by George Mackay Brown
TIME was lines and circles and squares.
“You will go home at once to your father,” said Miss Ingsetter, rapping her desk with a ruler, “and tell him I sent you because you have not prepared the mathematics lesson I told you to prepare. Now go!”
A rustic went through the classroom. The pupils looked around at me, wide-eyed. A few made little sorrowing noises with their lips. For it was a terrible punishment. My father was a magnate, a pillar of authority in the island —Justice of the Peace, Kirk Elder, Registrar, Poor Inspector, a member of the Education Committee itself. He was, in addition, the only merchant in the place and kept the shop down by the pier; even before I was born he had decided that his boy would be a credit to him — he would go to the university and become a minister, or a lawyer, or a doctor.
Now, this summer afternoon, while bluebottles like vibrant powered inkblots gloried in the windows and the sun came foursquare through the burning panes, my stomach turned to water inside me.
“Please, Miss Ingsetter,” I said, “I’m sorry I didn’t learn the theorem. I promise it won’t happen again. I would be glad if you punished me yourself.”
The bust of Shelley gazed at me with wild blank eyes.
Her spectacles glinted. Down came the ruler with a snap. “You will go to your father, now, at once, and tell him of your conduct.”
The bright day fell in ruins about me. I crossed the floor on fluttering bare feet, and was soon outside.
“You, Willie Sinclair,” I heard her shouting through the closed door, “stand up and give us the theorem of Pythagoras.”
A red butterfly lighted on my hand, clung there for a moment, and went loitering airily across the school garden, now here among the lupines, now there over the flowering potatoes, as if it were drunk with happiness and didn’t know on what bright lip to hang next. I watched it till it collapsed over the high wall, a free wind-tipsy flower.
Inside the classroom, the formal wave gathered and broke.
“. . . is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides,” concluded Willie Sinclair in a sibilant rush.
“Very good, Willie,” said Miss Ingsetter.
Despised and rejected, I turned for home.
The croft of Myers stands beside the road, looking over the Sound, and the hill rises behind it like a swelling green wave. Sophie, a little bent woman, her gray shawl about her head, was throwing seed to the twelve hens.
She smelled me on the wind. “Hello there,” she cried. I muttered a greeting.
She peered at me. “And who might you be?” she said.
I told her my name.
“Mercy,” she said, “but you’ve grown.”
Our voices had roused the old man inside. He was suddenly at the door, smiling. Peter’s face was very red and round. He had been a sailor in his youth. The backs of his hands, and his wrists, smoldered with blue anchors, blue mermaids, blue whales. “Come in,” he cried.
It was like entering a ship’s hold, but for the smells of peat and kirn and girdle. I breathed darkness and fragrance.
They ushered me to the straw chair beside the fire. I had hardly got settled in it when Sophie put a bowl of ale between my hands. The sweet heavy fumes drifted across my nostrils. Peter sat filling his pipe in the other straw chair. The old woman never rested for an instant. She moved between the fire and the window and the bed, putting things in order. She flicked her duster along the mantelpiece, which was full of tea caddies and ships in bottles. The collie dog lolled and panted on the flagstones.
“And tell me,” said Peter, “what way you aren’t at school?”
“I got sent home,” I said, “for not learning the lesson.”
“You must learn your lessons,” said Sophie, setting the fern straight in the tiny window. “Think what way you’ll be in thirty years’ time if you don’t, a poor ignorant fellow breaking stones in the quarry.”
I took a deep gulp of ale, till my teeth and tongue and palate were awash in a dark seething wave.
“And tell me,” said Peter, “what will you be when you’re big?”
“A sailor,” I said.
“If that wasn’t a splendid answer!” cried Peter. “A sailor. Think of that.”
“My grandfather was a gunner on the Victory,” said Sophie. “He was at Trafalgar. He came home with a wooden leg.”
“That was great days at sea,” said Peter. “Do you know the ballad of Andrew Ross?”
“No,” I said.
A hen, shaped like a galleon, entered from the road outside. She dipped and swayed around the sleeping dog, and went out again into the sunlight.
“Woman,” said Peter, “get the squeeze-box.”
Sophie brought a black dumpy cylinder from under the bed and blew a spurt of dust from it. Peter opened the box and took out a melodeon.
“Listen,” he said. A few preliminary notes as sharp as spray scattered out of the instrument. Then he cleared his throat and began to sing:
Whose sufferings now I will explain
While on a voyage to Barbados,
On board the good ship Martha Jane...
“That was the name of the ship,” said Sophie, “the Martha Jane.”
“Shut up,” said Peter.
With whips and ropes, I tell you true,
Then on his mangled bleeding body
Water mixed with salt they threw.
“That’s what they used to do in the old days, the blackguards,” said Sophie. “They would beat the naked backs of the sailors till they were as red as seaweed.”
“Damn it,” said Peter, “is it you that’s reciting this ballad, or is it me?”
A thing whereof I shall not name,
The sailors all grew sick with horror,
On board the good ship Martha Jane.
“What was it Andrew Ross had to swallow?” I asked.
“It was too terrible to put in the song,” said Sophie.
“I’ll tell you what it was,” said Peter, glaring at me, “It was his own dung”
The sickness began to work like a yeast in the region of my throat. I took a big swallow of ale to drown it.
And on the deck they did him fling,
In the midst of his pain and suffering
“Let us be joyful,” Ross did sing.
“He was religious,” said Sophie, “and the captain was an atheist. That’s the way they badused him.”
And jagged him with an iron bar.
Was not that a cruel treatment
For an honoured British tar!
The house took a long dizzy lurch to starboard, then slowly righted itself. My knuckles grew white on the edge of the chair. The good ship Myers burrowed again into the fluid hill.
“Mercy,” said Sophie, “I doubt the boy’s too young for a coarse ballad like that.”
When into Liverpool they came,
They were found guilty of the murder
Committed on the briny main.
“High time too,” said Sophie. “The vagabonds !”
That Captain Rogers had to die,
To satisfy offended justice
And hang on yonder gallows high.
I stood erect on the heaving flagstones. “Going to be sick,” I said.
“The pail!” cried Sophie. “Where’s the pail?”
But she was too late. Three strong convulsions went through me, and I spouted thrice. The flagstones were awash. The dog barked. Then the cottage slowly settled on an even keel, and I was sitting in the straw chair, my eyes wet with shame and distress. Not even Andrew Ross’s sorrow was like unto nay sorrow.
Old Sophie was on her knees with a wet clout and a bucket.
Peter patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “You’re not the first sailor that’s been sick on his maiden voyage.”
BELOW the kirkyard the waves stretched long blue necks shoreward. Their manes hissed in the wind, the broken thunder of their hooves volleyed along the beach and echoed far inland among cornfields and peat bogs and trout lochs, and even as far as the quiet group of standing stones at the center of the island.
I made my way shoreward, walking painfully along a floor of round pebbles. One had to be careful; Isaac of Garth, going home drunk and singing on Saturday nights, was in the habit of smashing his empty bottles on these rocks. He had done it for so many years that the amphitheater of pebbles above the sand was dense with broken glass — the older fragments worn by the sea to blunt opaque pebbles, the newer ones winking dangerously in the sun. If one of the sharp pieces scored your foot, you might easily bleed to death.
There was no one in sight along the wide curve of the beach, or on the road above. In the kirkyard the gravedigger was up to the hips in a grave he was making for Moll Anderson, who had died at the weekend.
Quickly and cautiously, under a red rock, I took off my clothes — first the gray jersey with the glass button at the neck, next the trousers made out of an old pair of my father’s, and finally the blue shirt. Then I ran down to the sea and fell through an incoming wave. Its slow, cold hammer drove the air out of my lungs. I thrashed through the water to a rock thirty yards out and clung to it, gasping and shivering. “Lord,” I thought, “suppose Miss Ingsetter or my father saw me now!” A shred of cloud raced across the sun, and the world plunged in and out of gloom in a second. And then, for an hour, I was lost in the cry and tumult of the waves.
The gravedigger paused in his work, and shading his eyes beachward, saw me stumbling out of the waves. He shook his fist at my nakedness.
The sand was as hot as new pancakes under my feet. I ran wild and shouting up the beach and fell gasping on my heap of clothes. I lay there for a long time. From very far away, on the other side of the hill, a dog barked. The rock pool shimmered in the heat. The music of the gravedigger’s spade rang bright and fragile across the field. Suddenly, three words drifted from the rock above me: “You naked boy.” I looked up into the face of Sarah, Abraham the tinker’s daughter. She rarely came to school, but whenever she did she sat like a wild creature under the map of Canada. She was sprawling now on the rock with her legs dangling over. Her bare arms and her thighs, through the red torn dress she wore, were as brown as an Indian’s.
Sarah said, “I come here every day to watch the boats passing. When the sun goes down tonight we’re moving to the other end of the island. There’s nothing there but the hill and the hawk over it. Abraham has the lust for rabbits on him.”
The tinkers have curious voices, angular outcast flashing accents like the cries of seagulls.
She jumped down from the rock and crouched in front of me. I had never seen her face so close. Her hair lay about it in two blue-black whorls, like mussel shells. Her eyes were as restless as tadpoles, and her small nose shone as if it had been oiled.
“Sarah,” I said, “you haven’t been to school all week.”
“May God keep me from that place forever,” she said.
With quick curious fingers she began to pick bits of seaweed out of my hair.
“What will you do,” she said, “when you’re a tall man? You won’t live long, I can tell that. You’ll never wear a gold chain across your belly. You’re white like a mushroom.” She laid two dirty fingers against my shoulder.
“I’m going to be a sailor,” I said, “or maybe an explorer.”
She shook her head slowly. “You couldn’t sleep with ice in your hair,” she said.
“I’ll take to the roads with a pack then,” I said, “for I swear to God I don’t want to be a minister or a doctor. I’ll be a tinker like you.”
She shook her head again. “Your feet would get broken, tramping the roads we go,” she said.
Her red dress fell open at the shoulder where the button had come out of it. Her shoulder shone in the wind as if it had been rubbed with sweet oils.
She stretched herself like an animal and lay down on the sand with her eyes closed.
I turned away from her and traced slow triangles and circles in the sand. I turned a gray stone over; a hundred forky-tails seethed from under it like thoughts out of an evil mind. From across the field came the last chink of the gravedigger’s spade — the grave was dug now; the spade leaned, miry and glittering, against the kirkyard wall. Two butterflies, red and white over the rock pool, circled each other in silent ecstasy, borne on the stream of air. They touched for a second, then fell apart, flickering in the wind, and the tall grass hid them. I turned quickly and whispered in Sarah’s ear.
Her first blow took me full in the mouth. She struck me again on the throat as I tried to get to my feet. Then her long nails were in my shoulder and her wild hair fell across my face. She thrust me back until my shoulder blades were in the burning sand and my eyes wincing in the full glare of the sun. She dug sharp knees into my ribs until I screamed. Then she raveled her fingers through my hair and beat my head thrice on the hard sand. Through ray shut lids the sun was a big shaking gout of blood.
At last she let me go. “Next time I come to the school,” she said, looking down at me with dark, smiling eyes, “I’ll sit at your desk, under the yellow head of the poet.” She bent over quickly and held her mouth against my throat for as long as it takes a wave to gather and break. Her hair smelled of ditchwater and grass fires. Then she was gone.
I put on my clothes, muttering through stiff lips, “You bitch! O you bloody bully, I’ll have the attendance officer after you in ten minutes, just see if I don’t!”
As I left the beach, walking slowly, I could see her swimming far out in the Sound.
She waved and shouted, but I turned my face obstinately toward the white road that wound between the kirkyard and the cornfield. The salt taste of blood was in my mouth.
THE gravedigger had finished making Moll Anderson’s grave. He was sitting on the shaft of his barrow, smoking a clay pipe. As I turned in at the gate he wagged his beard at me, for he did not associate this shy decently clad boy with the naked insolence he had seen running out of the sea half an hour before. I wandered away from him among the branching avenues of tombstones —the tall urns and frozen angels of modern times; the fiery pillars with the names of grandfathers on them; the scythe-and-hourglass slates of the eighteenth century; and the lichened, leprous tombs of a still earlier age. This small field was honeycombed with the dead of generations — farmers with stony faces; young girls rose-cheeked with consumption; infants who had sighed once or twice and turned back to the darkness; stern Greek-loving ministers; spinsters with nipped breasts and pursed mouths. I stood on the path, terrified for a moment at the starkness and universality of shrouds; at the infinite dead of the island, their heads pointing westward in a dense shoal, adrift on the slow tide that sets toward eternity.
My dreaming feet brought me to a low tombstone set in the east wall:
HERE LIES BURIED
A FOREIGN SEAMAN,
OF UNKNOWN NAME AND NATIONALITY
WHOM THE SEA CAST UP ON THIS ISLAND,
JUNE THE SIXTH, 1856.
“Though I take the wings of the morning, and flee to the uttermost places of the sea.”
I closed my eyes and saw a little Basque town between the bay and the mountains.
The feast of Our Lady of the Sea was over. The nets and the oars had been blessed. The candles were still burning in their niches among the rocks.
Now the young people are dancing in a square that lies white and black under the moon.
The musician slouches, as if he were drunk or half-asleep, against the fountain. Only his hand is alive, hovering over the strings like a vibrant bird.
The young people are dancing now in long straight lines. The partners clap their hands and bow to each other. They shout; the dark faces are lit up with a flash of teeth. They move around each other with momentarily linked arms. They incline toward each other, their hands on their knees, and stamp their feet. It is all precision, disciplined fluency, a stylized masque of coupling.
Older men and women sit gossiping on the doorsteps. Occasionally they sip from tall glasses. One, a fat man with a yellow beard, looks often through a gap in the houses, at a ship anchored in the harbor.
An old shawled woman stands alone, in the shadow of the church. No one speaks to her; the seal of separation is on her. She is the guardian of the gates of birth and death. In this village she comes to deliver every wailing child, she goes to shroud every quiet corpse. Her eyes are in the dust, from which all this vanity has come, and to which it must return.
The hand over the guitar moves into a new swirling rhythm. Now the square is all one colored wheel, a great wavering orange blossom.
Suddenly there is an interruption. A tall bearded sailor appears at an alley opening and walks slowly across the square. The guitar falters. The dance is frozen. The old, dark woman raises her head. The officer points to one of the dancers and crooks his finger: he must come, immediately; the ship is sailing tonight.
The seaman — he is only a boy — turns once and looks back. A girl has raised her apron to her face. The yellow-bearded man rises from his doorstep and makes a gesture of blessing: “Lady of Waters, guard him this day and all days till the sail returns to the headland.”
Above the village a cross stands among the stars. Through a long silence comes the sound of the sea. The last votive candle gutters and goes out among the rocks.
The little town of moonlight and music will never see that sail again. Her voyage has ended on a northern rock. All her sailors have vanished down the path of gull and lobster, scattered in a wild Atlantic storm. One broken shape only was lifted out of the seaweed. Curious hands have carried the nameless thing in procession across the fields. They have clipped the rags from it and combed its hair, and covered the crab-eaten face. And though there was no priest to sing Latin over it, a Calvinist minister said, “All flesh is grass, and the glory of flesh is as the flower thereof” — the orange blossom of Spain and the little blue Orkney primula, whose circles of beauty are full and radiant for a short time only; and then, drifting winterward, or broken with June tempest, lay separate shining arcs in the dust . . .
My slow circuitous walk had brought me to the new gaping hole in the earth. The gravedigger was still sitting on his barrow. He bored a sidelong glance into me and said: “There’s only one way of coming into the world, but ah, God, there’s two or three ways of going out.”
“That’s a fact,” I said.
“Would you like,” he said, “to see what a man truly is?”
Not understanding, I gave a quick nod. He groped with his hand into the small hill of clay beside the open grave, and brought out a skull. Carefully he wiped it on his moleskin trousers. “That’s you,” he said, “and me, and the laird, and Frank the idiot. Just that.”
He laughed. “There’s nothing here to make your face so white. It’s as harmless as can be, this bone. It’s at peace, and not before time. When it lived, it had little rest, with its randy eyes and clattering tongue. This skull belonged to Billy Anderson, Moll’s grandfather. He was twice in jail and fathered three illegitimate bairns. Oh, he was a thieving, drunken, fighting character, and it was a good day for him when we threw him in here. Wasn’t it, Billy?” he said to the skull, blowing smoke into its eye hollows, “Wasn’t it, boy?” The skull grinned back at him.
From the other side of the loch the school bell rang the dismissal.
Over the hill from the village, like a procession of beetles, came the mourners.
AFTER I had finished my lessons that evening, I was summoned into the shop. My father was sitting at the counter between a barrel of paraffin oil and a great dark coil of tobacco. There was a jar of sweets at his elbow. Over his head hung jerseys and scarves and stockings, with price tickets on them. The lamp swung from the hook in the ceiling, smoking a little. There was always a good smell in the shop.
“It’s thee, John,” he said, raising his head from the ledger for a moment. “Sit down, boy.” He counted the sticks of toffee in a glass jar and then said, “How did thu get on at the school the day?”
“Fine,” I said.
“I’ve been thinking about thee,” he said, “what to make o’ thee, once thee school days are over.”
He gathered up a handful of coins, and rang them one by one back into the till. Then he marked the ledger on his desk with a pencil.
“There’s no future in this shop, I can tell thee that,” he said. “The profits are getting smaller every year. The reason is, the folk are leaving the island. They’re going to the cities and the colonies. Not a month passes but another family leaves. And then they send to the mail-order places in the south for their clothes and their ironmongery. A great lot of them do that. They forget that we depend on each other for our livelihood in a small island like this.
“And there’s debts, too,” he said. “For instance, Mistress Anderson who was buried this afternoon died owing more than six pounds. So it’ll be a poor inheritance for thee, this shop.”
He licked his pencil and wrote more figures in the ledger. His hair glittered frailly in the lamplight.
“I had a word with Miss Ingsetter this afternoon about thee,” he went on. “She called at the shop after school for some flypapers. She seemed surprised thu weren’t home yet. I made a point of asking her about thee. She says thu’re an able boy, good beyond the general run at reading and writing and history. Not so bright at the mathematics. Sometimes thu’re inclined to be inattentive and dreamy, she says. At times, only at times. But there’s no harm in the boy, she said, and he’s by no means stupid. And it’s my opinion, she said, he ought to go to the grammar school in Kirkwall for a secondary education, once he turns twelve.”
“I want to be a sailor,” I said.
“The dreaminess,” he said, “you take from your mother. After the school comes the university. That’ll cost money, a power of money. Still, I’m not bare-handed; I haven’t neglected to provide for things like that. With a degree in thee pocket, thu could enter the professions. Think of that.”
“It’s the sea I have a hankering for,” I said. “Uncle Ben said he could get me into the Saint Line, anytime I wanted.”
“The ministry is an honorable profession,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but you get a free house, and I can tell you old MacFarland doesn’t spend a fortune on food. He gets a hen here and a pound of butter there and a sack of taties from the other place. On his rounds, you understand, his visitations. Cheese at the Bu, and fish from Quoys, and a fleece for spinning from Westburn, all for nothing. And nobody can say the work is strenuous.”
“Supper is ready,” my mother sang out from the kitchen.
“Now doctoring is strenuous, there’s no doubt about that. They haven’t a moment to call their own. They can’t even be sure of a night’s sleep. There’s always somebody thundering at Doctor Leslie’s door after midnight with the toothache, or a pain in the guts, or a hook’s got stuck in their hand. It’s no wonder he’s taken to the drink lately. But, putting all that aside, medicine is a fine calling. Plenty of money in it too, if you can get them to pay their bills.”
“I spoke to Mother,” I said. “She would like fine for me to be a deep-sea captain. She’s going to write to Ben.”
“The law,” he said, “is a different thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, if you understand, but there’s a shady side to it, there’s a certain amount of trickery about it that makes the ordinary honest man wonder sometimes. You can hardly open a newspaper without seeing some lawyer or other in trouble for embezzling his client’s money, and carrying on. You’ll hear a couple of them arguing a case like mad in the courts, and then, half an hour later, there they’ll be walking down the street together cheek by jowl, John,” he said, “never go to law if you can possibly help it. Not but what there aren’t honest lawyers too.”
He unscrewed the lid from a bottle of blackstriped balls. He took out a couple between his fingers and handed them across the counter.
“If there’s one place I have a longing to see,” I said, “it’s Japan.”
He suddenly withdrew his hand and dropped the black-striped balls back into the jar.
“Not before your food,” he said, licking his fingers. “I forgot. Then there’s teaching —”
“Are you coming for your supper,” chanted my mother impatiently, “or are you not?”
Outside, the dog began to bark. There was a clattering of hooves and wheels over the cobbles. The poultry squawked like mad in the yard. “Mercy,” said my father, running to the door, “it’s the tinkers. The hens!”
I followed him out, into the moonlight. The tinker’s cart was opposite the door now. Abraham sat on the shaft. He cracked his whip and cried to the gray pony. In the cart sat Mary, his wife, with an infant slung behind her in a tartan shawl. Sarah walked alongside with her arms full of wild lupines.
They were going to the other end of the island where the rabbits were thick, to camp there.
“That’s a fine dog you have there, Mister Sigurdson,” Abraham shouted to my father. “I’ll take a half pound of bogie roll, and I’ll pay you when I come back along next week.”
“No,” said my father sternly, “you’ll pay now, for you owe me sixteen and six already.”
“Hello, Sarah,” I said. She stood on the road and looked at me through the dark-blue congregated spires of lupines.
“Are you seeking a tin pail, mistress?” yelled Abraham to my mother, who had come out and was standing at the corner of the house guarding the hens.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ll need one when you come back by next week.”
Suddenly my father was furious. “We need no tin pails!” he shouted. “There’s plenty of tin pails in the shop!”
“Next weekend, mistress,” cried Abraham. He stood between the shafts and cracked his whip. “Giddap!” he yelled. The wheels rolled in crazy circles over the cobbles, and stars streamed from the pony’s hooves. There was a sudden wild cluck-cluck-clucking from inside the cart as it moved off. Sarah stood looking at us, smiling through her screen of lupines.
My father went into the shop, muttering. My mother stood at the corner of the house and watched them out of sight. “One of the hens is missing,” she said. “I darena tell thee father. He would have the police at them for sure.”
A wave of purple blossom rose in front of the moon and showered over me.
Soon the racket died away at the far end of the village. Sarah’s mockery sounded from a distance of three fields; I turned back into the house. My face was wet with dew and petals, and the moon raged above the mission hall wilder than ever.
“The very idea!” cried my father from inside the shop. “A sailor! A tin pail! The thieves.!”
Time was skulls and butterflies and guitars.