Cutty Sark


I was looking at a map of Virginia Beach the other day, and saw a hotel called Cutty Sark.  Remembering the name from an old story, I looked it up.  The name comes from a Robert Burns narrative poem from 1791 called Tam O’Shanter.

In the poem, a man leaves a pub after having a few drinks and (I think) arguing with his wife.  He stumbles past a kind of satanic ritual, where he sees the devil dancing with a coven of witches.  One of the witches is wearing a short shirt (a “cutty sark”) that’s kind of revealing, and her erotic appearance gets his attention.  He calls out to her, and ends up being chased by the hordes of hell.  (He does escape, though it costs his horse its tail.)

Online version of the poem is here:

But Tam kent what was what fu’ brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and
That night enlisted in the core…

So Tam falls for the “winsome wench,” and things don’t go well:

And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied.
When out the hellish legion sallied.

Anyway…  doesn’t this also seem like the opening of a story?  Something a little like Eyes Wide Shut, where a character is pulled loose from his normal life and witnesses something unsettling, and after that he’s imperiled.

Of course the witch wouldn’t really be a witch, or at least not a literal witch.  She could be something more than she appears, or she could just be a demon — not really malevolent, just a manifestation of the forces that bind us.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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By Tom Howard


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