By Donald S Murray
There couldn't be many worse places to stay, Seonaid decided, all the men either gone from these shores or dead. Despite this, she had to carry on, making sure the croftwork was done, the twins fed and cared for. Today, she was taking them the short distance to the town of Stornoway, driving the cattle she wanted to sell along the road from Tong to Laxdale.
And all the time, they were chattering, repeating the little stories their grandmother told them when she bedded them down at night.
'We’re going to see the Soap King!' Hugh chanted.
'The man from Port Sunlight!' Gormel added.
'He lives in the trees …'
'In the Castle Grounds!'
'Sssshhh … Be quiet,' she muttered, hating even the thought of going to town, especially with this cold weather. With all its English voices, well-dressed men and women, it was a place she always tried to avoid. It was even worse these days. Standing in the harbour, she would be able to see where her husband Iain and all the other men on the 'Iolaire' had drowned near the Beasts of Holm at the mouth of the bay. She would be conscious, too, of the scorched remains of the Town Hall behind her. No wonder the young vanished from the island as soon as they could. There were too many ghosts here, too many women in dark clothes trailing their shadows across the ground, the sight of them almost as common as crows or gulls.
'Loyal and Royal … Lifebuoy soap!'
'Makes Linen Whiter … Makes Homes Brighter … Sunlight Soap …'
'When Things Are Dim, Give Them Vim …'
'Come on … Be quiet.' Her tongue clicked, irritated by the way the children chimed out the slogans her mother repeated as she put them to bed. The old woman was full these days of tales about the Soap King and the changes he was going to make to the island.
'He’s going to bring jobs here … Mac Fisheries — prosperity fresh from the sea!'
The blue eyes of the twins would light up the dimness of their home in their excitement, brimming over with her talk of castles and railways, fishing ports and woodland. They would mimic train noises, boat-horns, the swish they imagined trees might have. Their shouts blended in with wingbeats, a crow flying.
'Choo – choo – choo …'
'Swoo – swoo …'
When Seonaid chided her for this, telling her that they were unable to sleep for ages after these stories, her mother only shook her head.
'They’ve got to have something to look forward to … There's little enough sunlight in their lives.'
Seonaid dismissed her words, rejecting them. For her, it was hard enough to cope without dreaming, to keep her eyes fixed on the bare land she had to plough and till. She needed to keep her grip on things, deal with life as it was. She could even see this as she hurried the cattle to the market in town. With her thoughts elsewhere, she had failed somehow to notice how one of their calves had wandered from the road.
'Pay attention to what you're supposed to be doing …' she muttered, blaming the children. 'Maisie’s straying.'
'I'll get her …' Gormel shouted.
Seonaid watched as the little girl chased after the black calf, her fair hair bobbing as she ran. She tapped a stick on the animal's flank, making sure she stayed in line.
'Well done,' she said.
They were good children really. She knew that. A legacy from Iain's last furlough at home, she was aware that it was hard for them too. There were no other children for them to play with near their home. They had all disappeared as a result of the Spanish flu or the way the young men and women who might have become mothers and fathers had travelled to the mainland or sailed to Canada, looking for work. Or they were — just like her husband — dead in the conflict or the tragedy that followed. And so the lives of the twins were tinged by darkness, as surely as the lives of widows and spinsters were swallowed in black clothes. It made them all too eager to leave the village and go to town. They had heard there was a market going to be on the quay, shops where they could marvel at sweets and toys.
'Can we get some liquorice …?'
'We'll see,' she muttered. 'We'll see …'
She knew better than to make false promises. So much would depend on the price she would get for the animals that scurried along before her. There were a lot of others making their way to town today. It was Latha na Drobh, Drover's Day. Many of them had the same thoughts in mind as she had — to get as much money as they could for their animals, see if they could eke their way through another winter. They, too, had children, ones whom hunger was whittling down, making thinner, carving flesh from bone. They were frightened at the thought that they — like so many before — might fade and disappear from their homes.
There was other talk too. She had heard it when she stopped for a few moments when the road entered Newmarket. A woman had told her that a boy had been killed in Ness, climbing up the rocks near the harbour.
'Just looking for adventure … A little fun and games …'
She had shivered when she heard this, knowing it was the kind of news she most feared, that the twins would do something dangerous and exciting to escape the dullness of their lives. Hugh and Gormel were all that mattered to her now. She loved them with an intensity that sometimes chilled her more than the wind that came again and again in blasts, growing colder and colder. Her eyes guarded them as they raced, drumming sticks on the cattle’s hindquarters, making sure they kept to the track as they headed out Macaulay road, trying to avoid too the splatter of fresh cow-dung. Hugh’s nose twisted in mock-disgust when he saw some far too late, turning towards her with a brown stain on his foot.
'A ghiamh …'
'Didn’t I tell you to make sure you don't get your feet dirty? You're going to town now. Not going around the ditches of the village.'
'Sorry, Mam …'
As she wiped the dirt away with a dock-leaf, the questions began again.
'Can we go among the trees?'
'Across the bridge?'
'See the monkey-puzzle tree?'
'Climb up them …?'
Barely listening, she nodded. She would be glad when this was all over, when she could go back home again. There was no doubt that the town was a dark, malevolent place, filled with loss and bitter memories for her. There was the sky growing more and more menacing as they went down Macaulay Road, past Manor Farm with all its acres. Someone had planted a field of turnips near the edge of the road, tempting the cattle to stray with all the promise of green leaves, fine purple rind. On the other side, there was the stone entrance to the Castle which the Soap King occupied; an open gate that led them from the town's harbour with its throng of gulls, men and crows.
'Keep an eye on them now,' she shouted. 'Watch they don’t wander &hellip'
She leaned into a flurry of wind, her eyes blinded by pinpricks of rain. When she looked up again, she couldn't see the children, only the cattle that were trudging ahead. She shouted their names.
She paused, hearing her voice echo.
There was no doubt where they had gone. She found herself running in the direction of the Castle entrance, her feet barely anchored to the road due to the swirl of wind and rain. When she passed through its stonework, a crow peered down at her, nodding its head. She ignored it, looking instead at the woodland that stretched before her. Used to bare land, she had no idea there were so many kinds of trees. Some were green and stout; others bare and twisted. Each seemed a trembling, vibrant beast, intent on doing her harm. She imagined their arms coiling and wrapping around the likes of Hugh and Gormel, drawing them into the nests among their branches, hiding them in leaves. A dark and unifying force, they appeared to watch her even as she stared in their direction, transformed into whispering witnesses of her grief and distress.
'Hugh! Gormel!' she called again. 'Hugh! Gormel! &hellip'
There was no answer, only the surging of the trees stirring back and forth. Above her head, she heard the flap of wings.
© Donald S Murray, unless we state otherwise.
In January 2013, this story was shortlisted in the Hansel and Gretel adult creative writing competition by the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Ballet.