||STORYGLOSSIA Issue 3 June 2003
by Suhayl Saadi
To the fin-folk, who never disappeared, except beneath the skin
The Old Rectory had been haunted since before it had been built. Everyone on Brusa knew this, and most people on the islands nearby, knew it, too. They had heard the stories at mother's knee, warning them to keep away, or threatening them with some dark figure drawn inevitably from the echoing, unvisited (yet in another sense, much-visited) halls of Brusa Rectory. It was what had drawn Frame to this place, after all. The incipience of a darkness, greater than his own. He'd researched the whole matter painstakingly, over half-pints of thick, dark beer and elegant, thin cigars. He sat, alone in the summer's late evening light which slanted in through the large latticed window, in what once had been the Rectory library and went over it all in his mind. From outside the window, the sound of the sea came and went like breath.
For years, stretching back beyond even the long tongues of the spey-wives, pounding Neolithic forces had danced around the flat knoll by the water, bringing down rain or snow or wind or whatever necromantic element had been needed to fulfil their megalithic, tribal rituals. Later, various axe-blooded Norsemen were said to have used the area as unhallowed burial ground for hooded heretics. In the Sixteenth Century, some stragglers from the Great Armada of El Rey Filipo II had been shipwrecked in the cauldron seas which rose up against the rocky coves, and had come ashore and set up camp on the knoll. They stayed there for six nights, but on the seventh, a great wind blew up (started, some say, by the fin-wives of the deep who had wanted to keep the sailors for themselves) and the entire camp was swept over the edge of the cliffs. At first, it had seemed strange to Frame that a religious building would have been constructed on the site of so much unwanted psychical activity, but there it was. Perhaps, he'd hypothesised as he'd driven through the midsummer's afternoon towards the place, it had been a deliberate act on the part of the old Church custodians. A statement, if you like. In the late Nineteenth Century, science—even in church circles—had been in the ascendant, and the man who became the first Rector of Brusa, the Reverend Archibald Farquharson, was a Fifer who, quite simply, did not believe in ghosts. In the name of progress, he'd wanted to abolish superstition, once and for all, from the Orkney islands, so that, by the dawn of the Electric Century, they would no longer be, as it were, islands. It was he who had driven the church to raise a respectable rectory on Brusa, that he might cater better for the growing population of the island, which had been newly-swelled by an influx of herring fishermen and their families. Frame had searched, long and hard, for a photograph of the man, but as yet had failed to find even one. That, too seemed odd. Surely, he'd thought, such a prominent local figure in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries would have had at least one sitting before the old, static, black camera. The only solid piece of evidence relating to Rector Farquarson's existence was a one-line document which had been copied down in copperplate by some assiduous clerk from a burned fragment of a diary after the rest had been destroyed:
At midnight, the sea came to my door.
But then he'd learned from a former shepherd, an old man known on account of his once-ruddy hair as, Red Hector, that after he'd died, all the Rector's belongings, including a pile of books which had stretched halfway to the sky, had been burned and the ashes scattered across the waves. Not his body, though. That had never been found.
Frame shuddered, and instinctively he glanced back at the equipment; an atomic chronosphere and a lenticular stereoscope; both of which he'd placed on a broad, sturdy-legged, wooden table. The first was to measure relative time, since paranomal beings tended to exist in a variety of time-space continua which possessed quite different physical laws from those of own. The stereoscope was a fairly conventional instrument which could take several photographs at once and fuse them into a single, multi-dimensional image. The number of potential dimensions in the known universe had reached eleven, so it followed that the number in those cosmological regions which had not yet been exposed to the glare of theoretical physics eventually would attain almost Kabbalistical levels. The Victorian table and an old-fashioned desk with lots of tiny drawers were the only loose furniture left in the library, apart from two armchairs whose upholsteries, which once had been a deep gold looked as though they had been battered by eighty years of northerly gales. And then, at the far end of the room, directly opposite the long windows, was a preacher's lectern. He tried each of them in turn and finally, sat on the one whose springs seemed a little less sprung.
The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate, yet the sky remained cloudless. The Rectory had not been visible from the road, being hidden by a clump of trees and by the rounded shoulder of the knoll's inland edge. Frame had parked his clapped-out, rusting hulk of a hatch-back just off the only road on the island, which itself, was little more than a track. Anywhere except Brusa, it would've been a track. The Ordnance Survey maps had it down as a dotted line. The Rectory itself was missing from the charts. It was as though even the ink of its existence had faded, so that now it lay, unrecognised in the cartograph of this world, yet very much alive in the minds of the Brusi, as the folk of this most remote of the Orkney islands were known. Frame had pulled the car to a halt at the end of the track. The old metal chassis had creaked as, at once, it had begun to cool. He had thought of leaving the window open, but then had decided against it, and had rolled it up instead. Frame remembered thinking that the car wouldn't last long in the grey and salt of the Northern Isles. There were no vintage vehicles up here; the rust had set in, long ago.
He had been here before, some days earlier, when he had come to reconnoitre the area. No particular atmosphere had struck him on that occasion, but then, he had not been about to spend the night in the place. Sometimes, Frame wondered why he did this work for the Society. It was hardly fun, being treated either as a crank or an interloper. He had expected the Rectory to smell musty, dead, but actually he had found that it smelled of the sea. The water's edge lay less than 100 yards away, just a black selkie-leap from the gale-blown, latticed glass of the front window. For the Rectory had been built to face the open ocean, as though Farquharson had constructed it as a Babel to the might of the sea, as though he had challenged the sea to render up its secrets so that he might do battle on behalf of his rational, missionary god, on the sands and grasses of Brusa. Tonight, though, there was no breeze and the heat lay like kirkyard earth over everything. Frame was sweating from carrying in the equipment. Over the past few months, he had felt a certain weakness begin to creep over his limbs. Maybe it was time to move on, to do something else, to stop searching in dark corners for that which did not exist (or which, if it did, it had no desire to reveal itself). But move on where? He had come to the end of the land—beyond the end, actually—because, really, where else might an extreme situation present itself? Change came only through such extremes. Once, he'd had love, then he'd had none; once, he'd had money, then he'd been poor. He'd been young and now . . . he wasn't exactly old, but time seemed to be in a state of perpetual acceleration and like a stupid fish, he was caught at its centre. Well, this was his way of stepping right out of it. For a while, at least. Thinking, and writing, about paranormal phenomena rendered to his mind a place to roam, free of lawyers, money-worries, morality. There was no morality in science, and none in buildings either, if the truth be told. It was human beings who imposed moralities, and Frame had had his fill of human beings and their concepts. He just wanted facts, or non-facts, it didn't matter which, really. Either way, they would lift him out of himself, and out of the darkness which lay at his centre and which made lunatic time reel ever faster onwards.
The library was empty, in fact the whole house was virtually a shell. Where books once had sat, the rows of bookshelves were marked, shadowed, so that he was able to make out what the exact sizes of the volumes had been. But I'll never discover what was in the books, he thought, nor what drove the good people of Brusa to pile them high, and set them alight. They had burned, especially the books. The chronograph lay still, its needle poised above the paper at the zero mark. The stereosphere made no sound. On one occasion, some years ago, both machines had gone completely crazy, their mechanism had become possessed by what Frame—then at the beginning of his investigative career—had imagined to be some form of visitation from the other side, some kind of invisible, ectoplasmic activity, but which had turned out to be simply the raging of an underwater stream. He'd felt a fool, and had vowed never to repeat the mistake of giving in to fear. Ever since then, he had investigated sites—usually houses, but sometimes open spaces—with an exactitude of which any forensic cop would've been proud. He'd been all over the British Isles, but it was the first time he'd come this far north, to this strange land which seemed to consist disproportionately of sky and water. He'd been here a week, and in spite of his long-held, rigorous, para-scientific attitude, Frame had found himself beginning to sink, mentally, into what he could only describe as sand, the white money dust of the coastline, and that was why, finally, he'd decided to terminate his researches which had taken him to the incongruously pink Cathedral of Magnus with its skull'd, Masonic tombs and its perfect acoustic luminescence, into the various public libraries and into the cottages of some of the older folk of the island, and eventually, to venture into the shell of the Rectory itself.
It was said by some, Red Hector being one, that Rector Farquharson had had no wife because he'd lost her with child awhile back, and that was why, if truth be told, he'd wanted to build his house so close to the sea's edge and on a reputedly haunted site, to boot. Frame had listened to Red Hector's tale, and had accepted the cigar which the old crofter had proffered, but somehow, he had doubted whether the islanders would have come to that conclusion before the disappearance of the Rector. He'd seen it first from the plane: an ugly, dark block of a building, quite out-of-place on the undulating, sandy island. It had risen like a fist towards the sky and towards the tiny nine-seater plane in which he had been travelling, and for a moment, Frame had been seized by a terrible, irrational thought that the Rectory might rise like a giant hand from the sand, from the sea, and the fist open and the fingers tear down the plane, the sky, the world. He'd kept a close eye on the altimeter until the moment when, elegantly and remarkably comfortably, the plane had touched down on the rough stones of the landing strip. His fellow-passengers had already got off at previous stops; Brusa was last, furthest out, least regarded in the archipelagic scheme of things. And apart from the fact that he'd needed his car to haul the equipment along, that was why, when he had come again to the island, he had come by ferry. The sea had seemed a lesser danger, though when he'd glanced at the poster which had been pasted like a Red Madonna to the outside of the disembarkation post, warning of unpredictable tides and incipient flooding due to the inordinate lack of incline on the island, he'd not been so sure. It seemed that Brusa, like a skerry, had just risen from the sea-bed and might return there at any time. What a place to erect a stone house, Frame had thought. The three-storey Rectory was taller than it was, broad and had dark, elongated windows. Like everything in Orkney, it was made of a tough, grey-brown sandstone which was the hardest sandstone Frame had ever rapped his knuckles across. Not that he'd been rapping for ghosts . . .
He lit one of the candles he had brought with him. Midnight sun was wishful thinking on Brusa. You'd have to go another few hundred leagues north, beyond the Westrays and the Whalsays and the Yells and up to the Faeroerne, to bask on a rock in that clear light. Ah, but there was only one Whalsay, he reminded himself. But then, there were two of everything, really, weren't there? And especially so, with these islands. There were the lands you saw and could walk on—the full-breasted mountains of Hoy, the sinking sands of Sanday, and so on—and then there were the islands which you could never see, or touch, or walk upon, unless you be Jesus. Beneath all the low crofts, the fishermen's cottages, the grass of disused manses, there lay rock the colour of sand, and beneath that, the shifting, sliding, savage female body of the sea. Wherever you went, it was there. He'd felt it, right from the moment he'd stepped off the plane. The smell of daberlacks, the cold sweat of the open ocean, and beneath the soles of his feet, the sensation of seething, magnetic waters, pulling him down, down and north . . .
Seven beats of the oar,
And anyway, how had he known all that, the names of the different islands? He shrugged, then remembered he was alone in the room. He figured he must have read it somewhere, in some archive or other. It was funny, the things which caught in the nets of your mind. The candles cast long shadows across the walls, and caused certain cracks and deficiencies to appear which he hadn't noticed before. Every so often, the flame would bend and sputter and dance and its movement reminded him of the silken chorea of the sea of the northern reaches, in the long leagues before the water turned to ice. He rubbed his knuckles. The rock had almost broken the skin. The rock of the wall.
To a northern beach,
Where the sand courses like molten
silver through the water,
A land of prophets, of stone tablets and
Suddenly, Frame wondered why he was there. Why, really, had he come to this northern place where night never fell but where the day danced like selkie foam along the edge of the horizon as it moved, imperceptibly, widdershins, from west to east? A messy London divorce, no children, the onset of a sterile middle age, a waning, subtle but inexorable, the turning to earth . . . a subsistence job. The dark loneliness of the city. No solitude. It was a long time since he'd had a woman. And Frame had come at length to lose any desires he might once have regarded as being as important as, say, food or breath. It was odd how one could do without those things of the flesh. The Society for Psychical Research had been his refuge. A glossy, Sabbath bolt-hole for losers and obsolescent engineers. But he had gone further than most; the whole thing had begun to take over his life, to assume control, if not of his thoughts, then of his actions. It had become, almost a religious process. Not that he'd minded; it was quite comforting to feel that there might be some or other moving force in the midst of his personal oblivion. A kind of sublimation, perhaps. Very post-modern. Very London. The new celibacy, provoked as much by a fear of intimacy, a subtle paranoia of the senses, as a fear of the slow virus, the creep of wormwood. Love and death walked the streets of the city, hand-in-hand. Life had grown too closely to resemble the Crucifixion, and he wanted no part of it. He ran his palm over the bald surface of the chronosphere. It reminded him of an unmapped world; this is what it had been like, at the beginning. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters . . . Perhaps that was what had attracted him to this place; the view of the waters, first thing in the morning, was transfiguring. He'd looked it up, himself. The Haunted Sites Of The Orcades. A blusteringly pompous, mid-Twentieth Century tome, long out-of-print, penned by some Middle English colonel-type for upper middle class tourists with a middling familiarity with the colonies and the classics. The Northern Isles were about as close as they could've got to the Other, without actually having to leave the shores of Albion. But who was he to scoff? Perhaps, one day, he would come back to live here, by the sea which knew no fixed reference points and which did not judge and compare, but which simply swelled and heaved to the rhythm of the moon, and glistened with pearl dust. He ate the last of his sandwiches. His thermos coffee had long gone cold. The cheese was stale.
He was onto his second candle. He glanced at his watch. Two hours beyond midnight. The darkest point of the night. And not even the ticking of a clock, he thought, to remind me that somewhere on this earth, my heart still beats. But it was not really dark. The east-facing window was a shade of purple. It would be another fine day, later. At some point during the night, mist had fallen like a curtain across the island. Frame knew that it might not lift for days. And there would be no planes, or even ferries, either in or out, till it did. He sniffed the air, and then began to pace the floorboards. I should've brought a book, he mused, and then he laughed out loud. His laughter sank into the dark shelves of the bookcases, and brought to him a sudden consciousness of being completely alone. He stopped pacing. The wood was silent. It was a sign of incipient lunacy. But there would be no moon, tonight. No moon, and no lifting of this oppressive feeling which blanketed the island and filled his chest so that each breath became a measured effort, a breaking down of time inside of himself. He went over to the window and gazed blindly into the white darkness beyond. He tried to imagine where the mist might end, somewhere out over the water, a shifting, ragged sweep of the sea which might lie anywhere between the hard-blown glass of the Rectory window and the coast of Norway. The way of Nor. If I gaze for long enough, he thought, I shall grow irreversibly myopic, until I will be able to look, only inside my own head. Every path in this life led to madness.
No-one had stayed in the place since the late 1960's, when some hippies had come up with an agit-prop theatre company and used the Rectory as a radical squat. Reputedly, they had cultivated various species of mushroom and herb, both in the rooms and outside in the garden, and had held strange, naked rituals by the sea's edge. Dancing skin circles around the skeletal rocks. But they had left when winter had come roaring in, and the plants had withered and perished. No-one else had wanted to stay there after that. The place had been left to rack and ruin. Surprisingly, in spite of the prevailing sou-westerlies and the sporadic and perishing north-easterly gales, roof and windows had not fallen in and since no vandals had reached that far north, the Rectory still stood, over a century after its construction, overgrown but essentially intact. I'll not find anything here, he thought. It'll be another of those one-flip sites; one flip of the needle would be all. He would leave whenever he could, cold, hungry and sleep-deprived. He was sleepy right now. Frame's mobile phone lay on the table beside the silver ball of the chronosphere. Now, why on earth have I still got that, he wondered. It's just a remnant of a past life. I don't need it any more and anyway, the waves don't even reach this far out. He stood up, and took the black plastic mobile phone, saw that its battery had run down, slid open the top drawer of the desk and shoved it in. He sat down again.
From beyond the window, from the thin strip of scrubgrass and sand which was all that lay between the Rectory and the sea, Frame felt a swell begin to build. It wasn't something he was able to hear or see. It wasn't really a sensation, at all. All at once, it made him feel smooth and loose, a bit like the way he'd have felt after a work-out or a swim. But beneath it all, there was a noise. A scratching sound. At first, Frame thought there might be rats in the ceiling and instinctively, he ducked, but then he noticed the machines. The chronosphere needle had gone wild and was tearing across the paper in a manner which had never happened before, not even with the subterranean stream. He shivered, and drew his arms around his body. The window was firmly closed, but it was as though it had just swung open. Everything had turned intensely cold. His bones froze. Frame felt fingers slip across his back. The Rector. But something didn't fit. The touch had been that of a woman. Slowly, he turned around.
She was seated in the chair opposite Frame, and was looking at him, and talking in a voice clearer than his own (though just then, he wasn't doing any talking), but somehow, at first, he couldn't make out the meaning of what she was saying. She was speaking in an accent which he recognised as vaguely Orcadian, yet somehow far older. It were as though her breath had been pulled through soil from the deep past, from the long stone slabs which once had danced in circles across the island. He felt no fear. He was no longer cold. Her words emerged into sand.
You look tired, she said.
What's your name? he asked.
She held out her hand and in a movement which seemed quite natural, he rose, bowed and kissed the place just above the line of her knuckles. Her skin was cool, but soft and the taste on his lips was pleasantly salty. Her body was lithe, and beneath her long, grey dress, Frame could see that her breasts were rounded and firm. Her complexion was fair and her lips possessed a faint tinge of violet. She wore a necklace of pearls which, he knew, were real. She had long, soft (he knew it would be soft) hair which fell about her neck in silver tresses. It was not the colour of old age, but of ageless silver. Her eyes held a hint of bemusement—at the sight of him, no doubt—and were a light blue-grey, the colour of the Orcadian sea on a rising, summer tide, early in the morning.
Braga Farquharson is my name.
How long have you been here?
She glanced away, and a distant look came into her eyes, and their movement reminded Frame of the slick of the sea as it moved slowly over pearls and she sighed, so that he could feel the grey dress slip ever so slightly across the cream-coloured skin of her neck.
I was here when Brusa was filled with the creaking bellies of wooden ships.
Longships? he enquired, somewhat astonished.
I was not married to the Rector, but I came to love him. And I was his undoing.
Frame was puzzled. She had almost no eyebrows, and after a while, it dawned on him that her body was hairless, so that her skin seemed to glow with a dim light.
So . . . you're not Mrs. Farquarson? Yet you took his name. What happened to the Rector? I assume you are referring to the Rector Archibald Farquharson.
Archibald? I was his sister.
Frame rocked back in his chair. Felt the ancient wood curl beneath his spine.
You loved him—as a sister.
As a wife.
He let his breath out, in a stream. The chronosphere needle hit metal.
It was our sin. A very old sin. A Biblical evil. Yet we did not feel evil, Archibald and I. You see, we were of the sea, of the selkie tide, and in the ocean, there is no evil and no good. There was never any Eden beneath the waves.
You're a selkie?
She flashed him a look.
Don't insult me, Frame. I am a fin-woman. A mermaid. And where did Farquarson go? He returned to the sea.
And that's where you've come from, today?
The shadows grew longer, and then shrank and the cracks in the wall appeared and then vanished in tune with the candle.
She did not answer, but turned her slender neck and he could see that she was gazing towards the window, in the direction of the sea-line. He looked at the empty bookshelves, at the lectern where the one large Bible had sat, the Bible which, he knew, suddenly had turned, one stormy, summer night of gospels and knives, into the Book of the Black Art and which Rector Farquharson had read and imbibed like an oyster, sea-water, and which he had then used to draw the fin-woman away from the hidden place and to imprison her in the library of his wisdom, among the books and the leather and the wood. And in that moment, Frame knew that the Rector had performed the ancient ritual of the Fin Folk on a selkie tide, and had become the eternal brother of Braga of the Silver Tresses, and that since the Fin Folk recognise no evil and no good, he had possessed her also as a wife. She had risen from her chair. The table stood between them. Frame was suddenly aware of her gaze directed at him.
You are my seventh.
He had a sense of something sinking in his gut. She had known his name.
Farquharson was my first, you understand.
For a moment, he thought that he had misheard. Then it occurred to him that he might be losing his mind. Or that he might be asleep. But the fact that the smell of the sea in his nostrils had grown stronger, pointed against that.
He heard a strange sound, yet the tune was familiar to his ears. He tried to place it. It was coming from the mobile 'phone, from inside the drawer. The Old Man and the Sea. Yes, that was it. He knew there was no call coming in.
Suddenly, she was coquettish. She swirled around, as though she were wearing a long ball-gown and not a tight, grey dress.
Do you think I am beautiful? she asked, as she danced on toes light with the notes.
The tune played three times and then stopped, suddenly, in the middle of the fourth cycle. She stopped in mid-flight. The dance was broken. She seemed suddenly distant, and intensely frail. He felt he would be able to snap her in two, like a seahorse, with a simple twist of his arm. He drew breath, and spoke quietly.
You are the most beautiful being I have set eyes upon, in this life or the next.
Her face grew serious.
There is no other life. And I wish to prolong beauty in this one, to extend it so that my eyes shall match the sea, forever and so that I shall step outside of time's tyranny. I wish my beauty to be more than merely that which you are able to see.
Where is Farquharson, now? he asked, a little tentative after her outburst.
She seemed distracted.
. . .Farquharson? He is in Hether Blether.
The vanishing courts . . . he whispered. He was no longer surprised at his knowledge.
She glanced at the window.
It will soon be sunrise. No-one must see me.
No-one can see you, Braga. No-one, but me.
She shook her head.
It is the spey-wives I'm afraid of. With their steel bibles, they pierce my eyes like the beaks of the brown bonxie.
A tiny shiver ran through her body, so that her grey dress caught the silver in the dull light of the candle. She went on, as though driven by some fast-flowing current.
From before the beginning of time, we roamed free through the ocean. Like thoughts, we took different forms. Then the metal ships came, and the big nets, and we had to vanish, to go out of time. We no longer sang to men, except in their heads. The Rector set out to debunk everything that had gone before, but gradually, day by day, I sang to him that which he could not hear, and the sea air blew into his lungs and replaced the blood in his veins. He summoned me from the Vanishing Isle, and held me here, in this place.
She swung her arms around her. They were slim, yet he could see that her chest would be ocean strong. Her's was a deceptive frailty.
So many books . . . and yet, at the end, it was I who took him down.
She looked at Frame with a piteous expression.
I do not want to grow old and ugly like the rest. I will not disappear.
Then she became angry.
I will not be an old fin-wife! Never!
Where are the rest of the fin-folk? he asked, quietly.
Vanished, like the Norn, into men's heads, or else turned to fin-wives. They have lost all hope. Or else, they are caught in the barbarous, unhearing nets of sea-trawlers, or blackened with oil slicks, or cracked like sea-horses.
She looked him straight in the eye, then glanced away. Had she really read his thoughts? The image of a sea-horse, lying dead and broken on the ocean floor, was powerful and tragic. Or was it he who had read the mind of a mermaid? He ran his fingers through his hair, which once had been long and had been the colour of ripe corn, but which long ago, had been cropped short, military-style. Scythed, along with his dreams. Cold sweat beaded his scalp.
I, too have lost hope, many times, he mused, and his voice seemed to come from the end of a long tunnel. There was a pause, and the sound of the waves, massing and then seething back, filled the room. When Braga spoke again, a strange sense of dislocation had settled in the library.
I took one of the hippies, awhile back. The rest of them were so far out, they didn't even notice.
He found himself basking in her sense of humour. He realised it was the first time in years that he had really enjoyed the company of a woman. Then she opened her mouth, and began to sing.
He found himself behind her eyelids.
Her voice was thin and plaintive, and it rose and fell as she sang the words to a song he didn't immediately recognise, but with whose cadence he felt he was familiar. However, the language seemed very archaic, some old, northern tongue, long-forgotten by all but the dead. He closed his eyes and after a while, he was up on a hill-top by an unbroken Odin Stone, the ends of his fingers touching the silhouette bones of one whom he could not see. The wind blew in his hair, and he felt his mouth open and close and no words issued forth.
The song ended. He opened his eyes.
She rose, and Frame rose with her. She moved along the bookcases. Her hand sculpted out the places where books once had sat, and it was as though she were browsing through their vanished pages.
The books are gone, said Frame.
She looked at him, and she was far away, in some distant land beyond the land of the Gor, beyond even the realm of the Finn.
They are invisible, she said.
I will miss you, he said.
He glanced at the chronosphere whose needle had over-reached itself and fractured right down the middle, and at the stereoscope which, he realised, had been emitting a high-pitched, dog frequency howl in the shape of a lenticule, ever since Braga had entered. Then he remembered that in fact she hadn't entered, but had simply appeared, sitting in the chair. He wondered again if perhaps he really was insane. But then, if he was mad then so too were the machines and thence, the whole of science. Several hundred years of lunacy thrown into disarray by a being who had known neither evil nor good and for whom such terms were truly without meaning. For the fin folk, the ocean was a dissonant symphony of light. It was beyond logic. Or else, it was the supreme logic. Yet a persistent thought nagged him.
But what of Farquarson? he asked.
She inclined her head, ever so slightly, and though there was no detectable wind in the library, Frame thought he saw the breeze sift through her silvery hair. She smiled, and her smile was of the back rocks, her teeth were the flames of koli lamps. Iron seas, her breath in his mouth. He reeled back, feeling suddenly dizzy. The shelves, the room, the Rectory swam around him. The lectern, the steel bible, the pure smell of kirkyard earth.
He was my brother, but he knew it not. We move among human folk, like silver among copper.
The sea was pouring in through the sand of the glass and the walls. Her grey dress was turning to silver, and her cream-white skin, to gold. Around her feet, the sea-water was swirling like the caresses of a lover. Then the arms were his arms, and he felt the sea around him, inside him. His hair was long and silver, and swept around his shoulders as it had, thirty years earlier when he had cultivated and partaken of the agit-prop mushrooms and gone on the trip from whence he had never returned, and as it had, a hundred years before that, when he had come to this place as Rector, as scientific Dundonian Christian intent on reform and improvement, and as it had, a thousand years before that, when he had returned with the bone ships from a Holy Land steeped in the blood of fresh crucifixions.
You are my seventh, she whispered, and her whisper was the warm, prevailing sou-westerly.
The candle blew out.
I am your seventh, Braga whispered, and her whisper was the icy, winter nor-easterly.
We grow young through our mortal lives, each one, longer than the span of the ancient books. We are become redemption itself. Together, fin and human, we have ridden the njuggle across the span of the oceans and we have vanquished the tyranny of Michael and of Eden. Through our love of unspoken words, the ocean has swept away the King of the Cross and now we may farm freely beneath the sea.
She was facing him, he could feel her cold fish breath, and yet he no longer felt it so, and their lips joined and her long, finned body pressed against his. Her lips tasted of reef coral. Her heart beat a tide against his chest, and he was drowned in her blood. Inside him, her bones danced green withershins in the shape of an earth-curse. Her thoughts came in whispers that were like kisses. The great underground chambers of the Fin King's palace flashed before his eyes, the pillars, the arched roof-beams, the swaying, dancing ganfer forms and in the deepest chamber of all, he saw a room which was exactly like the Rectory library. And in that watery room, so like the inside of an enormous shell, he saw Braga and the dark stranger who once had been a Norse warrior, embrace and lie down together, naked in the clear liquid. Every seventy years, the span of a human life, every seven warts of the oar, she returned and reclaimed him, his body, his soul, and so had they avoided both the fate of the Fin-folk, which was to grow immeasurably aged, and the destiny of humankind, which was to turn to kirkyard earth.
My love, do you not remember sailing along the Eastern shore in the long, long ships of King Karl? Do you remember the look in the eyes of Earl Paul the Blind? The burning stink of Thorkel Flayer as his skin leapt from his body into the flames? Can you not feel the wind as it blows across our bodies as we lie between the tidemarks, on the skerry rocks of Eynhallow? We have loved through many ages of men, and yet, in our hearts, we grow young. For the sea washes away all sins, and only knowledge remains. And it is the knowledge of the waves, of the white spume. Ours is a pure history.
And all at once, he was standing by a wheelie-stane, on his lips, the rub of an old, clay pipe, its stem worn to the weave of his lips. And from the endless sky which swung like a cold, white flame across the islands, he heard the dead-shak song of a quail, and he knew that if the fin-woman did not come soon, he too would lie with a Bible 'neath his chin. Aye, he had known Braga Farquharson when he had been Rector of this place, but he had known her, long before, in the darkness of fishermen's cottages where the lik-strae dust bore the sole prints of a mortal father and where their mother, hidden till the time of the spa ben lest the peerie folk should cast their spells, sought out in her dreams the feather of a black cock to crow awa the trows.
He knew that outside, the sky would be lightening and the waves tripping, one over the next like the waves of men who had come and gone by the water's edge, and that up on the hill, the light would stretch and pull along the tall stones which were incised with the initials of long-dead interlopers. There was blood in the ocean; the ocean was blood. He tasted it in his mouth, felt it run along the lines of his back, his legs which once had been stone but which now were turning like the world and which would take him, ever northwards, seven times and more, out past Fetlar and Baliasta to the crags of Gisk and Sekk and then further, up to the White Sea where those who had known neither Eden nor Fall dwelt in peace still. He was sinking in the white metal seas, he was skinned again in the silver and gold of the skies. And in that liquid moment, which stretched beyond the ends of time and space, he felt the machines which he had abandoned, become molten and explode slowly into air, and he knew that he would spend eternity in the cold ocean which he had never really left.
He stumbled, and reached out to stop himself, but then he realised that he had already fallen and that he was swimming away, out through the cracks in the walls which had opened up like sea rivers, and away from Brusa Island, from the here-and-now that has never been real, and into the ocean from which everything comes and to which, at length, all things must return. And that the ancient fin-man who, in this world, had been known as Frame and his sister-wife who many centuries earlier, had taken the name, Braga, once again and forever would be as one.
One week later, after the fog had lifted, a pilot flying a Britten Norman Islander over Brusa Island noticed that Frame's car had not moved from near the Rectory, and informed the police. It was rumoured (though never confirmed in official reports) that when the local policeman had opened the Rectory door, it had taken more than the usual amount of effort, and that when, finally, it did open, sea-water had gushed through the doorway, almost sweeping the policeman off his feet. A freak flood on a selkie tide had engulfed part of Brusa Island that night. No body was ever found. The Rectory was declared dangerous, and an order was issued from Kirkwall for its demolition. Somehow, the order has not yet been carried out. Something about the machines needing repair, or the demolition teams being ill with backache. The dead spey-wives know better.
||Great Skua, dark brown birds which has been known to attack people
|Britten Norman Islander
||9-seater propellor planes which fly from island to another throughout the Northern Archipelagos
||the song of the common quail, said to presage death
||'ghost', which appears when a person is about to die
||a small open iron lamp which burned fish oil
||the straw of the death-bed, which was burned after the body had been removed from it
||Shetlandic mythical water-horse
||prophecy bone; the condyle between the thigh-bone and shank of a sheep. In Shetland, it was used to predict the sex of an unborn child.
||trolls (often interchangeable with fairies)
||strokes (of the oar). It is said that a fin-man can sail from Orkney to the coast of Norway with seven strokes of the oar.
||traditional resting-places for coffin-bearers on the way to the graveyard
My thanks to Alistair Peebles, George Gunn and Leslie Manson and to the Orkney Skald which breathes within us all. Also, to The Mermaid Bride and other Orkney folk tales, by Tom Muir, The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland, by Ernest Marwick and to the hidden, unending tale of the Orkneyinga, by the dark stranger . . .
Copyright©2003 Suhayl Saadi