Greenwave by Jane Verburg. Highly comended, 2011, English prose.
I was born in the eye of the needle. Mother crouching in the fish-gut bilges of a boat. The reek of mussel bait and briny wrack. Born under a bundle of sea-damp skirts.
My father away at the stern. Enisled. More frightened than in any storm. The shriek of a mother giving birth is louder than terns and gulls fighting for the offal of dead herring.
A caul was rubbed off my face. Mother pushed it into her apron pocket; a piece later to be hidden in the back of my father’s prized watch: a protector of men at sea. A charm to stop a man from drowning. Stronger than any cork jacket.
Other pieces were given away and sold to fishermen from Skye and Raasay, Eriskay and Rona. Where are they now? Those little pieces of dried skin that I was not allowed to see; for that would take away their power. Their power to save at sea the men that hid them and held them when the wind blew up. And it did blow up.
The eye of the needle is caught between Eilean Mór and Eilean Meadhonach. A dash of sea flanked by rock. So narrow only the wee boats come and go. Space to swing a flail or ride at anchor but not much more. That day mother was caught out. Helping to lift off the catch. Her fear stuffed into heavy boots.
They said I would be different, that I would stand out in some way. I didn’t. I was like the others. I grew like them and worked like them; helping with the sheep and fishing and baiting the lines and knitting the ganseys. Mother and I would go down to the needle each morning, follow my father to his boat. His watch – given to him by a man at Applecross for a deed he never talked of – sewn into his jumper. Time is measured by light and birds and sun and moon.
Kenneth came from Rona. Along the Caol and across the Sound. He came by sea and by storm to a haven on a wild night. Threaded the needle at a safe point of the tide. Dropped anchor and prayed all would be well.
In the gentle morning he was there. He asked for water and smiled. A bonnie face. The oystercatchers shrieked. Saint Bridget’s birds crying ‘Be wise, be wise’.
Many weeks later when I first cupped his sweet cheeks in my hands and kissed his closed eyes he tasted of seaweed. He always tasted of seaweed. He had heard of the caul girl. The girl of good luck. He knew a family that owned a piece of my skin.
He would breathe like a seal lifting from the waves when we loved and he would nuzzle me like I was his young white pup.
He sailed me away from the Crowlins and landed me on Rona. There was family. Ties that went back. People who warmed the kettle and blethered when the jobs were done and the weather dreich. An island of rock and secret trees; trembling aspen and alder. And he nuzzled me.
And I followed him across to his boat each morning and held my fingers to the gunnels for a moment too long as he edged out by Eilean Garbh. Some days the sails flapping like swan wings, other days rigid and stiff like cliffs. Only the heron and the seals following my Kenneth.
That winter Kenneth made a box. Made from pieces of wood found on the shore, gathered by him and his father. The lid came from an Armada ship, so they said, dark and Spanish. And on it he carved KM and JM.
The day the Orkney men came was fair and calm and the fishing had been good. They anchored at Acairseid Thioram and we gathered round and carried them ashore in the wee boats. They said that to the north of the island a rogue wave had come and broached them so unexpectedly that they near lost a man. You could tell they were shocked and excited from their fear for they talked so fast of the green wave, the glas wave, that could come on a flat sea and take away a man. It was known. It had done it before. Tall Fionn had been taken like that.
All that way through the Pentland Firth where the currents are so strong and the overfalls are like angry witches stirring a brew. Fancy, rounding Cape Wrath and closing on our wee island in the quietness of a pewter-plate sea only to be caught and slashed by a green wave.
That night the ceilidh was at Calum’s croft. And the stories and the music turned us all until we danced under the rafters. Kenneth swung me high and my skirt ballooned and we all laughed and danced again. The blue-eyed boys played their fiddles and their Norse voices sang songs we did not know. Whisky arrived from the east cave and we drank too much and giggled with our sides aching. Even Widow Fionn took a smile or two. And Kenneth lifted me onto his shoulders, carried me home and lay me down to sleep.
Next day, as if nothing had happened the night before, we each sat at a stone pew at the Kirk cave and looked out over a mackerel sea. The men fidgeting with disappointment at not being out. The women hiding their smiles. The minister droning.
That afternoon Kenneth and I walked to An Teampull where long ago the hermit had lived and died. And we saw in the gloaming a stag and his two hinds swim by Eilean an Fraoich. Their heads held high above the water; their bodies lost in spume. And I wondered then who would stalk their young.
Walking home Kenneth filled my hair with bell heather and bog cotton and I felt like a fallen constellation from the heavens.
One day near Bealltainn, when the yellow flowers were spinning, the men returned with news of a whale washed ashore on Skye. They put all the boats out to Rigg and us lassies lit fires and collected the pails until the men sailed in with great chunks of whale blabber for us to boil. What a stench. May be worse than the day I was born.
Kenneth gave to me that night a strange stone he had found on the beach by the whale. Like a fish locked inside a rock. He wrapped my hands around it and said that it would bring me luck. Just as I had brought my father luck and the other men.
In bright sunshine he left with the sails up and the seal behind. Out by Eilean Garbh. Out by the hidden entrance. Out to Skye and Raasay and Fladday. Collecting wrack he said. And to Portree for water. And I hung out the washing on the hillside and carried water to Mairi’s house and checked the limping cow and I brushed out the floors and watched a rare lapwing and waited to light the fire and cook. And as the wind picked up, I knew. In the half-light I walked over the hill to see that the other men were back. Their doors closed. Smoke lifting from their chimneys. And I knew.
That night I lit a candle. Placed it in the window and tied my love in threads to its light so that it might shine out over the waves to Eilean Garbh, to Skye and to Raasay and to Fladday. To Kenneth.