rat - he was big and menacing. The second thing to strike you about him was the absence of his left eye. To get a full picture of his surroundings, he had to constantly move his head from side to side. This irregular movement gave him a very sinister look indeed.
He had lost his eye in a fight, the night he had defeated the old king and claimed his crown. As he surveyed the carnage that was all around him the very air seemed to be exploding, as several bursts of thunder simultaneously rolled across the sky. King Rat’s right eye suddenly flamed red with the reflection of the forked lightning that accompanied the explosions. The jagged light cut through the darkness turning night to day in an instant. One of the strands of light found the mast and came to earth. As it cascaded down the mast, shards of sparking metal flew in all directions. The few rats that had started to climb were frazzled in an instant. The smell of cooked meat wafted on the wind. King Rat lifted himself up on his back feet to his full height. He sniffed the air. Under different circumstances he would have loved to have feasted on the cooked flesh.
He was King Rat for a reason and it wasn’t only for his great size. Cunningly he had held back, not committing himself until he had weighed up the odds. He knew now that climbing the mast was not the way to safety. He knew then that they would have to abandon ship and swim to shore - it was what rats did. First they had to pluck up the courage to jump, and then swim through the heavy seas. King Rat knew the hardest part would be getting a foothold on the wet rock face. Not an easy matter with ten metre high waves crashing over you, and trying to pull you back into the sea. But he was already forming a plan to improve his chances. The King waited his moment, and then ran across the deck to the gunwale, other rats following his lead. He waited there until four other rats had summoned up enough courage to climb onto the narrow ledge beside him. Then under the cover of darkness he set about his dirty work, and tipped them one by one over the side. The four fell blindly into the cold, thrashing sea. When lightning filled the sky again King Rat could see that they had survived the fall and were swimming for shore. Again in a flash of lightning, he saw the first rat being picked up and smashed into the gray jagged rock of the island. When the next flash of light came the rat was gone, it was clearly not the place to land. When the night lit up again there was only one rat struggling in the water, the others had perished. Seeing the fate of the other three, this rat was swimming in a southerly direction and was now in the lee of the ship. Darkness fell again, and in those dark moments of waiting, King Rat was aware of the wind and the rain as it lashed the ship and its inhabitants.
The sound of the ship as it heaved up and down the rock face cut out all other sound; the pitch of it hurt his ears, and it made the hair on his back stand on end. All he and the other rats had known was life in the bilges, they had hardly been aware of the outside world. Now these two worlds had collided, and the one he had suddenly found himself in, was a very inhospitable place. His surroundings were lit up again by another flash of light, and he could see that the last rat had made it onto the rock face and was climbing up, out of reach of the crashing waves. His plan had worked; he knew he wasn’t home and dry yet, but his odds were a lot better than they had been. He could further reduce the danger of injury if he waited for the ship to list on its starboard side. He picked his moment and took the leap of faith. Moments later he was engulfed by the cold sea. His lead was the signal the others had been waiting for, and there was no hesitation to follow him over the side. Several minutes later they were scrambling up the rocks desperately trying to get out of the reach of the pounding sea. The few that had survived this perilous task then had to climb the wet and slippery sheer rock face, with only the odd flashes of lightning to show any crack or foothold that might help them on their way. In those moments of light, and from a distance, they seemed to be moving as one, like a marauder from some alien planet. Four long hard hours later, King Rat set foot on top of the island. Many had lost their footing on the wet rock and had fallen back to be crushed in between the ship and the rock face. Out of the hundred or so rats that were on the ship only eleven cheated death that night.
In the months that followed seven more of their number perished. Life on the ship had been about a different sort of scavenging. New skills had to be learned and cannibalism was one of them. Over the months when times had been extra hard King Rat had gone hunting. Each time he had chosen another rat as a partner, and each time it had been a very weak individual. He would lead them a short distance from the camp, and when he thought that they were out of earshot, he would pounce on his unsuspecting companion and rip out its throat. Then he would feast on its flesh. When he had had his fill, he would curl up and sleep for a few hours. When he woke, he would drag what was left of his partner back to camp and pretend that they had been attacked by the ship’s cat, who he said, was living on the island. How brave he said he was fighting off the cat so that they could feed on what was left of the body. There were no complaints as the others picked over its bones, even though no one else had seen a cat on the island. But lessons were learned, numbers grew, and the rats slowly took control of the island. They showed no mercy to the island’s original inhabitants in the decades that followed.
Telynog knew nothing of these inhabitants, and didn’t see the pair of dark hungry eyes peering out at him from the undergrowth; or hear the rustle in the undergrowth as the creature scurried away. He was thinking of his journey’s end, just four miles up the river, but he was so tired it might as well have been a hundred miles away. He knew the perfect little lagoon to shelter from this blow, and there was always cover in the reeds from any storm. His head dropped for a moment. But the cold wind ran up his back making him shiver. He thought again of that haven waiting just four miles away – and then there was his brood: how had they fared in the few months he had been away? And would they have young of their own now? His inner strength began to swell in him again.
As you may have guessed by now, Telynog was not absolutely true to his type, and he liked to go off on adventures in this corner of the world. He was just returning from Ireland, the furthest he had ever been, and it had almost been a bridge too far. Perhaps he would settle down again now.
A wave crashed through the rocks far below; its spray washed over Telynog, clinging heavily to his feathers. The spray clung even harder to the bedraggled frames of the ancient breed of sheep, struggling relentlessly to live on the island. The salt had bleached their fleeces many shades of brown, and after they had succumbed to starvation, the heat of summer, or the cold of winter, the sun would bleach their rat-gnawed bones. Telynog felt sorry for them, for they were not in a place of their own choosing. Unlike him, they had no way to escape the hell that was their home.
A man had once called that forsaken place home. He had been a monk by the name of Cillean. He had cut himself off from the world on the island; perhaps it was some sort of penance - if so he must have done something very bad to want to live there.
Another wave thundered below, and another dusting of fine mist settled over Telynog. The sun was casting long shadows from the west, and he knew night would soon follow. He would rest for five more minutes, and then he would head for the part of the river he thought of as home. He was spurred on with thoughts of family and a desire to see how much it had grown.
Telynog heard the now familiar sound of water rushing through the gully below. But before the spray had time to settle on him, he was already on his feet, and trying to stretch the stiffness out of his wings. He heard something rustling in the undergrowth just behind him. He turned. Suddenly there were dozens of black rats rushing at him. They were coming from all directions. He turned quickly. He had to get away. They had been too fast for him. He had only taken one step before they were on him. One of the rats took hold of his tail feathers. Telynog turned and pecked at it. The beast shrieked and let go. Then Telynog felt a sharp tug on his right wing. He swung round and lashed out. He bit down hard on the rat’s back. The rat let go and ran back to the cover of the heather. But now there were five of them hanging onto him. They were pulling at his feathers, trying to drag him down. He took hold of one by the ear and threw it into the air. The rat squealed as it spun over and over, before splashing into the pool. Suddenly Telynog realized that standing to fight had been a big mistake. He also knew if they pulled him to the ground, there would be no hope for him. His only chance of getting away from them was taking to the sky. But by the time he’d taken another step forward, there were twenty or more pulling at him. Flight was already impossible. More and more rats were piling on by the second. This was a well rehearsed maneuver, no doubt one that had worked for them many times before. He now realized that the other bones around the pond were the bones of eaten birds. Birds that had fallen into the same trap! Perhaps if he wasn’t so tired from his fight with the storm, he would be more able to defend himself. He just couldn’t seem to find any strength. Then King Rat stepped out from behind the heather, his head scanning from side to side. Telynog convulsed at the site of him.
This new pump of adrenalin gave him enough power to take another step towards the pool. The rats began to squeal. Telynog knew then that they did not want him to get to the water. He suddenly knew this was his last chance of escape. Just two more steps and he would be at the water’s edge. As he took the next step, King Rat jumped between him and the pool. The big rat showed Telynog two rows of needle-sharp teeth. Telynog hissed at him in defiance. Then he lunged at the rat. But the rat was too quick for him, and sank his teeth into Telynog’s upper bill. Telynog pulled his head back, but the rat hung on. Telynog tried to shake the creature off, but King Rat was not going to let go. Telynog threw his head forward in a last ditch attempt to get the horrible thing off. The momentum of the rat going forward was just enough to topple Telynog over the edge. They went crashing into the pool.
Not wanting to be dragged into the water, most of the other rats let go. Once in the water, Telynog shook off the few rats that hadn’t had time to let go. They quickly swam to shore. But King Rat was not so easy to shake off. Telynog thrust his head under the water hoping this would get the rat to let go. But the truth was that King Rat had bitten down so hard on Telynog’s bill, that one of his teeth had gone right through and he was unable to let go. The other rats by this time had regrouped, and had surrounded the pool. Telynog was looking up into hundreds of angry faces.
There was no more time to waste. Telynog knew if he didn’t get away at that moment, he would never get away. He would have to carry the rat with him. King Rat was big and heavy, and even more so now that he was wet. Telynog knew he only had a slim chance of getting off the water with the extra weight. Using every last ounce of his strength, he began to rise up out of the pool. He was flapping his wings faster than he had ever done before. King Rat was twisting and turning and scratching at Telynog’s face, in his desperation to break free. Telynog had to fly with his head down between his feet. This made it hard to see where he was going. He swung a little too far to his right, and one of the rats jumped and took hold of the bony part of his foot. Then another rat had hold of his tail, pulling him back towards the ground. All seemed lost. Then a huge gust of wind drove him sideways with such strength that the rat on his tail was brushed off, when they collided with a large clump of heather. Telynog was lighter now, but he was still falling back to earth. Luckily the east side of the island dropped away steeply at this point, so although Telynog was falling, he was actually gaining height, as the wind pushed him along. The rat on his foot looked down and made the decision to let go. Telynog watched the rat fall five or six metres and crash into the heather.
Telynog was even lighter now, but didn’t know how long he could keep flying with his head between his legs and with the weight of King Rat pulling him down. Just as worrying was the rat pack that was following his every move. He could see them racing along the well-worn sheep tracks that zigzagged the island. There were so many rats that it looked as though it was the path that was moving. Telynog’s situation seemed hopeless. There seemed to be no getting away from them. The little hope that he had mustered was fading, fading as fast as his descent. At that moment he felt that the rats would be getting their supper after all. He looked into King Rat’s eye and the hideous beast looked right back at him with grim satisfaction. He knew that he had won.
Suddenly there was the whooshing sound of wings slicing through the air. For an instant the large head of a Black-backed Gull came into Telynog’s view. Its hooked beak was open ready to strike. Telynog only had time to close his eyes expecting the worst. Then there was a sharp tug on his bill, as the rat was snatched from him. The gull had been watching Telynog and thought that what was dangling out of his mouth was his supper. Gulls are scavengers. They are the artful dodgers of aerial robbery, the highwaymen of the skies. The large bird had taken the rat by the tail, but had a bit of a fright when King Rat turned to bite him. He wasted no time in letting go. Realizing he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Telynog watched the rat drop until it splattered on to a sharp outcrop of rocks far below. The King was dead. In the rat world nothing went to waste. The rat pack had followed their every move. They had seen the King fall. They were soon feasting on his broken body. Little was wasted; they were even licking his wet blood off the rocks. In minutes nothing remained of King Rat, other then a few gnawed white bones, and his now eye-less skull that looked twice as menacing as it had done in life.
Telynog let the wind carry him for a few moments while he gathered himself. Miraculously he had not been injured except for an unwanted hole in his bill, and the loss of a few feathers, which he knew would soon grow back. But he also knew how lucky he had been. If it hadn’t been for the wind harassing him, he would have been asleep when the rats attacked. A picture of them eating him alive jumped into his mind. It made his blood run cold. One thing he was sure of, he wouldn’t be stopping over on the island again. Telynog had lived through some hard times, and because of that he was able to put the incident behind him, and begin to concentrate on the job in hand.
The rats are gone now, poisoned by the powers that be, in a failed attempt to get the puffins to come back to the island. Even so it is no place for a duck.