Read by Eilidh Nairn
I’d just taken the lid from the saucepan to stir the fish stewing in there when MacGregor began knocking at my kitchen door. The door had been rattling on and off with the high wind all evening, but this knocking was persistent and panicked, as if he were using both fists to pound on the poor rain sodden wood. I lifted the plank from the door. I would’ve opened it just a crack but the weather pushed the door open all the way. MacGregor fair fell in a wave of heavy rain and gust. I shoved the door shut and re-planked it.
He had an oilskin satchel strapped across him. This he jealously kept one hand on, thus obliging me to keep my eyes on it as well.
‘What’s there then?’ I asked, as reasonable as you might ask a man in these circumstances.
MacGregor rolled his eyes in their sockets. They were red shot through with blood. I used to admire those eyes of his, and in all honesty I admired the rest of him as well, but that was years ago before he brought back his wife from across the Sound, and before they had those beautiful children together. Children with eyes as big in their faces as do owls have, and always looking so calm within themselves. That’s how you really knew his wife couldn’t be one of us, not even from the community over the other side of the Sound. It’s bad to say but those children were far too beautiful to have come from our stock. That’s just the truth.
MacGregor sat there, drinking what I gave him and handling his oilskin satchel. After four drinks he still hadn’t said anything. From time to time he shook his head as though stunned from a blow, and so I went back to the stove to stir the fish again. When I lifted the lid, and the bright smell of the fish liquor rose up out of there, MacGregor groaned.
‘It’s no good, no more no good,’ he said.
‘What’s that now?’ I said, back to him.
‘Too late for it all now. She’ll come for it.’
MacGregor looked at me, shining his wild tears at me. ‘My wife of course. She’s coming, I can hear her already. Tearing down sheds. Ripping through the sails of moored ships. Cutting through any poor soul stands in her path. She won’t stop this time. I have kept her too long. She knows it all now.’
This raving can come over a man. If one of them spends too long out on the water alone, caught in bad weather, surviving but barely. They come back with stories of the spirits that have appeared to them out on the water. They tell of seeing beautiful faces appear in the waves, of seeing the naked flesh of lasses slipping under the waves like between blankets. My oldmam said they’re just seals that the fishermen are seeing out there, shining and slippery with water but no more than seals.
Some of those men get spooked in weather like this. Them you have to keep an eye on when a storm rolls into harbour. Keep ‘em locked where they can’t hear the rattle of the wind at the loose bits of houses. MacGregor should’ve known better though: he was born here.
‘Not those stories,’ I tell him, slapping him hard on the back, rubbing his shoulder as I would a shank of meat I want to tender up. ‘You know better than that Will MacGregor. It’s a storm outside. A bad one, granted, but no more than a wild storm blown in and it will blow itself out again.’
The storm, as if harkening, began to rattle my boarded up windows and door yet harder. ‘It sounds like it wants to get in doesn’t it? But it’s just a winter storm. Happens every year about this time.’
‘Aye, every year since my wife came,’ said MacGregor, holding his beard in a hand made skeletal with his tense grip. ‘Tonight she’s searched every place she can. Tonight she’ll find it again.’
I thought I’d better not send him back home until he’s given up this behaviour. I spooned some of the stew into a bowl for him and gave him bread for it.
The wind outside began to whistle.
‘Can’t you hear her singing my name?’ said MacGregor. He began to shiver. In that moment I did think I could hear something like Mac mac macgreegore in the way the wind circled the house, but of course it was just the influence of the dark night and bad company.
‘Now why would you be frightened of your wife?’ I said. ‘If she is out there looking for you more likely that she’s worried for your safety.’
‘Not her,’ said MacGregor. ‘I kept her coat from her, don’t you see? Her seal skin coat. She can’t go home without it. I’ve hid it these many years out of love. I want her with me and for a while that was what she wanted as well. She thought she’d lost it herself you see. But now she knows. It was always with me. Every year she’s searched for it. She won’t forgive me. I know it.’
‘You’re raving,’ I said. ‘No one would be so angry over a missing coat. I’ve got two seal skin ones myself.’
MacGregor reared up at this. He rose from his chair. ‘No you haven’t,’ he said. He came around the table at me. I held the metal ladle between us. It pressed into my chest. His beard rubbed my cheek as he whispered to me, ‘She’s a selkie.’
I pushed him off. He’s more cracked than I’d thought. ‘I didn’t know you listened to old wives’ tales,’ I said. I laughed at him. ‘There’s isn’t any such thing as a seal that can turn into a woman.’
He flinched at my laughter. I regret it now, of course, laughing at him. I wasn’t to know, was I, that I wouldn’t see him again?
The storm beat harder on the walls of my house. My grandda had built this house himself. It could withstand harder storms than this. I told that to MacGregor but still he shook until eventually he could stand it no more and he broke from the chair to get at the door.
‘I must leave, she knows I’m here,’ he said. I tried to wrestle the door plank from him. He was much stronger than I. His strength is the kind you need out on the water, while mine is strictly from working on the land. He got the door open and ran into the wetness that shot and spat and slapped me. There was no use running after him. I shut the door up again and said a blessing for him to find another shelter and his wits.
The storm blew itself out that same night. By the morning the sun made jewels of the pools of water left behind. There wasn’t much damage to my house. I knew it’d hold. Happen that MacGregor wasn’t so fortunate. He wasn’t seen again in our village. Neither was his wife. Perhaps she’d gone out into the storm to look for him.
Now, that they disappeared would not have been so remarkable. As I said she was not from our parts. It’s possible they could’ve moved on without telling folk. They were odd enough to do that. But to leave their three beautiful children behind? That was strange indeed. I heard that the three bairns refused to speak a word, not even a sound, after that night.
The constable said he regretted having to do it but he’d have to take the children up to the orphanage in town. He put them in his car to drive them there himself. He told me that as he drove up past the harbour wall the bairns began to shriek and keen. He said when he pulled to the roadside to try to calm them down he no sooner had the passenger door open when they each slipped like baby eels from his grip. They jumped over the harbour wall into the water and vanished from sight.
There was a search party. But nothing found. No trace. Then an inquiry into the constable. He didn’t come out of that so well. Not that he wasn’t believed in as a person. We’d known him all his life. You couldn’t find a more honest man. Still. Three missing children. It ruined him for police duties. He couldn’t find work on a boat either. No-one wants bad luck aboard.
I have him help me with odd jobs sometimes. I feel for him. It’s no way to provide for his family.
That was five years ago that the MacGregors disappeared. We’ve not had a storm blow in since.
(c) Arike Oke, 2015
Arike Oke is a writer, dance archivist and former rollergirl. Her fiction’s been exhibited (Artlink Hull), performed (Liars' League, Are You Sitting Comfortably?), anthologised (Collages, Bedford Square 7) and published in magazines (Words With Jam, Holdfast). She’s writing her first novel, Outrigger, a literary drama of family secrets and hidden identities.
Eilidh Nairn is a Highland-born actress now based in London who loves making words spring to life and working with new writers on developing scripts for theatre. She was recently nominated best supporting actress in award-winning feature film Third Row Centre. She is represented by MSFT Management.