© M J Brocklebank
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As Sorley McCann approached the low headland, he thought he heard the sound of laughter. But he couldn’t have. Not here, on this lonely shore, and not in the dead of night.
Sorley continued to trudge home, back to his croft after a midnight trip to check his longline. He’d found not a single fish on the hooks and here he was once again, returning to his sleeping children, Angus and Eilidh, with the bitterness of failure deep in the pit of his hungry stomach.
But it was laughter, he heard it again; high pitched and bright and full of joy. Sorley stopped and strained to listen. Save for the soft lapping of the tide and the occasional call of a distant gull, the night was quiet. No wind blew, which was unusual in itself, and the air hung heavy with the saltiness of the sea and of Sorley’s own muscular sweat. Yet there it was again; laughter, giggling, and the playful murmur of female voices.
Sorley began to pad curiously toward the sound, pulled toward its mystery and its promise. But instead of rounding the headland, as he normally would, he decided to climb over it. As quick as a breeze over the machair, Sorley began to clamber up the rocky mound. He knew every handhold and foothold in the sandy rock intimately, having explored this stretch of shore since he was a small boy, and so the climb didn’t take him long. Once he reached the top, Sorley crawled on all fours across the damp, stubby grass toward the opposite ridge, where he would be able to survey the moonlit bay without being seen.
And there in the light of the full moon, Sorley saw them. The dancing maidens.
Five, six... no, seven of them. Naked, they moved in a circle on the pale sand; seven lithe, blue-white bodies alive with a liquid movement, each one with copper-coloured hair that flowed across her shoulders and down her bare back.
As he gazed down at the young women, Sorley felt a quickening in his heart and in his groin that he’d missed since Agnes, his young wife, had died a little over a year ago. Six of the maidens encircled the seventh, who seemed younger and less confident in her movements than the others, though even from this distance, Sorley could see that she smiled with the brightest smile of all the group.
She was perhaps seventeen-years-old, maybe eighteen, and she enthralled Sorley with the graceful twist of her dance as she passed from one laughing friend to another, round and around and around again. The maidens linked their slender, outstretched hands to form the teasing circle and as they moved, their hips twisted to and fro and their long legs bent and spread and they stepped and skipped on the moonlit sand. And Sorley knew he must get closer to them.
Silently, he eased back from his vantage point and first crawled and then ran quickly inland. From here, Sorley slunk towards the other side of the bay, where he would be concealed by the large rocks that spread across the sand, almost to where the maidens danced.
As Sorley crept through the shadowy gaps between the rocks, trying to avoid splashing a foot in the pools all around him, he heard a new sound. He heard a song.
The maidens sang with a sweet, eerie lilt and Sorley was drawn closer and closer. Crouching behind the nearest rock, he peered carefully around it. There in front of him, he saw the six maidens still in a linked ring, and looking even more beautiful than when he had first seen them. Inside the circle, the seventh girl was now wearing a turquoise blindfold, laughing and turning as the others sang to her:
Maiden from beneath the sea,
Slip off your scaly skin this night,
Feel sand between your toes,
Feel land beneath your feet.
But princess don’t forget the sea,
Your home awash with silvery light,
Forsake it at your woe,
Forever then to weep.
Enchanted, Sorley barely took in the words. But just as their meaning began to sink into his consciousness, he became distracted by a new sensation. Something shimmered on a low rock to the left of him, as if the rock itself was covered in a skin of light. But no, it was draped in many skins, each one a scaly fish-tailed sweep that reflected the silver light of the moon and glistened with a myriad of colours, from deep red to aqua marine to hot purple. And it was only then that Sorley realised what he was looking at.
Being a child of the shore, Sorley had heard tales of mermaids since he was old enough to listen. And he had delighted in these tales then as much as he delighted in them when Agnes had told the same stories to Eilidh and Angus when they were babes. But he had never believed them, ever. Yet here in front of him danced these shell-blue creatures with their famous red hair.
And here also were the tail-skins he’d heard so many stories about; wild stories of men who had paid more than Sorley could have earned in ten lifetimes for one of these shimmering, fishy pelts. Stories of men who would pay that kind of money now. Money which could feed and clothe his motherless children and give them a future with hope and perhaps even dignity.
Sorley had no choice. He crept forward, reached out and lifted one of the skins.
‘A man!’ went out the cry. Sorley froze, his hand grasping the silkiness of the scaly tail-skin, and he looked up. The naked maidens had stopped dancing and they stared at him, aghast that this human had disturbed their ritual. All except the youngest, who was still blindfolded and innocent to what was happening, they dashed forward and snatched up their tails from the rock. As Sorley stumbled back, he saw the maidens scurry in panic down toward the line of the tide, slipping into their tails as they ran and splashing away into the moonlit sea.
Sorley watched the seventh naked maiden as she began to pull at her blindfold in alarm. He wanted to calm her, to soothe her and reassure her that she was safe... but instead, he turned and he ran into the night, clutching the gleaming tail in his rough hand.
When he reached the top of the bluff on the opposite side of the bay, Sorley stopped, breathless and uneasy. A little distance ahead of him, his low-roofed cottage sat at the end of a narrow path. No light shone in the window and he thought of Eilidh and Angus sleeping inside, curled close to one another for warmth and comfort on the harsh straw bedding. Sorley gazed at the handsome tail-skin in his hand once again, then looked back towards where he had run from, down to the silver sands of the bay below.
And there, sitting on the rock, Sorley was sure he could make out the figure of the young maiden, alone and gazing out to sea, abandoned by her friends. The sight touched Sorley’s heart intensely. But he turned away from her, and he hurried towards his lowly cottage and his sleeping children.
Sorley woke early the next morning to the sound of rain battering at the cottage’s meagre window. His sleep had been fitful, disturbed by clamorous visions of watery creatures, unearthly and ungodly, and now as he opened his tired eyes, they stung with the smoke of the peat fire that burned in the hearth. Sitting up, Sorley swung his legs over the side of the hard bed, hunched forward and stretched his aching arms.
Angus knelt by the fire, poked it with an iron. At nine, he was a puny child, but he skilfully lifted a heavy, blackened pot and hung it over the low flame, before he turned to his father: ‘Was there no fish?’ he asked.
‘Oats are ample,’ was Sorley’s gruff reply.
The boy turned back to his duties, disappointed. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his threadbare goonie. It was dirty and smelled of peat smoke. Everything in the cottage smelled of peat smoke.
‘You were late back last night Father,’ he said.
‘And how were you to know that? You were asleep.’ Sorley paused. ‘You were asleep?’
Angus stirred the contents of the pot with his spurtle, and then he nodded. ‘But I took to my bed late. I had my chores to finish.’ Sorley felt like yelling at the boy. Instead, he instructed him to wake his sister and then serve up the porridge.
As Angus traipsed into the sleeping-alcove he shared with Eilidh, Sorley went to the window and wiped at it with the ball of his fist, making a clear streak on the cold, sooty pane. He stooped and peered out into the rain-soaked, blustery morning.
In the distance, Sorley saw the line of the horizon where the grey sky met the grey sea. But from back here, he couldn’t see beyond the promontory to the sands of the bay below. Could she still be down there? Had he dreamt the whole fantastic episode?
Sorley turned towards the large chest beneath his bed. Would it be in there, where he’d hurriedly stowed it on his return last night? The tail-skin of a mermaid. If he was to release the heavy, rusted padlock and fling open the lid...
As he stared at the battered chest, Angus came back through with Eilidh trailing sleepily behind him and Sorley caught his son looking at him with what could have been suspicion.
‘Is there something wrong, Father?’ Angus asked.
Sorley sunk down onto the wooden stool by the window. ‘Eat your breakfast and get yourselves off to school.’
‘Are you not having your porridge, Father?’ Eilidh asked as Angus ladled a dollop of watery oats into her bowl. In certain moods, Sorley found it hard to look at wee sweet-faced Eilidh, just five-years-old when her mother died, and every day reminding him more and more of his dear Agnes.
‘Don’t you worry about me my princess, you eat yours up and your brother will take you to school.’
Little Eilidh knew not to question her father further and, with a yawn, she turned her attention to her porridge. Casting a cautious glance at Sorley as he sat there by the window, Angus saw him take a pinch of tobacco from his pouch with his thick, grubby fingers and begin to fill his first pipe of the day; and he couldn’t help but notice that his father’s hands were shaking.
When the children finally left to begin the long trek to the village school, Sorley went to the chest and dragged it from under the bed. Only now, as he pulled the key from his pocket, unlocked the padlock and tugged it from the iron clasp, did he realise he was trembling. Ignoring his rising fear, Sorley lifted the lid of the pine chest...
He inhaled sharply and had to sit back onto the sand-strewn floor. It was there. The stolen skin was there. It lay on top of Agnes’s neatly folded and stored clothes, just where he had placed it last night.
Sorley took the tail-skin from the chest and glimpsed Agnes’s fine, hand-made coat below it, as green as the summer machair and every stitch accomplished by her delicate hand. The small loom that the cloth had been woven on now took up space by the hearth, redundant and shrouded in a smoke-stained sheet.
But Sorley had the tail-skin in his hands and he stared at it once again. In the gloom of the cottage, it had lost much of its radiance. It was still wondrously soft to touch, cool on the fingers, but the colours didn’t gleam as they had done in the moonlight last night, didn’t delight the eye in the same way. Sorley smoothed a finger down the silky scales to the hard appendage at the skin’s end; the fan-like, sinuous tail. It was utterly inhuman.
But what of the mermaid? If Sorley held her tail in his hand, what of her?
Clutching a cloth-wrapped package under his arm, Sorley came out of the cottage. After he had locked the door, he walked slowly to the place where he’d hesitated on his way home the night before and looked down to the bay.
He saw her. The maiden was there. She sat in the same place, far below, on the same rock, gazing out to sea in the pouring rain.
Full of apprehension, Sorley set off down the steep path to the bay.
The naked maiden sat on the low rock with her knees tucked under her chin, her arms folded tightly around her shins in a comforting hug. Her long red hair was sodden and lank and the rain that dripped from her forehead mixed with the tears that ran onto her pallid cheeks. Unblinking, she stared at the sea with wide, sapphire eyes.
Sorley approached her cautiously and stopped a little way off, wary of spooking her. After a long moment, in which he studied the matted red hair sticking to her milky-blue shoulders and back, he spoke.
‘Miss?’ he said.
Startled, she turned to him, her eyes wide with a sudden fear.
‘Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you,’ Sorley assured the maiden. She pulled in her knees and hugged herself more tightly.
‘I promise, I won’t hurt you,’ he repeated. She said nothing, just stared at this strange human. Sorley asked her if she had a name but she didn’t reply.
‘You can’t sit out here, not like that, you’ll catch your death.’
‘I’d rather be dead than be here,’ was her response. The words took Sorley by surprise; not only in what was said, but in the voice itself. The tone was assured, perhaps even haughty, and the pitch was lower than he expected, not girlish at all. The maiden spoke in an accent Sorley didn’t recognise; though never having travelled further afield than Glasgow in all his thirty years (and then only twice), he didn’t recognise most.
‘Don’t say that, don’t say such harsh words.’
She turned back to the sea, saying: ‘It’s true.’
Sorley went on gazing at her until she turned to him again, a quizzical look on her face, as if she wondered why he was there. He was reassured that she hadn’t had time to remove her blindfold the previous night and get a look at him as he made off with her tail-skin. Then he remembered the package under his arm and held it out to her, like an offering.
‘I have something for you,’ he said.
She stared at the neat cloth parcel for an instant, before she sprang forward from the rock and tore it from Sorley’s outstretched hands. Seemingly unabashed by her nakedness, the nimble maiden hastily unwrapped the covering and revealed the contents. She was so close that Sorley could feel warmth from her body, even in the cold rain. But she frowned.
‘It’s a coat,’ he said. ‘A fine green coat for you to wear.’ The maiden held the coat by a single, generous lapel and the hem trailed in the wet sand. Sorley took it from her, held it open in invitation.
‘Put it on, please, it’s warm and it... it will cover you.’
Crestfallen, the maiden went back to her rock and resumed her position, knees up to her chin, staring out to sea.
‘Please,’ Sorley entreated her, ‘it’s for you, a gift.’ But she ignored him. He waited for her to turn back to him again and when she didn’t, Sorley folded the coat as best he could and wrapped it again in the cloth, which was now terribly soiled from the sand. He laid the package onto another rock, nearby.
‘My house,’ he said, ‘it’s just up the wee path there. It’s not much but it’s warm and I have food. You could take shelter there, get yourself dry. You must be very cold.’
She shook her head.
‘My boy, he makes a hearty kale stew. We have barley and oats and potatoes. And my wee girl, Eilidh, well, she has a fine brush and comb set.’ At these words, the maiden cocked her head and looked for a moment like she might glance at Sorley. He continued enthusiastically: ‘And I’m sure she would love nothing more than to comb that pretty red hair of yours. I’m sure of it, absolutely sure of it. Come home with me now. Please do come.’
The maiden sat there, looking down and to the side, like she was considering the offer. But she shook her head once more. ‘No, I cannot,’ she said, and turned her eyes back to the sea.
Sorley pleaded with her once more but when he got no response, he gave up, dejected. ‘The wind will blow hard again soon. I’ll put a light in the window for you, just follow the path,’ he said. Then he trudged up the path to his home and left the maiden sitting on the rock, staring towards hers.
Angus and Eilidh returned home from school to find their father sitting quite still in his hard-backed chair, which he had drawn closer to the window. When Eilidh enquired why he had set a lighted oil-lamp on the window sill, Sorley remained silent. Angus grumbled that they could ill afford to have two lamps burning but he was more vexed that his father had allowed the peat fire to extinguish while they were absent. Without stirring from the chair, Sorley ordered the boy to get on with his chores. ‘And you can start by lighting that damn fire!’ he barked.
‘Father, why have you laid out mother’s nice things?’ Eilidh asked, noticing that Agnes’s clothes had been taken from the chest, unfolded and laid upon the bed. Again, Sorley gave her no answer and when Eilidh looked like she might ask him the question again, Angus told his sister to hush and go and read her storybook while he got on with his duties around the cottage and outbuilding.
At supper, Sorley sat in silence and hardly ate any of the broth Angus had prepared. Little Eilidh began to worry that her dear father might be ill but she knew better than to trouble him with her concerns. When they had finished, Sorley instructed the two children to go to bed. Angus protested that it was early and he still had many tasks to do, but Sorley was adamant.
Alone, Sorley remained in the chair, facing the window and the burning lamp.
He must have fallen asleep because he woke with a start when his chin slipped from where it rested on the palm of his hand and his head lolled forward and he almost fell off the chair. Sitting up, he glanced at the clothes, lying there pitifully flat on the bed. Poor, dear Agnes.
Sorley eased himself up and poked the fire; at least he had not allowed it to go out again. Wearily, he went to the squat doorway into Angus and Eilidh’s cramped bed-space and peered in on his children. They slept, curled together under their thin blanket as usual. Sorley regretted the way he had spoken to Angus earlier; the boy had been right about the lamp and the fire. He was a good, hard-working boy and he deserved a better father than he had been burdened with. Both his children did.
Drawing the shabby curtain across the alcove entrance, Sorley went back to the window. He was about to put out the lamp when he thought he heard a soft knock at the cottage door.
Sorley halted, suddenly aware of his heart pulsing hard in his chest. Was it the rain he had heard, gusting against the wooden door? But no, there it was again, a light tap-tap, like a whispered request. Sorley lifted the lamp high in one hand and with the other, he unlatched the door and slowly pulled it open.
It was her.
The maiden from the sea. She stood in front of him, wrapped in the soaked green coat, her red hair dripping with the rain that poured down on her so cruelly. She looked like she wanted to smile, but it was an impossible feat. Sorley quickly moved aside to let her in, saying: ‘You came. Thank God you came.’
Cautiously, she stepped into the cottage and Sorley closed the door behind her. The maiden immediately began to cough so Sorley set the lamp down and hurried to fetch a beaker of water. As she gulped the water down, Sorley explained that the peat-smoke had that effect on those who weren’t used to it, but that it would pass.
He gestured for her to come further into the room. ‘Please, come and sit and warm yourself.’
But she hesitated by the door, wary.
‘Come and get yourself dry. You must be freezing, you poor thing.’
But she shook her head. ‘Hungry,’ was all she said.
‘Well of course you are. And I have just the thing for you.’
Sorley took her arm, led her to his chair and indicated for her to sit. When she did, he began to warm what was left of the broth over the fire. He glanced at her as he stirred the soup. She wiped at her stinging eyes and gazed around her, taking in her new and gloomy surroundings with curiosity.
‘I have clothes for you,’ Sorley said. She shook her head again and Sorley went on stirring the pot. ‘Can I ask you, do you have a name?’
‘Bibiana,’ she replied.
‘Bibiana,’ Sorley nodded. ‘That’s a very beautiful name. And tell me, Bibiana, where is it you come from?’
Bibiana didn’t reply and Sorley began to ladle the warmed broth into a wooden bowl.
‘You’re not from around here, that much I can tell.’
‘My home is far away.’
‘That is a shame. But you know you are welcome here, don’t you?’ As Sorley handed Bibiana the bowl of steaming soup and a spoon, he looked deep into her large, blue eyes. They were bloodshot and wet with tears. Sorley gently wiped her damp cheek and smiled.
‘Eat,’ he said.
When Bibiana first tasted the contents of the bowl, she grimaced. But she was hungry and began to gulp down spoonfuls of the broth
Sorley sat on the stool, opposite the maiden, and he watched her closely as she ate. He glanced at the chest under the bed, near to where Bibiana now sat, and he knew that he could never sell this beautiful creature’s stolen tail-skin. He knew too that he could never return it to her.
Angus and Eilidh still slept soundly. Eilidh snored lightly, like Agnes used to do. Sorley smiled down at the children, then lifted Eilidh’s comb and hand-mirror from the driftwood shelf above her head and slipped out, letting the curtain fall back silently across the alcove.
Bibiana had finished a second bowl of broth and sat awkwardly on the chair, still wrapped in the green jacket, when Sorley handed her the small mirror and showed her the comb.
‘Please,’ he said, ‘let me.’
She examined the old bone comb with its fine teeth, a number of which were sadly broken off, and nodded. Presenting her back to Sorley, Bibiana held the mirror to her face and studied her profile this way and then that.
Sorley sat close behind Bibiana, reached out and cupped a tranche of her hair in a trembling hand. He began to run the comb through the damp, copper-coloured strands, stroking the teeth downwards as gently as he could, teasing out the tangles and smoothing out the stray kinks.
‘My people say we should not trust... ones like you.’
‘Do you trust me, Bibiana?’
She didn’t answer. Outside, the wind blew and the rain fell. But inside the warm, smoky cottage there was only the hushed sound of their breath as Sorley passed the comb tenderly through Bibiana’s splendid hair, over and over.
Then, baring her neck, feeling her warmth on his hands, Sorley leaned in and kissed her pale, salty skin. He felt her breathe in deeply.
‘Turn around,’ he said.
A moment passed before Bibiana turned to him. He began to comb the hair that flowed down over the side of her face, down across her neck, down across her chest.
‘Take off the coat.’
When she didn’t do as he asked, Sorley turned his dark eyes to Bibiana’s. She gazed back at him with a sureness that shone deep in her great black, sapphire-rimmed pupils.
‘What is your name?’ she asked.
Sorley felt a smile come to his lips. ‘Sorley’, he said, ‘Sorley McCann.’
‘Do you think I’m beautiful, Sorley McCann?’
‘You are the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.’
Bibiana nodded. She pulled open the green coat and let it slip back onto the chair. Her hair fell across her breasts.
Sorley reached out and lifted the hair away with the back of his hands, parted it around her neck and let it fall down her back, out of the way. One hand stayed on her neck while the other traced lightly down to Bibiana’s breast. Her skin was soft under his palm. He felt her nipple grow firm against his rough fingertips and he circled it tenderly.
‘Will you kiss me again, Sorley McCann?’ Bibiana asked him.
They leant together and kissed. Even the wind and the rain outside seemed to hush as their lips pushed together, exchanging wet caresses. Bibiana pulled Sorley closer to her and he felt her hand push against him through his coarse trousers.
‘You will be my first.’
Sorley pulled back. ‘You’ve never...?’
‘Not with a man, like you.’ Bibiana said.
He dared not question her further; he couldn’t. With his blood thrusting in his heart, Sorley stood, took Bibiana’s hands and pulled her gently to her feet. They moved to the bed and he hastily brushed Agnes’s clothes to the floor. As Sorley tugged his shirt over his head and began to unloosen his belt, Bibiana kissed his chest, licked his white skin and his dark curls.
‘You smell of the earth but you taste of the sea,’ she whispered.
‘Which do you prefer?’
‘Never make me choose, never.’
She lay back on the bed and pulled him down to her. With their eyes fixed together, Bibiana’s fingers guided Sorley into her. He pushed hard inside her and she encouraged him with small, satisfying nods and they kissed each other over and over.
As their bodies moved together, easing forward and back, forward and back, in a slow, growing peak of desire, Bibiana couldn’t help but remember her first time – beneath the waves, quick and illicit, with a servant boy, tailfins slipping and slapping together – and she smiled. Sorley smiled back and let out a little gasp.
He lay heavy on her for a moment, their skin sticking pleasingly together, then he eased himself off her and rested on his side next to her. Sorley kissed Bibiana’s shoulder, stroked her neck and smoothed her hair, which spread gloriously on the pillow behind her head. He took in every curve of her body as she lay there on her back.
‘Will you marry me, my beautiful Bibiana?’
Bibiana took his hand and kissed his fingers.
‘No, I will not marry you, Sorley McCann. I cannot.’
Even though the words were a heavy blow, Sorley seemed to know that this would be the answer.
‘I would make you a good husband,’ he said.
‘I would not make you a good wife.’ Lying there on her back, Bibiana meshed her fingers with Sorley’s. ‘But I will stay here, if you would let me?’
She turned to him, kissed his hand once more and smiled. Sorley felt a joyous warmth rise in his chest and he smiled back at her.
‘I will never let you go,’ he whispered. Sorley kissed his lover-from-beneath-the-sea, dug his arms around her and pulled her close. He closed his eyes and rested his head next to hers.
But Bibiana’s smile faded and she looked, for that moment, troubled. Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep for the first time since she had been stranded here, so far from home.