This story has quite a few inspirations feeding into it. I wanted it to carry on action from the earlier tales “The Burnt Moon” and “The Badger Bride”, and show a little more of Adelbert’s life and to introduce the character of Delling, one of the daughters of Wulfwyn from “The Burnt Moon”. The title comes from a Florence + the Machine song, “Bedroom Hymns”, the name Delling (Dellingr) is that of a male god from the Norse Sagas, and the naglfar is a boat made from the finger and toe nail clippings of the dead, which will take part in Ragnarok. I don’t know why I picked out these very Norse elements, but I just liked the sound of Delling as a girl’s name, and the idea of the nail-boat was very rich and resonant for me when I read about it.
I also wanted to revisit Southarp and her people, some of whom were complicit in the burning of Hafwen and some of whom were collateral damage of Adelbert’s terrible revenge. I liked the idea that they were stuck on earth, and so simply carried on in death the way they had in life. I love the idea of Delling coming to do a great, selfless work and thus earn release for someone she loves as well as people she never knew – I think the title of the story plays to this: that the town of Southarp and its folk had been undone, and what Delling does is rather divine. I think she’s a wonderful character and hope to revisit her again someday.
The Undone and the Divine
The ghosts spend their days profitably, doing precisely what they did in life.
Trading, gossiping, building, baking, shoeing ephemeral horses with u-shaped things made of smoke and promises, sleeping when the sun sets and rising when it shows its face once more, fornicating as is only natural. Such coupling, however, is unsatisfying, for it produces nothing, neither pleasure nor offspring; ethereal fingers pass through gossamer flesh. Touches are felt no longer than the tiniest fragment of a second, with no lingering to allay the longing. At its heart, the village is broken and without purpose.
So when Delling, shaven-headed, in a faded blue travelling dress, crosses the burnt boundaries, steps over the earthy threshold still marked with deepest ash and visible under the grass and wild foliage after all the lonely years, the spectres go about their business, pretending that she is the insubstantial one. They ignore her when she says, quite loudly, ‘Southarp’ into the warm air. They ignore her although they yearn to know what she carries in the satchel hung at her hip and the sandalwood box slung across her back. They wonder why she looks familiar. They are even more curious to note that she does not run screaming when she sees them, for see them she does.
For a while, she stops and watches the phantoms as they do their dance of imagined life, taking in their faces and storing them in her memory. Then she moves along. Beneath the thick soles of her boots, Delling can feel things crunch and crumble; the last of the rats’ skeletons, friable, but defiant against the elements and time. She strides past the shell of the Burnt Moon Mill where the wheel still hangs, precarious on the last few struts and wall fragments. It no longer turns, although slapped and batted by the water, but does not yield; the liquid gives up, splits and flows around the fluid-eaten paddles that have been submerged for so long they are covered with a green algae that seems fluorescent. Delling eyes the mill and the skeleton of the cottage that once housed Cenred and Cern and Wulfwyn. She continues on by the hunched shape of the inn, all collapsed in on itself with vines climbing thickly over it, like some great beast gone to sleep for too long and trapped. Along the streets she goes, accompanied by the crunch-crunch-crunching of her shoes as they grind down the past.
So many left-overs, so many burnt-out wrecks, so much loss, but the silhouette of the old is still there, the figure of the village remains. Just like the moving shadows and shades that hustle and bustle in the last of the afternoon sun, the goodwives nodding to each other, the menfolk closing their stalls for the day, penning up ghostly animals, picking spectral vegetables from gardens long since grown over. As she passes she can see them all disappearing into their cremated homes; through non-existent walls she watches them prepare for the evening, cooking illusory meals that can be neither tasted nor truly eaten, setting children tasks that no one will care to check. Soon, they will be abed. Delling wonders if ghosts dream.