With a week to go until the publication of The Last of Us, I thought I'd blog a short story which is set on another Scottish island, and which I wrote a number of years ago.
It's set on Oronsay (just south of the island of Colonsay). I'd been reading about sky burials, and about the Neolithic tribes who left the shell middens on Oronsay, and wanted to try and write from the point of view of a young tribeswoman.
The island she calls forest island is supposed to be Jura; and Alba is the west coast of Scotland.
Between the tides
We colour our faces in black, using charcoal from a fire gone cold. The rain comes down and we stand and wait for the lead of the holy men, the men who will bear my brother to his final resting place.
My mother is crying. She has her eyes hidden, under her cowl, but still I can see her cheeks. Her tears cut lines through the black, and I put an arm over her shoulder. The sea beside us is calm, just a small cresting wave here and there. The tide tugs at the shingle and the rain spikes the surface of the water, making a sound like the rain on the skin walls of out tents.
I look up, close my eyes. The rain runs on my face, and I let it drop down into my mouth. I cannot listen to the eulogies. If I listen I will be broken by grief, broken as my mother is there.
I cannot listen.
Instead I look away from this sadness: to the ocean, to the sky, where the griefmakers, the childbringers, the moon and the gods lie.
We stand around a wooden platform, crossbeams supporting a raft at head height. My brother is up there, lying on a bed of grass and fireflowers pulled up from the machair. His eyes are open on the sky. Rain runs on his cheeks like the tears and rain on ours. We have him dressed in his fine clothes, his new leather cape, his feather-cap, and his tunic with its double brocade lines of cowrie shells. His hair has been plaited and tied, by my aunt and cousins, in the ceremonial way. But only half of his face is tattooed. My uncle cannot bring himself to complete the work, begun before my brother's death, on the eve of his first hunt year. Unfinished, his forehead and cheeks on one side are that of a youth.
He will appear before the gods in this way, unready. His eyes sunken, skin grey. There is no hair on his face. He is too young to fall into the pantheon of local gods, and must live out his next life as an animal instead.
This poignancy makes me cry.
We hang garlands of flowers on the uprights of the platform, with small offerings, new shell necklaces.
Later, I watch from a viewpoint on the high dunes as the old women sing the song of the redshank. Their lean voices mimic the keening sound of the bird.
The wind ghosts up fragments of their lament to me.
Further along the beach are the real redshanks, picking around with the oystercatchers, blown along by wind-whips, feeding on the wet sand between the tides. They call back to the old women.
On the following days scavenging birds come to circle: gulls, bonxies, then the crows and buzzards. A sea eagle scans from high up, but is harried and chased off by the gulls. Their high turning calls wake us early.
We avoid the far end of the beach, staying in camp. I tend to my mother. She has taken to bed, refusing to eat her meals. I lie beside her on our mat, running my fingers through her hair, giving her hot drinks and whispering songs in her ear to help her forget, songs of the summer forage.
The birds carry my brother to the heavens. His flesh takes one cycle of the moon to disappear; then it is safe to go and see the shell of him.
Each day I collect a posy of blue and yellow flowers to leave by his head. There is a growing petal-heap there, a garland of fading colours.
With the next moon and with the first cold rains of winter, the platform collapses. In two more days it is taken by the wind and high tides. My brothers bones and clothing and his gifts are washed along our shore, then scattered by the tide and pulled out to sea.
That which is left, stranded high on the beach, we take out in our boats to be thrown into the deep.
In the autumn we move our camp to the main midden on other side of the island. My mother has a little more of her appetite. I take her for walks, take her fishing in the west of the island, try to bring her back to the way she was. We walk on the dunes and I talk at her without stopping, telling her who is in hand with who, which man is in command on the hunt, who is with child. All of my gossip is a surprise to her. She follows behind me, nodding but saying nothing, her steps short, eyes down on the sand or machair.
The men go out in their canoes fishing. The old women and children collect shellfish and crabs in the tide pools by the headland. And on fine days we women take our skin boats out to forest island to forage for hazelnuts, which we bring back and roast in large fire-pits dug into the earth. This roasting keeps the hazels from tainting over the winter.
Last night the moon was long in the sky; each new day colder and shorter than the last. I take my skin boat out, alone, to forest island.
I pass seadogs upturned on rocks. They see me and crash into the water, reappearing around me at their own safe distance. In the sand-shallows there are fish which I could easily catch with my gaff—the waters here are easy to spike from—but I stay my hand. There is enough to eat on the island.
I have spent many nights alone on forest island. Alone, I can think and wonder at things, without the arms-jabs and keen looks of the young men.
The sun has already dropped below the horizon by the time I pull my boat onto the shore. I land it high above the tide line.
Under a cloudless sky I roll out my blankets, then wait for the stars.
My grandfather taught me what he knew about the sky. He said that the stars follow the sun around, rising over the mountains of the white land to the east, settling down again in the ocean, west. Higher up the stars shine with a steady light, but nearer the horizon they flicker like hilltop fires. The stars are in groups, and the patterns they form in the sky are unchanging. Around the dark wheel of the sky, circling in its whirlpool and visible all year, are the creatures of the sea: the salmon, the seadog, the whale and dolphin. Further out are lesser creatures: gulls, shags, puffins, smaller fish. Some of these creatures are visible all year, but others, to the south, appear only in certain seasons. Spring: the dog and oystercatcher. The swallow and eagle in summer. In autumn, the otter. And in winter the god of night appears with his bow and arrow, turning high.
The night-god is a shaman. Sometimes, on very dark nights in winter, his breath-trails and the smoke of his fire appear in the sky. The smoke is very beautiful: it can turn the sky completely to colour: to red, green, blue, so bright that it seems day will flare up like a dry-grass fire.
I wonder about the stars. Why should some wander the heavens while others remain fixed? My grandfather said that the free stars are the torches of great travelling sky-peoples, who move unhindered among the steady fires of the ordinary folk. These travelling people are eternal, he said. They can never die, and so they move on forever. The steady stars are mortals, like us. And when one of these mortals die they fly with a torch in their hand across the black. On any clear night, if you watch, you can see a hand or two of these people dying.
I see one such star and think of my brother.
Later, when the moon comes up, I overturn my skin boat, burying one side of it in the sand then propping up the other with forked sticks.
I lie on my blankets under the boat.
The sound of wolves, their noise carrying far on the sea-calm, from the white land in the east. They call to waken the dead, pleading with the newly-gone to reawaken while the moon is high.
I watch for my brother; when I watch for a long time I think I can see him standing at the far end of the beach, looking in my direction. He doesn’t move. I think he's smiling, but I'm not sure. His face is half in shadow.
He might have smiled once.
I waken, cold. Morning kindling in the east.
The wind whines around the trees. My blanket is damp, my clothes are sodden. The clouds scud low in the sky. Sheets of rain fall like grey nets cast on the sea. I crawl out from under the boat and stand on the beach.
The turn of weather has taken me by surprise. The sea is white-capped, my home island lost behind roiling mist.
I will not be able to push out my boat.
I huddle under my blanket, feeling dejected, cold. I had hoped to return to the island early, to share in the spoils of the hunt moon.
Hunger sharpens my wits. I make a fire in a shelter of stones, then collect shellfish, which I cook wrapped in docken leaves. I find hazelnuts, which I roast in the fire, and feel better after this.
In the afternoon I make a stronger shelter of leaning sticks, woven together and covered with ferns and hazel suckers. It is dry and warm inside this shelter. Lying on a bed of tindered autumn bracken I enjoy the woodburn smell of the fire. I think of my mother, my brother, my tribe. I think of the food they'll be eating and their warm tents. I think of the stories they'll be telling and the children's games of stone-and-beaker. Watching my brother receive the first of his tattoos last summer, I remember how relaxed he looked during the ceremony: my uncle much more the concerned one, sitting astride him with his adze, tap hammer and charcoal pot. I remember the Spring festival last: the men leaping over the fire-pit to the drums, then kicking at the embers with their bare feet, sparks twisting up. All of us wearing our deerskins and god masks, the faces of the wild boar, the seadog, the wolf.
The wind grows through the afternoon, raking at the sea and scattering leaves from the hazel forest.
During a storm there are no birds or animals for me to take with my bow; nor are fish eager to stray from their crannies. I forage instead, but there is little for me to take, besides more shell meat and mushrooms.
I nest down under my blankets and skins, knees against my chest for warmth, and wait for morning. I keep the fire going for as long as I can, mesmerised by the flames and by the simple task of drying out kindling.
In the night I hear my brother calling me. His words come with the wind. I look up from my shelter and he's there at the far end of the beach. He sits, not waving. He shimmers like a fish, then stands, falls, rolls forward.
He takes on the mantle of an old woman, back bowed, cowl up.
Then he disappears.
The dawn sky is scoured-shell blue.
I eat mussels cooked in the cinders of last night's fire. The sea-fog has gone, and I can see my home island home. I am eager to be off early, to return to my mother and tribe. I forage briefly before leaving and find a giant mushroom in a mossy dell in the wood, which I pull up gently to take back home to my mother. Also, I collect smaller mushrooms and fallen hazels missed after our last forage, and a garland of white heather for our tent.
I rush my boat away from the shore, plaids gathered up under my arm as I climb inside the wobbling frame.
I have to paddle hard to get past the first breaking waves.
There is a sharp breeze on the sea, and it chills my face, my bare arms. The sun crackles like firelight on the water; I keep a steady rhythm going, concentrating on my movements, trying to plunge in the paddle with as little splash as possible. The wind turns as I leave the shore, blowing more or less at my back.
Forest island falls away behind me.
Slowly, towards noon, I pull closer to my home. I see many rising palls of smoke pushed south by the wind. Gulls skim over the water ahead, then dive close, close enough for me to see the red spots on their bills and their poisonous eyes. A sea-dog ducks close, then disappears.
From a distance I see two people standing on the Spring beach. I wave to them but they don't wave back, not even when I whistle and call.
I pull eagerly with my paddle.
The people are standing in the direction of the crackling sun, and it is hard for me to see them. The beach ahead is brilliant white, and I feel my boat begin to rise and fall, see a line of surf folding just ahead.
I call again, but they don’t reply. Nor do they come into the surf to greet me.
This is odd.
Then I see their faces.
Their faces are untattooed. Their bodies, dark with dirt. Their beards are brown, and they wear unusual leathers, tied as tunics at their waists.
They wear the silver hides of wolves on their heads.
Not my people.
My heart beats fast. I look up and down the beach for my tribe, but nothing. The surf begins to push me to the shore, and the two men laugh and beckon for me to keep coming, shouting words I cannot understand. I am close enough to see their eyes, which are coloured black around.
Their faces look like skulls.
I call for my people, my mother. No-one answers. The men hold up their spears. They taunt me, gesturing that I should come to them.
Confused, frightened, I paddle frantically back for the sea. The men whoop and whistle and run into the water up to their waists, coming so close that I fear they might pull me from my boat, but then they stop.
It is too deep for them.
They hold on to their spears, not wanting to lose them over the water.
I pull hard with my paddle, ignoring the burning of my arms and back, until I'm lost from the island's tide rolls and back out into the windcrests of sea.
Looking back, I see other men standing beside them on the beach. They huddle together in conference. One points in my direction.
Their voices come with the wind, then nothing.
The sun drops. I lie under my skins, bone cold. The sea laps at the side of my boat. The boat is made for short journeys between the islands, not for long stays on the water, and the bottom of it is slowly filling up. I have to empty it frequently; my feet are numbed by the cold water.
Feeling hungry, I eat the wet flesh of the giant mushroom, but it tastes of little more than earth. I lapse into a broken sleep, wakening often, the pitching movement of the boat bringing dreams of falling.
I think of my mother, my brother, and feel a terrible emptiness.
I waken, look out from under my skins. The chill of early morning on my face.
I have drifted overnight, the sea currents taking me east. My island has dropped to the horizon, but the white land, Alba, is closer than I have ever seen it before. It looms amazingly large ahead of me. There are mountains, vast in the sky, with white tops leading down to valleys of rubble, gorges, forests.
The boat is heavy with water. I waken to the danger of this and begin to bail. My hands are bloodless, clumsy at first, but as I bowl their strength returns.
I eat the scraps of mushroom meat remaining. The sun comes out and I lie in its warmth. Birds circle, way up, nearly too high for me to see.
I sit inert, hands rubbed raw by the salt-water.
The day warms. The ice-mountains of Alba gathers shawls of cloud as the day goes, reminding me of the old women of our tribe.
I lie down in the boat, no strength to take up my oar again.
The currents push me on.
I cry and wish that I were dead with my brother, curse the gods for their spite: then think again and send up solemn prayers instead.
I pray for my mother, finally submit to sleep.
I drift toward a narrow tree-lined beach.
No sign of any other tribe; no rising smoke. My boat lurches forward, then stalls. Looking over the edge I see water and sand. The feeling of stillness is very unusual and it makes me retch. Frightened, I huddle down inside the boat until the strangeness passes.
In a while I jump out into the shallow water and stand, for the first time in my life, on the shore of Alba. A beach of shell, sand, kelp, just like the beaches of my island home. I pull the boat up beyond the strand line and sit inside, wrapped up in my blankets for comfort, looking back on the islands I have passed.
I sleep and regain my warmth. Then hunger wakens me and I climb out of the boat, pulling it under dense prickling bushes.
With my knife, bow and sling primed, I set off.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.