By Jon Crout
Details that are presented as historical fact are continually subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. Accounts of historic events are only as reliable as those making the record, and will inevitably be subject to the reporter’s own perspective.
So make what you will of the stories of a mysterious figure that supposedly lived on a shack on stilts in the sea, very close to our modern Canoe Lake. We are told that this scribe was a monk, originally French, and that he had chosen to settle here after his worldly travels. Believing, for reasons now lost to us, that his lord had survived beyond the events recounted in his holy book, and that he had travelled to Antarctica to bring his message to penguins, this monk would allegedly kneel every day, head bowed, facing the South Pole.
From this, so the story goes, he derived his name among locals; South-Prayed Pierre. There is still a structure, many times rebuilt, on the site of his old hut. And deep in the more secret vaults that house the city’s most ancient writings, are Pierre’s fantastic, perhaps unbelievable, accounts of the fantastical history of the area.
One such account records an oral folk legend that Pierre includes in his ‘Blanc Verset’ collection, every page of which provokes heated debate amongst scholars, starting with a dispute over the very title. Some claim it is an incorrect translation, others that it is not the title that Pierre gave this work, but rather the name under which it is catalogued. For now, though, we will stick with it.
The archaic language and collision of first and second languages make a direct translation impenetrable to all but the most stubborn, so liberties will be taken, for your benefit, to paraphrase this most unreliable of narrators.
The tale concerns a time longer ago than most people would care to conceive, at a time before the mouth of the port could be said to have been actually settled by human beings. This was before George had earned his reputation for dispatching large lizards, and before Ken had even sold his first kebab, an ancient time when the landscape was walked and shaped by astounding creatures.
Ignoring much of the story’s preamble concerning drizzle and the absence of good, soft cheese, the tale really gets underway with the appearance on the high horizon of a terrible silhouette, some miles south of what we now think of as the shore. Unfortunately, the drama of the original tale wanes almost immediately, as we are told that the monstrous form does nothing but watch menacingly from afar for thousands of years.
Pierre laments that during this period the prehistoric ice melts, giving rise to an island to the south that one can no longer walk to. He goes on to wail at great length about how this same process tragically saw his beloved homeland also separated from his adopted one. Many modern academics have taken issue with just how sad this actually was, demonstrating how the passage of time can sometimes change the majority perspective.
Anyway, after much digression, we get back to some action.
‘The dark demon could contain his pyrrhic fury no longer, and with much ominous grumbling this satanic creature set forth for the mainland. The tumultuous currents of the excitedly new tidal waters proved no obstacle to the determined behemoth. It had set itself on some dreadful purpose on the opposite shore, and plunged purposefully into the waves. The measure of the creature’s immense size was that it took an age for it to fully submerge, and it was out of sight for what seemed mere moments before the tip of its scaly head reappeared, and started getting closer and closer. The beasts of the greater landmass watched on. Curiosity was tempered with great trepidation. The frog on the front sent up an air balloon as a warning to his fellow creatures. The spirit that watched over the port and the sea took silent note. Known simply as Mary (Pierre would have her as St. Mary, but modern translations favour a secular title), she acted as protector over all she could see, and from anywhere on her tiny island, those under her protection could see her in return.
‘As Mary watched on, she saw the unrelenting invader loom ever larger out of the Solent. She resolved to meet it in battle, but knew that she would be unlikely to vanquish such a formidable foe without assistance. Mental pleas for help were transmitted to land and sea, and she waited in hope. The sea spirits, Horse Sand, No Man, Spitbank and little St Helen tried to bar the titan’s path. With barely a shrug they were scattered great distances into the water and turned instantly to stone.
‘Then the first enormous, scaly foot set foot on the pebbly beach, and without the resistance of the sea, the solemn horror proceeded with a swiftness that belied its bulk. The frog was squished unceremoniously, and in a salvo of fiery breath a contented pig was turned to crackling in a second.
‘Two of the larger, local fauna heeded their summons and engaged the grim vision. The smaller, Emily, was tricked and trapped within a nearby structure. Her larger companion, the Ultrasaurus, fared no better than the pig, and within seconds was reduced to a smouldering remnant of its former self.
‘The next answer to Mary’s call to arms then appeared. A golden lion reared up close to the harbour’s entrance and flailed with furious claws at the dragon’s haunches. It was no real contest, but the ferocity of the assault caused the monster to topple forward into the water again. With a great frothing, the sea around the murky menace became transformed into a maelstrom as new combatants with hearts of oak entered the fray. More lions, this time accompanied by unicorns, and all of them possessed of the tails of fish, broke from the water in waves, incessantly pounding the head, body and limbs of the intruder.
‘Mary continued to observe, biding her time. She saw the attacking beast, with its wet, solid hide sparkling, and the strange markings on its chest writhing against its bones as it moved. As the battle was joined, Mary slipped silently into the harbour and submerged herself. The dragon was proving a worthy foe, dispatching all creatures that came at it with a fury that allowed none to return for a second attempt. Soon all resistance dwindled. The golden lion roared in final defiance as white hot breath turned it to ash where it stood.
‘At that moment Mary rose, and the dragon, for the first time, took a small step backwards. She called on all the power available to her and swelled and grew to try and match the fearful enormity of the scaly beast. They engaged each other, their essences locked in a lethal embrace, and no quarter was given. She looked deep into the charcoal eyes and read the aberration’s dank soul.
‘This was Spine Acher, the shatterer of bones and bringer of nightmares. As her tense muscles trembled, Mary’s necklace achieved a natural resonance. Mined of a local mineral, Milendium, it seemed to have an effect on her opponent. St Mary’s arms felt the creature yield slightly, and with a flash of inspiration, she tore off her jewellery and shoved it into the dragon’s mouth. With a boom that it is said was heard the world over, the creature’s head exploded, leaving its stunned body a beacon, as the top of its spine burnt away to a fine point, a process that took a whole five years.
‘The scaly remains were left in the harbour, almost exactly where the battle ended, to act as a warning to any who might unwisely think about attacking the settlement that was to grow up around the port. Over time, the arms fell away, but the rest of the immense skeleton stood as a sentinel in the harbour. With a ribcage jutting out emphatically at all observers, and the sun bleaching the bones white, it remains there to this very day.’
The Spine Acher, occasionally also referred to as the Milendium Tower, can now be seen from many more miles around than Mary’s influence ever extended in those days gone by. The story, as recorded, sadly fails to explain the reason for the dragon’s rampage. We can only guess at the motives for assault. Some try and argue that it was the mainland creatures that were the aggressors, and that the dragon was a victim of unprovoked wickedness, with his carcass put on display as a testament to their evil. Either way, the legend warns that if ever the island can once again be reached on foot, then the dragon will return. Let those who talk of tunnels and bridges take heed.
The runes that had once been visible on the creature’s chest are a source of further debate. Many suggestions have been made based on different versions of the tale, but the most populist is that they said ‘I ♥ Wight’. Indeed, Pierre in another story talks of the ‘I ♥ Wight’ fairies, and how they regularly visit the harbour in disguise, ensuring that those travelling between islands do so over water.
Quite frankly, the whole thing is felt by most right-minded persons to be entirely preposterous. And yes, there are other explanations, if one cares to heed them, for the things and events that are to be found within the geographical bounds of the world that Pierre discusses in his texts.
Yet if you venture down to the harbour today you can see the regular visitors to the Tower that arrive by water, and imagine that they are keeping watch on the creature, waiting for the time when he might reawaken. Go and see for yourself, if you dare.