It began in a spaewife’s hut, as all things of import did in the Hebrides. The old gods had been outlawed for centuries, the churches built over most of the sacred sites, but the island folk of Scarba were a practical people. There were some things you went to the Lord for, and others only older powers would understand. That evening, when the gulls dipped their wings and took shelter in the cliff hollows, and the wind carried with it the scents of salt and earth and rain, Iohne Maknab came to the spaewife for a prophecy. He brought her a honeycomb and a black baby goat, some butter and a sack of slightly withered apples, and there in the herbed smoke of her hut she read the bones on the packed dirt.
“Sail out into the firth,” she instructed, twisting a sheep’s knuckle bone this way and that with the end of a rowan stick. “Keep the fires of the village directly behind you, and your eyes on the place where the sun is reborn. Then the waters will give up what they owe.”
“Will it be a large fish, then?” Iohne badly wanted to show up the Caubries, whose three sons had all brought back fish as long as they themselves were tall on their first Sailing Days. “If not large, then plentiful?” It would not be quite as impressive, on first sight, but a bucket of fish would keep a family fed longer than just the one, and Iohne would not think it amiss if his son began building a reputation as a good provider, even at nine summers old. Many families on the island had borne sons these past few years, and competition was stiff for the few eligible lasses available to them.
The young woman, fair but for the milky eye that lolled and twitched independently of its twin, spat on the floor at his feet. “Did I say fish?” she said, twisting her mouth. “If you’ve a mind to read the bones yourself, Maknab, best get down here in the dirt and do so. Otherwise, leave the telling to me.”
“I want to hear what the old gods have in store for me. For my boy,” he insisted. “I want to know.”
She jabbed him in the chest with the end of the rowan stick, and rose up from her crouch to bristle and bark at him.
“I don’t care what you want, Maknab. I tell you what you need to hear. What the gods bid me tell. You think the ones that are left give one shit about fish and farms and stillborn babes?” The spaewife, she who once was the sweetheart of all the village men, before the fire, before the death of her mother, before the fey sickness that marred her face, twisted it now in a sneer directed at Iohne. “All the ones that cared are dead or gone. Blame your priest, fisherman.”
Iohne offered her a drink from his wine skin, and after a moment, she took it and guzzled its contents, mollified. “Three days.” She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, leaving a pale smear of mud across her lips. “No sooner, no later. Now, off with you.”
It took him a full day just to make the trek back to his village, and another to convince his wife that things would be hard for their family if they waited another year for their older son’s first sailing.
“You’ve a new little one now, darlin’. Leave Gelis to me. Let him be a man, Annie,” he admonished. “Let him grow up.”
“Grow up?” she mewled, sniffling and rearranging their newborn in her arms. “Can the waters do faster what the gods do in their own time? He’s such a wee thing, Iohne.”
“We need the extra hands,” he insisted, not unkindly. “I’m getting on, Annie. We’ll have a hard year if the boy can’t do his part to keep us fed.”
As if remembering, his wife looked to the crockery on the table that held the last of their wild-gathered honey combs. “What did the spaewife say?”
“That the waters would give up what they owed. We’re owed, love. More than anyone else. After what we’ve gone through, what we’ve given up…”
Fretting, Annie tugged her shawl around her shoulders, wrapping their newborn and herself in layers of wool and darkness. “But what does that even mean? How can you be sure? Last time…last time you thought…”
His patience was thinning. Was everything he did for his family to be questioned? “Last time was an accident. I’ve told you.”
His wife stared down into the wrinkled face of their baby, still too new to bother sending a priest for, or even naming. “He’s too young,” she muttered. “If Dauid were still with us —”
“Enough, Annie.” Iohne slammed a hand down on the table, rising as he did so. “Enough. I’ve made my decision.” He lifted his mug, drinking the last of its contents before turning his back on his wife. “I’ve the boat to see to.”
He left the hut then, leaving Annie to sniffle into their baby’s bundle. “My boy,” she cried. “My poor, sweet boy…” He did not ask which son she wept for. He knew it was all the same.
As he passed out into the yard, he paused beside his oldest boy, who was sitting on a stump and appearing for all the world as if he were busy mending nets, not listening to his parents argue.
“See that they’re all in good shape,” he said, patting the boy’s shoulder. “We’ll be sailing before dawn.”
When his son gave a whoop of glee, he forced himself to smile, and by the time he had made it to the water, he had convinced himself it was sincere.
The day they set out, he kissed his wife’s cheek, and his wife in turn kissed their son’s, and handed him a little woolen sack which held their bread and cheese for the day. “There’s a few eggs in there, as well,” she confided to the child, her whisper comical and loud. “I know how fond you are of them.” Eggs were as hard to come by as cheese on the island, and it was seldom that a meal contained both, but Iohne knew that his wife had been taking up extra mending from the Aberdeens, and now the reason was clear.
Iohne rolled his eyes. “You needn’t spoil the boy, Annie,” he protested.
She hugged her oldest against her chest where she held the baby,pressing one son against the other. “Let a mother spoil her children,” she chided. “She never knows how many days she has with them.” Her eyes, black as pitch in the hours before dawn, bore into his own, and he had to turn away from them.
Hoisting the fishing nets over his shoulder, Iohne started down the path to the docks, and was gratified to hear his son scurrying behind him.
Five summers ago, he had led another boy down this same grassy path. Then, it had been closer to dawn, and he had walked slowly, showing off his tall, red-haired son to the other fisherfolk as they readied their own boats. Now, it was much darker, and he moved at a speed that left his smaller progeny running and stumbling after him. Much of the village was only just beginning to stir, and when Iohne saw the first lick of smoke from a chimney, he grabbed hold of his son’s frail shoulder and all but carried him to the water.
It was one thing to hear it from a woman who had never set foot in a boat, and quite another to hear it from the other men.
“What should I do?” asked the boy, trembling in the chill air that rolled in from the sea.
Stepping down into the boat from the edge of the rickety wooden dock, Iohne set himself to arranging the nets in the small boat. “You’ve got the sack your ma gave you?”
The boy clambered down into the boat, opposite Iohne, and lifted it high in both little hands.
Iohne spared a glance up, then returned to the netting. “Keep it close. Don’t let it get wet.”
His son, Gelis, freckled as his mother and just as dark- featured, clutched the little rough sack tight against his chest and watched with wide eyes as Iohne untied the boat from its mooring. With a kick from his father’s greased boot, the small boat eased away from the village, then picked up speed as the burly man began to row.
Overhead, the stars still burned brightly, and the night was quiet without the raucous calls of gulls and other men. The air was clear, though, and the waters calm, and that was a blessing as far as Iohne was concerned.
He remembered a time when the water had churned like a boiling pot,and the spaewife had spoken of great fish stirring from the water’s depths, called up by the power of the Lord. Pride had driven him out onto the waters, then, so sure was he that the prophecy had been a good one. He’d not had cause for pride since he’d looked into the black eyes of the beasts that had circled his boat, knives in their mouths, those five years past.
He shuddered at the memory, paused for a bit to pull a drink from his wine skin, and returned in earnest to handling the oars, putting as much distance between himself and his troubles as he was able.
When they had gone a good ways out, and he was satisfied that they were far enough away from where the other boats would be, Iohne carefully turned the boat so that the land, now little more than a darker smudge against an already dark sky, was firmly behind him. Satisfied, he reached into the bottom of the boat and pulled out a long wooden rod, carved all over with tiny fish that leapt and tumbled in a series of lines suggesting waves. Like the spaewife’s conjure stick, this fishing rod was carved from the branch of a rowan tree, the very one tree that his ancestors had planted in the center of the village they’d help build so many years ago.
“This was my grand da’s,” he began, surprised at the catch in his throat. “And on it went to my da, and to me, and to — ”
“To Dauid.” Gelis’s voice was little more than a whisper, and Iohne almost mistook it for the sounds of the water around them.
“Aye. To Dauid. And as he had no sons…being just a boy, himself…now it goes to you. And one day, Lord willing, it will go to your son.”
He held it out, nodded his approval as Gelis took it carefully in hand. “There. Now that’s done. You remember the way I showed you to string it?”
The boy nodded solemnly, smoothing his hands over the wood before taking out the length of red cording he’d been saving in his belt pouch. Red for strength. Red for virility. Red for protection.
“Good. Well, let’s get started, eh?”
They fished in silence, then, the man with his nets and the boy with his rod, and they watched as the stars dimmed and the sun rose up behind the waters, shrouded in brilliant colors like the flowers which grew around the village. When it slipped free of the waters and began it’s ascent into the sky, they opened the sack Gelis had brought and shared a simple meal. They did so again when the sun began to slide down behind Iohne’s back.
Like so many other times in Iohne’s life, this day had proven disappointing. The nets remained empty, and Gelis’s pole had failed to coax anything out of the water. Iohne felt a bitter taste well up in the back of his throat, and he washed it down with a fierce swallow from his wine skin. Then, as an afterthought, he shared some with his son, pretending not to notice as he coughed and sputtered around the burn of the drink.
“Well,” Iohne said, his voice husky, “The day is almost spent. We’ll come back tomo — ”
“A little longer,” Gelis begged, the color rising high in his cheeks at the thought of failure. “Just a little longer. I can do it, da. I just need a little while longer.”
“Aye,” Iohne agreed, inwardly cursing the spaewife. “A little longer, then.”
The man felt the heat of the sun blazing on his back, and knew the moment it began to sink down behind the trees near the village. He did not look back to the dying light, but instead over the empty waters, and at the fog that was rising from them, as thick and impenetrable as land.
“Gelis, boy, I know it’s hard, but it’s long past time we — ”
A thump on the boy’s side set the boat to rocking, and Iohne’s heart leapt in his chest. What was it? And, more importantly, had Gelis hooked it?
The line on the end of the rod tugged and shifted, and Iohne’s heart gave another wild leap.
His son was peering over the edge of the boat, and his face was pale. “Da…” he croaked.
“It’s alright, it’s alright. Here, I’ll help you bring her in.” Iohne leaned over to put his hands over his son’s, and froze when he looked down in the water.
Partially submerged, a woman’s body, dressed in rich purple velvet and fine lace, eased past the boat on some current which did not care to bear them along with it. Gelis’s hook was caught in the woman’s nose, but her pale face betrayed not a hint of pain, her eyes remaining closed as if she only slept. The strange current carried her past the boat, stretching the line on the rod taut and extending her left nostril. A bloodless rip began to form in her skin, extending down into the fat of her cheek.
Choking on the rising bile in his throat, Iohne retrieved the little knife he kept at his belt and cut Gelis’s line, freeing the woman to continue her slow drift towards the village.
“Da, who was she?” His son gripped the pole so tightly his little knuckles turned white. “Where did she come from?”
“I don’t rightly know, son. Some fine lady, likely drowned.”
He knew, without his son saying so, how ridiculous it sounded. The other village boats had long since returned to the docks, and none of the large vessels which would have borne such a woman came anywhere near their island. Even if they had, the weight of her gown should have carried her under the waves, not held her on the water’s surface like a bit of driftwood.
He had just settled on a calming lie to distract his son when the boat rocked again, this time struck by the bodies of two men with pitch-black skin and the pale bumps of strangely patterned scars across their chests. Long spears, strung with white-tipped feathers that swayed in the water as if they were some strange form of seaweed, were clutched tightly in their hands and held against their sides. These men, too, were still and lifeless and perfectly preserved.
“Da,” his son cried, alarmed, “Da, where are they coming from?”
He shushed his son, as if the dead men could hear them, and watched in tight-lipped fright as the men’s bodies drifted after the woman’s, behind him and towards the land that he called home. Around the boat, now, he could see scores of others, bodies as fresh and whole as if they merely slumbered, all of them wearing strange clothes the likes of which a poor Scottish fisherman had never seen. Some were wearing jewels that glittered in the dying light, but Iohne could no more bring himself to touch those eerie gems than he could the bodies that bore them. Men and women, children and youths, now clustered around the boat and pushed past it towards the land, slow and serene as leaves on the water’s current, while their own boat remained undisturbed.
Iohne took up his wine skin from his belt and had a drink, then, and another, passing the last of it to his son, who only held it tight against his chest along with his rod.
“When I was a boy,” Iohne whispered, his memories rising from the depths like the sea’s dead, “The old spaewife, she what was the mother of the one we have now, she used to come into the village time to time and barter for fish.”
Gelis said not a word, but kept his eyes on the bodies in the water.
“Sometimes,” Iohne continued, more for his own benefit than his son’s, as if the sound of his voice could somehow counteract the strangeness of the evening. “She would tell the older folk that a day of great import was coming. She said, ‘The first sign will be when the water gives up what it owes.’”
Gelis had dropped them, now, both the skin and the rod, and he drew his knees up to his chest. “What’s supposed to happen, da? What’s it a sign of?”
Iohne shook his head, not daring to look towards the village behind him. “I don’t know, son. I was a boy. I never stayed to listen, I wanted to play.” He laughed a little, then, wild and bitter. “And I never was any good at understanding prophecies.”
Before him, the waters of the firth, black as the starless night which was stretching over them, were broken up with the bodies of the dead. They crowded around and pushed past the boat, plentiful as the fish Iohne had hoped to catch, given up by the sea and being carried back to the land that bore them. A strange calm came over the boat, and Iohne, caught up in it, found himself watching the waters for the sight of red hair, short, and a freckled face so like his own. Iohne did not know what he would do if he saw him.
The two of them, man and boy, sat quietly in the boat, then, and did not speak again through the whole of the night.
[Note: Originally published in the 2018 online edition of The Vortex.]
[Ashley Nicole Hunter sits on the board of directors for Bibliotheca Alexandrina and has been published in a few reputable (and otherwise) publications.]