There had been a long period in which the cliffs burned red. The sand, normally pure white, looked soaked in the blood of ancient wars. Black trails of shadow grew as sun touched the horizon, a scarlet eye between sea and heavy cloud. The gloaming killed all shade and everything glowed in a supernatural bloom until darkness fell and now the only light comes from flames, sparks and embers of a huge bonfire around which the village daughters sit, sing and tell stories.
One woman, hands and chin on her knees, fair hair drifting in the breeze, says in a child-like voice, “My mammy said the wriggling air above burning driftwood was ashray dancing.”
Someone hisses, “Away with you and your talk of ghoulies, Coira. ‘Tis dark and no time to be talking of the unnatural. Anyway, the ashray live in water.”
“Ah, but do they? If they can take water for their bodies, why no fire?” Coira looks round. “Why no air even? They could be dancing around us this moment! Why no rock? they could be in the cliffs…” As she speaks, stones rattle from the buttress behind and thud into sand.
Some of the women squeal. One splutters and calls, “Will you hold your tongue, you wearde thing? You’ll scare the life out of us!”
Another woman, Kenzie, kneels in the sand, flicking clattering shells from under her legs to get comfortable as she starts braiding Sorcha’s hair; hard and thick black hair which, along with her fierce blue eyes, scares the more timid men away. Sorcha is petite, wiry and broad-shouldered. The village believes she’s one of the old race who beat the Vikings back. However, everyone likes braiding her luxurious and waist-length locks.
Sorcha tips her head back as fingers run through to separate tresses. She looks at the glowing faces, all haloed with fair or red. Struana, Moireach and Coira, in low voices discuss the men and boys securing fishing boats, hauling them high and lashing strong ropes against the coming storm. The first off-key wave snarls, tangles and fights with others. A gust blows sparks from the fire: embers roar, turning white.
Goose pimples rise as cold air races up flapping sleeves.
Girls moan, shriek and scuttle back from twisting flames, rise and dust sand from ankles and feet, pulling dresses wide and shaking pleats like sails in the wind.
“Aye, we’d better be getting back. Old Eilidh is right enough as always. I hope it’s no going to be as wild as the last.”
Kenzie bangs Sorcha’s half-made braid against her back. “There’ll be no storm for a few minutes, right enough. Let me finish.”
Sorcha shrugs. “Aye, on you go, lass. I’m in no hurry.”
Kenzie shouts to the women tightening shawls around their shoulders, “We’ll be along. Don’t you wait for us.” When they’re out of earshot she says, “Now, Sorcha yourself, you’re a quiet one this evening, hen. Is it about your wedding night you’re thinking?”
Sorcha elbows her. “There will be time enough to think of that tomorrow. With any luck I’ll wear him out dancing and he’ll fall asleep. In the morn I’ll tell him what a bull he was!”
“Stay still! No, really, why are you so quiet?” Kenzie waits but no answer comes. Sorcha seems to have stopped breathing, tense. “Dearest Sorcha. Tell me. I’m worried. You are no your normal self.”
Sorcha relaxes. “It’s the night. Do you no feel it? Coming from the sea … and I’m no speaking of the storm.” She looks seaward, and whispers, “Do you feel it in the wind? There are threads of ice woven into the warm. Ow!” she yelps as Kenzie slaps her head. “Can you no hear them?”
“Will you stop havering about spooks? I was talking about you and Morogh.”
“Him? I hardly know him and he never talks. How can anyone know him; have you ever seen him do anything that was his own idea? Oh, he helps out like the rest of the lads and does everything better because he’s quicker and stronger. But … but is there any substance to him? He’s like a strong ship with no cargo.”
“He’s good looking and does as he’s told. I can’t believe you are having second thoughts.”
“Everyone says it’s a good match and brings the two islands together but I don’t even know… This is more like farmers picking cattle to breed.” She sighs. “Love is what I dreamed of.” Sorcha reaches back and places a hand on Kenzie’s. “That was the dream.”
Kenzie snorts. “Nearly finished with you. Aye, it’s all a dream. We have babies and go grey, the men get drunk and do nothing. Look at all our mothers. They were young and pretty once. Can you believe it? Stop moving! I need to tie it up. You’ll get the best farm on any island from here to Eigg and a fine house. He’s no too bad, works very hard; why, he’s the best singer I’ve ever heard.”
“Everything comes easy to him. I don’t think he ever has to try. What’s there to admire if you don’t see that?” She jumps up and looks towards the sea. “What? Can … did you hear them?”
Kenzie scrambles to her feet, scattering sand and shells. “Will you stay still!” she mumbles, a ribbon between her teeth. “Still yourself … good. There now.”
Sorcha screams as a gust throws spume from the rising tide. A writhing band of seaweed flies into the firelight, glowing gold, green and red – and wraps itself around her.
“Run!” shouts Kenzie, pulling Sorcha’s shawl, but they are both momentarily paralysed by the seaweed. The flesh either side is woven, by some skilled hand, with other colours in intricate decoration. Kenzie backs away, arms outstretched. “No,” she moans, stumbling, “no…” and crosses herself.
Sorcha ties it around her waist. “Away with you! ‘Tis nothing to be afeared of.” Grabbing Kenzie’s wrists, she adds, “A gift from the sea. ‘Mon then, hen. Let’s be away and up the village.”
Holding onto each other, they walk the beach they’ve know all their lives, every outstanding rock every curve of white sand. Though tonight, buffeting gusts make the journey seem twice as long, shells sharper on their feet, the muddy path to the village steeper.
The almost invisible silhouette of a tall man stands against lowering clouds. A shouted greeting: urgent, “Aye, come quick. I was sent to find you. Take my arms.”
Sorcha grabs Morogh’s right arm and wonders why she doesn’t feel the tiniest pang of jealousy knowing Kenzie is held by the other arm of her promised man. The two women stumble, laugh and scream as they’re blown headlong up the cobbles and mud of the main street between low, two-roomed cottages: turf walls and thatch. In the street’s centre the usual trickle of water burgeons to a foaming burn as rain heaves on the mountain behind, carrying torn heather and ling shoots with it.
Morogh says, “To the blackhouse. Old Eilidh has half the village there.” As they reach the heavy oaken door, darkened by age as much as night, he shouts, “I’ll check the lads have finished lashing nets over the thatch.”
“Wait!” shouts Sorcha. “No, Kenzie, you go on. It’s this muckle lump I need to talk to.” She holds the door against gusting wind as Kenzie rushes through trying to wink but for hair blown into her eyes. Turning to Morogh and leaning on the door Sorcha says, “Why are we…?”
Morogh interrupts, waving her silent and talking through a braid whipped across his mouth by the wind, “Get inside with Kenzie. The cottage next but one will be the last. The old man can’t fasten his thatch.”
“You can’t do them all!”
“Aye I can. Go into the warm now.”
“Listen to me!” Sorcha screeches as he turns away. Fury tightens her shoulders and fists. “Listen! I hear the songs in the sea!” Morogh ignores her, strides forwards and checks the tightness of ropes. Heather, blown from roofs, whirls past him or catches in his beard, clothing and hair.
Sorcha wrenches the door open and enters the long blackhouse as a gust blows smoke and sparks billowing down chimney and fireplace.
“Close the door!” call numerous voices. Sorcha slams it and smoke stops flooding the room. She starts weaving between people towards the blaze, holding her hands out and wishing the stones warm for her feet, but stops – alarmed. The blackhouse is never this silent. Everyone stares at her eyes or the seaweed belt.
Through wafts of smoke a hand beckons. A thin, veined and ancient hand. Sorcha turns and walks towards old Eilidh sitting to the left of the fire and covered in blankets. Still beckoning, Eilidh ignores Sorcha’s belt and says, “Child … child. Here with you. Oh, my child, what will become of you?” She looks around. “Aye, stay you all quiet. I have words enow for everyone this night.” Placing a pipe on the blanket over her knees, she takes both Sorcha’s hands. “I called everyone here today to hear and learn.” She wheezes and stifles a cough while summoning enough breath to address the gathered villagers. “Eighteen years ago Struan’s boat was pulled against the tide and storm so all four men came home safe. Before that, Donal from the low farm was lost at sea and found himself washed ashore near the old chapel – and remembered nothing. Since then there have been many strange and fortunate events, boats turned into the waves when men were too tired to straighten them, fish driven into nets by things unseen; events you all accept but try no to explain. These islands have a woman who knows when a storm is coming: me. You even light a fire to tell them away over the channel when I give warning. Have you noticed we have more men, on these scraps of rock and peat we call home, than other islands? There are no so many widows and orphans.” She releases Sorcha’s hands and lifts her pipe. “Archie, fill and light my pipe, there’s a kind man.” She silences murmurs among the crowded bodies. Taller people duck as the thatch shudders and is blown low. Eilidh takes her pipe, smoke jerked this way and that as wind penetrates the roof. “I had a man once … have a man still. I was down on the beach, round the fire with others as we always did, and heard singing from the sea. No one was surprised; everyone thought me fey anyway. The songs made me think of a storm, the old tales and what could be done for our two islands … we were short of men. So many lost.” She pauses as Morogh enters and slams the door shut. “Aye, Morogh, over here with you. Stand by the fire; you’re shaking and drenched. Lad, you’re white and nearly dropping!”
“Aye, ‘tis a wild night but no too bad.” Morogh’s low voice cuts through the shuffling of feet and crash of a new log dropped into the fireplace. Sparks bounce off his whaleskin boots. Eilidh points the stem of her pipe at him. “And you’ll hold your peace until I’m finished speaking.” She looks around, drawn faces, serious, thoughtful. “Aye, ‘tis a subject some try to hide away from. My man, Fingal is no dead; he’s in the sea and looking after us. All those years ago he walked into a storm but lives yet. I hear him singing. His is the warning I hear but tonight he’s calling, calling me to join him at last. His part is done. Tonight I walk into the storm and sea. This is the last you’ll see of me. Fingal and I have looked after a whole generation. Now it is time for someone to take our places.” Ever blunt and direct in her manner, she nods at Sorcha and points to the belt. “The selkies have called.”
The crowded room fills with voices of alarm, disbelief and things people will want others never to recall them saying. Eilidh tries to wave everyone quiet but many are not looking at her. Morogh stuns them with a shout, “Hold your tongues and hearken! Don’t any of you gainsay Eilidh or tell us she’s no right. You may no believe in the old ones but we live in their world. They were here first and surround us still. Those of you who don’t see the shadows in the water, hear the tread of invisible feet across the moors or music in the waves are blind and deaf. You have no part in this talk.” He glares at the assembled people. “It’s no just Sorcha and me who see and hear, though many of you won’t say it in front of the church man.”
Sorcha turns to him stunned. “Well, my man, I never thought you had so many words in you!”
He mumbles and falls silent.
Eilidh goes on, “There are some here who think the holy book and the new beliefs should push out the old but that’s like saying this island is real but no the other. I leave tonight and join Fingal at last. It’s up to you all to decide what you are going to do, whether you want your men to return from the sea, whether you want warning to pull up the boats, keep your animals safe and lash thatching. Quiet! Let Sorcha speak.”
Sorcha feels eyes and a terrible silence pressing on her. “I … must I drown?”
Eilidh shakes her head. “No, child. Fingal could no sing if he were drowned. He’s been with the selkies and may be for ever more. So too will I be. It’s no a sacrifice except a life of lonely yearning and hope. The selkies take but they are no cruel. They give back so much more. Many of you would no be here but for them. I don’t know what they wanted from Fingal but he’s calling and would never do so if my going would be bad.”
Someone calls out, “But what do they want of the person they take?” A general murmur accompanies a feeling of dread and hostility. Eyes averted some people make furtive signs of the cross.
Again Morogh quietens them. “Put away your fears. They don’t tell us. From their singing I don’t think we’d understand their words – if they have them. But I need no ask. I saw a child returned alive from the clawing waves after she’d been dragged out. I know good when I see it.”
In the ensuing hush Sorcha lifts her dress and kneels in front of Eilidh, taking her hand. “Tell me what I have to do. I who hear and see: I who know. On your word I will do this.” Growing pale, and with a tear glistening as it runs, she bites a lip.
“No!” Morogh’s roar stills ripples of murmurs.
Sorcha rises and holds his arms. “Aye, my man, this will be done. I … I’m sorry to…” she runs out of words.
Morogh places his huge hands either side of her head. “You would do this?” He draws a long breath, eyes tight closed, shaking. “You would give up your life … the best farm…? Go … go from all this?”
“Aye, for the islands, for the men clinging to rocks, for drifting boats with broken oars, for empty nets on hungry days, for children who would be unborn for lack of a father. Aye, I will go.”
“Then … you fill me with wonder.”
“You will listen to my singing, heed my warnings, tell the men no to fish even when the sky looks bright and the sea calm as milk in a bowl?” She meets his eyes. “You will wait for me as Eilidh waited for her man? You’d wait until you’d served the islands and I the selkies?”
“Aye, I’d wait for you … now I know … I’ve seen… I…”
Sorcha lifts and kisses his fingertips. “Aye, it’s a busy life and you coming from the other isle; we never got to know one another. I’m beginning to think there may be quite a lot to you too. But you don’t have to wait for me, Morogh, there’re plenty of lasses…”
“No, Sorcha, you may wait for me if you want to.” He looks around the room. “Archie, Donal, Mhairi, Euan, everyone, hear this! Sorcha gets my farm, my boat, my animals as if we were already wed.” He turns back to Sorcha. “You could no carry Eilidh down to the sea in this wind. Aye, and I can sing as good as any selkie! I’ll go into the sea and do as the old ones bid until it’s time for you to join me. Give me that belt. Will you wait for me?”
“Aye, that I will.”
©Gary Bonn, 2018