Thunder rumbles ominously in the distance. Polly suppresses a yawn. She glares at the night sky which is blanketed in clouds heavy with storm.
Rain already, she thinks. Get it over with.
Almost as though they are lending an ear, the heavens open. Fat raindrops make their rapid descent down to Earth and Polly quickly pulls up her hood and directs her camera at the Stormy Princess.
For decades the Stormy Princess has guarded this short, barren stretch of Yorkshire coastline. From the day she first appeared in 1959 — crafted from clay by an anonymous artist — the sculpture has been the source of superstition and rumour. She’s bewitched, say the residents of nearby towns and villages. She’s made of magic. Every time a storm passes over her, she moves.
The Stormy Princess might spend weeks standing tall, hands clasped politely behind her back as she gazes serenely out to sea from her cliff-edge perch. Then, the morning after a brutal middle-of-the-night storm, she could be poised in an impressive arabesque, one lithe leg stretched out behind her, one armed raised to the sky, her mouth set in a euphoric smile.
They say she is moulded by storms — limbs twisted by wind, flesh hammered by rain, and her new form set firm by fierce forks of lightning. The locals bear witness. They say they’ve seen her move right before their very eyes.
Rubbish, Polly thinks. But she points and shoots her camera nonetheless as she notes the growing volume of thunder.
Rain beats down on the Stormy Princess. She’s currently on her knees, her hands pressed together in prayer, her face sad and pious as she looks for guidance from God above. According to local newspapers, prior to her spiritual stance the sculpture had been sitting cross-legged on the muddy ground, laughing at a silent joke. And before that she’d been laid out on her back, one forearm resting dramatically against her brow as though fighting off a vicious headache. Almost all of her poses have been recorded via photographs or drawings or paintings over the years — there are hundreds of them, with no repeats — but photographic evidence of the Princess’s storm-induced transformations has never materialised.
And that’s exactly why Polly now stands in the rain, yawning and sighing and cursing the friend who piqued her interest in the daft superstition to begin with. Not a single photographer has managed to capture on film the moment of the Princess’s change. Really? Not in sixty years? And the superstition still lingers? Ludicrous. She couldn’t possibly turn down the opportunity to prove it all wrong.
Polly wonders how the artist behind the puerile mystery has managed to maintain the palaver for so long. They must sculpt each new form in a studio, she surmises, and sneak out every stormy night to make the swap. She pictures a great stack of old clay princesses piled up in a dingy warehouse like dead bodies. It must take some stealth. Surely someone must have seen the artist at it. Perhaps the locals are all in on it — a futile attempt to generate publicity and draw tourists to their tired seaside towns.
The Stormy Princess is now slick with rain and it almost looks as though her skin is melting like wax. Polly snaps a series of quick shots, then squints at the Princess’s praying hands. She’s sure that the fingers were stretched out straight, pointing to the sky. The palms are still pressed firm, but now the fingers are clasped together.
She prods at the buttons on her camera, flicking back to the shots she took before the rain began to fall. Yes — there’s the proof. The Princess’s hands have moved.
Polly looks up from her camera and her breath skips. The sculpture is looking right back at her. Just seconds ago it was gazing up at the sky.
With practised fingers Polly quickly switches her digital camera to video mode and hits record. This is really happening, she thinks. Isn’t it? Unless the storm is playing tricks with her mind and her vision. But the camera will keep track of the truth, either way.
Thunder clatters directly overhead and both Polly and the Princess flinch. The sculpture reaches out towards the photographer and her lips mouth silent words. Her knees have softened and merged into the mud beneath her; it seems like she’s sprouted right from the Earth itself. “Help me,” the voiceless mouth seems to say.
Polly lunges towards the clay form and lightning strikes directly in front of her, blocking her path. Her skin prickles with static.
The Princess shakes her head now. Her kneeling legs are no more. She’s sinking fast into cloying mud. “Run,” her mouth seems to say.
Another fork of lightning strikes and this one makes its target. The Princess’s face contorts and her arms spasm. Her back arches and her whole being lights up in an unearthly yellow-gold glow.
Polly is fixated; her own feet seem to be glued to the muddy ground. She can’t tear her gaze away from the writhing creature before her, despite the freezing, lashing rain and the quickfire thunder which shakes her bones with each clap.
And now more lightning. It strikes Polly dead on. Unbearable, stinging agony jolts every muscle, every nerve, every sinew. Her vision goes black. She slumps over into the mud and sleeps the storm away.
The sea hisses and seagulls squawk. A gentle breeze tickles Polly awake. She opens her eyes to dazzling morning sun but despite its warmth she feels chilled to her core.
She pulls herself up, one side of her face caked in mud, and takes in the sight of the latest iteration of the Stormy Princess. She’s magnificent. Beautiful as ever, set in a demure curtsy with a small, sweet smile on her lips.
Polly reaches for her camera which lies alongside her in a shallow, black puddle. The lens is cracked but the power button brings it to life. She flicks back through the camera’s memory, searching for the video she knows she recorded last night.
It’s not there.
She manages a small laugh. Of course it isn’t there. Nor are any of the photographs she took, even before the storm kicked off in earnest.
It’s all ludicrous. But at least now she knows.