Every morning dreich and sleet rouse us from sleep. Our fire is never hot enough to seep warmth into our bed. Papa is already on the sea. We go to the shore to pull ocean weeds into mold-grey woven baskets and, after, haul them up on posts in the great room to dry. Outside, the wind lashes. Ian’s fingers are already inky green from the work.
The cold air follows Papa home each night after dark, pushing through our sea-facing hut and sucking the hearth’s peat smoke with it. Papa’s look, wet slate or black cloud, tells us if he wants fish stew this night or only a dram. Did he smile before she left? I don’t remember. He doesn’t smile now. I pull off his briny wool, as Mother used to. Ian brings him warm socks from the hearth stones. We listen to the night howl until Papa snores.
Mother wasn’t much for smiling but her eyes were always kind and wet. From her I learned to tend the tide pools and mash kelp meal. She taught me, and Ian when he was old enough to stand, how to twist the kelp ropes into nets for Papa, and the songs to sing while we worked. She was always on the beach, no matter the weather, and every day she took a hard, long swim out beyond the cliff. She taught us both to swim, of course, although I don’t remember not knowing how. But I could never stay in the water as long as she. The ice-cold current burns me blue. I used to wonder how she could withstand the waves so long.
Ian was different. He cried when we swam off and stayed sputtering in the shallows until one of us bundled him back to the house. It got so, when a certain chill crossed her face, he could tell Mother was readying for a dip and he’d begin to whinge and fidget. But it was no use. As Papa seems to need his nightly dram, Mother needed her daily swim. Often, I was left to calm Ian with work, or play, and song, keeping watch on the dark line of the horizon for the bobbing pierce of Mother’s head returning home.
These days we don’t go into town if it can be helped. The sound of snickering follows us. Grey-haired women narrow their eyes to thin slices as we pass. Ian’s hands are webbed, and he thinks that’s why. But there are others in the village with the same bridge of flesh across their knuckles so it’s not so strange. Others, too, have ash-black hair like mine, just as coarse and wild in the wind. Mother told us not to mind their looks and whispers, and marched us to the village every Sunday to visit with the Grannies and learn the news. But, now, Papa sends us only every month or so to trade salt cod for jam and bannock. We don’t linger. Some children throw pebbles at us. Others scold them, hissing, Don’t be evil-willy, they’ve lost their Ma. As if she’d been ours to misplace.
Their jeers don’t bother me. They will suffer enough, in time. The battles are coming and they will lose the fields their fathers tilled, filled then with their brothers’ freshly buried bones. The taunts they hurl are slight compared to what’s to come.
Once Papa sets to snoring in his chair, I put away the supper things and make the bed. By day the big wood slab in the middle of the hut is the table where we eat and work. By night we layer it with rolls and blankets and goose down pillows. The top is a single board, soft with oil and age and slightly undulating which makes our eggs roll around at dinner, but it feels warm and supple under my palm. It is lifted off the ground by a box frame of driftwood pieces patched together. At night, with all of us wrapped up on top, there is room enough for another family underneath. Sometimes I picture us in both places, one set of us gazing up into the woven thatch of our roof, imagining the stars. And another reflected just on the other side of the wooden surface, looking down into the sod and granite, reading the deep time written there below.
Ian likes me to sing him to sleep but I can only remember a few of the tunes Mother taught us, and none of the words. I hum and stroke his arm until his forehead clears. Before Ian was born, Mother and Papa would sing together in the summer evenings, and that was nice. Pa mending his sweaters and tapping his foot. Ma knotting fish nets and throwing deep and raspy notes into them. Their bodies rocked in time side to side, side to side, sometimes slow, sometimes thumping fast. I tried to stay awake until they tired. I tried to catch the murky words. I never could do either. I was only wee.
Papa made this bed for Mama as a marriage present. He’s not a boastful man, my Papa, but his eyes glowed when he used to tell me the story. It was a surprise, he said, when he found out she was carrying me. He wouldn’t let her inside the cottage for a whole day as he worked. They never had a proper wedding; such luxuries on our wind-ragged coast are rare. But he wanted to make her something to show she was his, a gift to moor her in his home, he said his heart, forever.
Will Mama be home tomorrow? Ian murmurs, every night, rubbing his soft mushroom nose into my side. Shhhhh, is my answer, every night. I don’t say yes; I don’t say no. But neither of us will ever see Mother again. It may be wrong, but I like to let him hope a moment that things are different. Ian often wakes from nightmares, sobbing in his sleep and flinging his small fists into our shoulders. He knows that he’s the reason Mother left us.
I was there, beside the fire, the stormy day she dove inside the hut, dagger-eyed, and wrenched at the timber box frame beneath our table-bed. She attacked it bare-handed, hunched on the earthen floor wild with rage. Her fingers found a knotty hole and, with a howling grunt I’d only heard one time before when she was birthing Ian atop that very altar, she pulled with fearful strength. The plank few off, and she plunged her arm into the cavern. She stilled, as if caught, and all at once her eyes swam with tears. Then, she exhaled a sound so low and loud and mournful it seemed to come from the weeping sky itself. I was stunned, but strangely cool. I felt I’d seen the act one hundred times before. I knew, in fact, what would happen next.
My mother drew her arm from underneath the bed and with it came an enormous sealskin cloak. She grasped the pungent bulk of it and shook a bit, ferocious with relief. A spike of lighting doused all with white for a sickening suspended moment. Then darkness flooded back into the room and with it the rain’s pish-ooting din. Mother was crying then, and mumbling into the slick, silky fur. I strained to hear but the thunder clapped and left me only a few pebbles tossed together: …Here… All the time… I didn’t know…
In another flash, she stood with her quarry, and lunged back to the door as if fleeing the hunt, but stopped a moment in the churning doorframe. Her head swiveled over her shoulder and at last her eyes found me by the hearth stone. My mother, tall and swift, stronger than Papa yet built like a slim and elegant ship, looked at me with such wet sorrow I felt it in my gut. Her look shifted a piece in my belly and things began to rearrange inside me. But she turned again and slipped out, quick as flitting fish.
Ian bounded inside the hut a moment later, screaming Mammaaaa! Mammaaaa!, his face aflame in terror, snot pooling on his lip. I darted around him to catch where our mother had fled, but already the darkened beach showed only rocks and foam and pelting rain. Ian couldn’t tell us what had happened, of course, what had made Mother flee from him on the shore and ransack the family bed. Even if he knew, he wouldn’t have been able to say. His sobbing made him retch and Papa and I stayed up all night dripping broth into his mouth so that we wouldn’t faint. When he calmed enough for words to come, he didn’t yet make sense.
“Who lives there? Who lives there?” he hiccupped, panic-eyed, “Who lives there? Who lives there? Who lives there?”
For three days, this was all he said. But the refrain grew sedate and quiet by the end. Finally, he fell silent and managed to sleep, although not undisturbed, through the night.
One morning, almost still in dream, Ian turned to me and murmured, “Who lives under the bed?”
From his playground floor, beside the hulking bedframe timber, he must have seen a glimpse of shapely fur between the slats. He must have wondered about the space concealed beneath our days and nights, and what, and who, could fit inside. And then, he must have teetered out into the gathering storm, to ask it of his mother raking seaweed on the beach. Who lives under the bed?
Papa was never angry that she disappeared. He didn’t even seem surprised, though he has no second sight. He cries with us when we miss her. He does not forbid her name. His heart is plainly broken but it doesn’t weigh him down. He fishes, he mends our sweaters. He makes sure the town Grannies don’t forget our faces lest we need something he has not a mind to notice. For all his sorrow he seems lighter now, to me, like a father made of paper, like he’s had a burden lifted, or a penance paid.
In a year, I’ll follow my mother into the waves. Ian will drown, poor bairn, trying to follow. He won’t take to the sea, despite the helpful webbing on his palms. He’s more his father’s son, a child of crags and heather. The night we leave, Papa will return to find his boy’s corpse tossing in the sand, stiff with salt. Papa will wail. His voice will boom into the surf. For days he will try to join us, in his despair, holding stones and gulping seawater until he passes out. Mother will return to him then, always in her cloak, and nose him back ashore before he comes to. At last he will relent, and bury one child beside the hut beneath three gravestones. One for Ian. One for Mama. One for me. Papa will have it hard, then. At last he’ll know how it feels to lose a life you love, and how desolate a dry bed can be.
But when I return it will be as easy as walking into fog. The waves will swirl around me like heavy silk. Fatty skin will slide up my bones, and cover me in warmth. I will feel my gangly arms finally fold back into their sinewed pockets. My trunk will thicken and extend and fuse my legs into a column of strength. My pelt will rise over my skull and I will smell again the sandeel’s perfume. Oh, it will be fine. My body will bend in currents made of muscle. I will dip into the swell, finally home.