Northwords Now

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Midden

by Susan Elsley

Mae found them in March and buried what she’d found in April. The day before they appeared had been the last of the whipping winter storms. She’d seen the sea rising and falling as she walked across the fields from the school bus. Each crash of the waves was followed by the rattle of pebbles being sucked back in a slow drag. She gave a skip. Saturday would be a perfect day.

She was up by eight.  In the kitchen her father lifted his head from his laptop as she put on her yellow oilskin jacket.  ‘You off, Mae?’

He had spent another night pacing downstairs. In the early hours, she had pulled the duvet over her head to shut out the Joni Mitchell song he played over and over on his record player. When she came down this morning there was a whisky glass and a half eaten packet of biscuits balanced on the arm of the chair. His late night comforts.

‘I’ll be an hour or two,’ she said, waiting to see if he looked down.

Her father picked up her scarf from the back of a chair and tossed it to her.

‘A pile of cracked plastic and old fishing nets is all there’ll be, sweetheart.’

‘Dad, that’s not true.’

Mae pointed to the shelf he had made from driftwood. Her best finds were there: a dolphin’s scapula, the porcelain white skull of a gannet, a giant seed pod from another place.  In the centre was the conch that he had hidden among the seaweed on the beach when she was eleven. She’d picked it up, wondering at its strangeness until he confessed that he’d bought it in a gift shop. Mae had been furious and pushed him, so he fell onto the sand.

She remembered her mother’s delighted laugh. ‘Jack, you’ve turned into a teaser.’  

He had got up and brushed the sand off his trousers. ‘Only for the special women in my life,’ he’d said, and hugged them both.

These days, if it got hard, Mae picked up the shell and ran her fingers over its surface, remembering how her parents had put their arms around her so tight that she had felt them and nothing else.

Her dad thought she didn’t notice. When he came back from work and saw her sitting at the table doing her homework, he would grin in the old way for a moment before his shoulders sagged. He never looked at the door on the other side of the kitchen. It was always closed. Mae made sure of that, even though she lay on the velvet couch when she got in from school and pressed her nose into her mother’s silk scarf with its faint scent of roses.

Down by the beach, she walked towards the largest dune with its edge carved sharp by the wind. The sand was covered with storm debris. A tree trunk, a couple of lobster pots and the usual plastic tangled in the tideline kelp.  

The sand near the dune was pockmarked with speckles of grey. At first, she thought they were pebbles shovelled in by the sea. She picked up one and scraped the surface with a fingernail. A limpet shell. Working her fingers into the sand, she pulled out handfuls of periwinkles, mussels, and oysters.

It was a midden. She knew because she remembered her mother pulling a book off the bookcase and flicking through the pages to find a grainy photograph of people kneeling around a trench marked with lines of string.

‘That’s our beach. It’s a wheelhouse. The rubbish was thrown into a midden.’ She pointed to the photograph of a skull.  ‘They found this buried close by. Imagine it. A woman lying there for centuries.’

‘They should have left her,’ Mae said.

‘Maybe. People from the old times died young. They would have had a ceremony. A celebration.’

She’d tickled Mae and they had both laughed.  That night Mae dreamt of a woman lying in a sandy grave with her arms folded across her chest, her hair loose and her body covered with shells and flowers.  

After that Mae searched the shore whenever she could. Most of what she found was human leftovers: plastic bottles, sandwich cartoons and fishing twine. They all went in bags. The special finds were taken home.

It was midday. She would go back soon. Mae wriggled her hands deeper into the damp sand and felt something solid beneath her fingers. Even before she had brushed away the sand, she knew it was a bone. It was not smooth like the bleached bones of birds she found most weeks. It was pitted and rutted, and long like a leg bone. She kept on digging and found two other pieces. One broke into shards as she pulled it out.

 

Her phone pinged with a message from her dad. ‘Got a call out. See you in an hour. Love you.’

He never used to say those words, she thought. He never used to say much, letting her mum fill the house with the bounce of her words and trickles of laughter.

‘She’s off,’ Dad would whisper. ‘Shall we listen?’

Her mother would pat the cushion beside her. ‘Storytime,’ she would say and pull Gran’s shawl off the back of the chair and wrap it round Mae’s shoulders.

She would tell Mae about who’d lived in the house, scrabbling to make a living until she, Ailsa the teacher, had come back after Gran died. She’d brought Dad with her, announcing in the shop that Jack was a cattle and sheep vet man. The phone rang day and night afterwards.

Her mum had got paler from the end of last summer. Mae didn’t know for the first few weeks, although she noticed the silence when she walked into the kitchen and found her father holding her mother. When he pushed his bowl of soup away one night, Mae turned to her mother.

‘Tell me.’ She’d thought one of them was leaving.

He’d picked up Mae’s jacket and rainbow scarf and handed them to her. ‘Let’s go down to the shore.’

It was almost a full moon, and the sky was filled with milkiness.  They climbed to the crest of the biggest dune. The light floated like petals on the water.

‘Race you,’ her dad said, and ran down the dune.

She followed, and the sand filled her boots. At the bottom she turned round. Her mum was bent over coughing.  Mae knew then, even though she knew nothing.

When her mother stood up, she said she wanted to walk to the point. They sat on the sand and watched the tide come in. They talked but Mae couldn’t remember what they said.

Back home, her mother kissed her goodnight. ‘It’ll be alright, my darling girl. I’ll keep an eye on you.’

That was six months ago. Mae clenched her fists to make the tears stay away.  She picked the pieces of bone she’d found and carried them up to the top of the dune and covered them with sand.

There was a smell of bacon when she walked in the kitchen. Her Dad stood at the cooker humming.

‘You’re back quickly,’ she said, breaking off a piece of baguette that lay on the table.

‘Collie with a cut leg. Couple of stitches and I was on the road.’ He waved a wooden spoon. ‘I thought we’d have the full works.’

She reached into her pocket and put the shells on the table. ‘I found these today.’

Her Dad lifted his glasses and peered at them. ‘Old. Dirty. Neolithic.’

‘That’s what I thought.’

‘On the beach?’

She nodded. ‘Hundreds of them. There was other stuff too.’

He handed her a plate and a fork.

She took a mouthful. ‘That’s good, Dad.’

‘Thought I needed to practice.’ He picked up his own plate and leant against the counter. ‘What stuff?’

‘Bones.’

‘Bones? What kind of bones? Seagulls? Sheep?’

‘Real bones. Human.’

He put his fork down. ‘Human?’

‘I’m sure of it. I hid them.’

‘Hid them. Why?’

She looked away. ‘Bones need respect.’

He turned off the cooker fan. The kitchen was quiet. In the distance, Mae could hear the old tup grumbling in his corner of the field.

Her Dad put his plate on the countertop. ‘Eat up. Let’s go and have a look’

The wind had picked up down by the shore. Near the dunes the sand blew in sharp spits of spray.

He knelt and picked up a handful. ‘It’s a midden, isn’t it?’

She nodded. ‘They’re up there.’

At the top of the dune, she dusted off the sand and handed him the biggest bone. ‘Is it a femur?’

Her father turned the bone over in his hands and rubbed the surface. ‘Well done, Mae. Yes, it’s a femur.’

She could feel her chest constrict. ‘I thought so.’

Her father had a hand across his mouth and his shoulders shook.

‘It’s not funny, Dad.’ She punched his arm with her fist.

He let out a guffaw and bent over.

‘Stop it now.’

He stood up and wiped his face with his sleeve. ‘Sorry, Mae. It’s the bone of a juvenile cow.’

‘It’s not human?’

‘No. Old but not human.’

She stroked the bone. ‘I thought…’.

Her father caught her as she swayed and began to fall. He pulled her up and held her in his arms.

‘I couldn’t leave the bones. Lying there.’

 ‘I know, Mae.’

She burrowed her face into his fleece. She could smell the antiseptic he used with the animals.

‘Because she’s alone.’

‘She’s not alone, Mae. We left her in a good place.’

‘It’s too far away.’ 

They stood long enough for the waves to cover the rocks and creep up the beach towards the midden.    

Her father stroked her hair. ‘We’ll bury the bones, Mae.’

‘Where?’

‘By the point. In the turf beyond the dunes.’

That night they went down to the beach. Mae pulled her old cart. On it was her mother’s silk scarf and the conch shell. A bunch of daffodils lay on the bones. 

The moonlight was rippling on the water when they got to the point. They knelt by the narrow trench that they’d dug late afternoon.  Mae placed the bones at the bottom and draped the scarf over them. Her father laid the conch shell on the scarf. They tossed handfuls of sandy earth in the grave.

‘Our Ailsa,’ her father said.

‘Mum,’ said Mae, and scattered the flowers on the ground.

They lit a fire and sat on the sand until the tide turned and the moon had risen and started to tip again towards the land. It was a good start to April.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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