Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Afore The Mast

Story inspired by Robert Rendall’s poem, ‘Saut i’ the bluid’

by Suzy A Kelly

My bones, my aching bones.

All the way home from the inn, I wanted to do nothing else but fall into my chair by the fireside. As I eased into my seat, I gave the wife a cheeky wink as I watched her scowl out from our wedding frame. I sank into the headrest, determined to enjoy the last of my whisky glow, and took pleasure in the simplicity of warming my socks by the hot coals. Peggie would have had a fit if she’d seen the holes in them.

I still miss her, even her tuts and her finger-wagging. Especially her barley broth in the winter.

‘Archie, what in the name?’ she’d cry whenever I stoated in worse for wear.

I closed my eyes to try and remember her voice. I heard nothing but the creak of the cottage as it shuddered against the Atlantic wind. It seemed like the whole house was being uprooted from the cliffside and blown out to sea.

The sea. My true home.

I still tasted the salt air on my lips from the long walk home tonight. I imagined the house swaying with such violence that it left the land and joined the ocean. It was as if the house bobbed and rolled with the power of the waves. It made me feel like a proper skipper again. There I was ruggan afore the mast, pressing my back into it as I navigated safe passage through the swell. In those few heartbeats, I found my sea legs again and it gave me a sense of purpose. The air I breathed felt right again; good, fresh salt air; not the stale breath of a landloper, corralled by stone walls. I don’t want to be that person I became when my son, that fair-haired stranger, passed away.

With the boy gone, the wife needed me home and so I held Peggie’s thin hands while she wept over that little boy who never danced, or laughed, or really loved us. Soon after, Peggie’s heart gave out and she left me here alone to bear our losses.

I gripped the armrest as a few rogue tears escaped. As waves lashed the cottage windows, all the hard memories started to return.

You see, they told us that only a fey child - a demonic, blood-driven beast - could swallow brose like a whale and still dwine in health. So, after much discussion and lamenting, choices were made about the skinny child with the pale, wrinkled face and the limp arms, the one born with two front teeth. Peggie was adamant that she’d heard the child say he wasn’t ours, and who was I to argue?

Old Dunbar said to fill eggshells with rainwater and that this would somehow expose the evil that had infiltrated our home. It was thought the curious being would follow the line of shells onto the hearth, and then, with a little parental help, straight into the fire. But the stories - and the storytellers - lied to us. The fey boy did not fly up the chimney like they promised. Neither was our real boy, our blood child, returned to us from some lonely otherworld. By morning, the mound of charred 'fairy flesh' had stopped screaming at us from the iron grate. From that day to this, I have felt cursed.

Every time I take a dram, I dream myself back afore the mast. I long to sail into the mountainous, black waters and be baptised by the salt spray. Only at sea can I escape the noise and the guilt.

But Peggie was resolute; her, the midwife, and the herring girls. Their way was the only way. Well, I’ll never see them or my boy again. No Maker can hold me to account. He doesn’t need to for I already live in my own private gaol. But now I am ready to speak out, to confess my wrongdoings.

So, leave me to steer the cottage for a while longer. Allow me to imagine one last lift and crash of the waves, feel one last gouster of salt air on my face. Then, tomorrow I will scatter my son’s ashes. I will finally do right by him and tell his story to the authorities.

My heart. My aching heart.