ELEMENTAL BY DONALD McKENZIE
‘Thorkell. Where’s Hildr?’
They could be very persistent, these thrawn-faced women who minded everybody’s business but their own, so I had to be brusque.
‘She’s gone,’ I’d say. ‘Now leave me alone.’
‘But where Thorkell, where’s she gone?’
‘Away. Somewhere. I don’t know. To another - or perhaps to Hell for all I know or care.’
They would twitter like birds and cry that they felt aggrieved for me.
‘Surely she’ll come back soon?’ they would whine.
And then there were the sly women; the older ones. The ones who come to the door with raven’s eyes, black, glinting, suspicious. Offering assistance; trying to look over my shoulder into the house.
‘Your place needs a woman Thorkell; to cook, to clean. Are you looking after yourself?’
I would hold up my hand and say, ‘Go away. I have no need of your help,’ and close the door against their intrusive beaks, and return to sit by the window to nurse my anger, my unhappiness and pain.
I was relieved when at last I could go to the village and they avoided me; these creatures that went by in silence, glancing warily sideways, drawing their shawls tightly to their throats and hurrying on.
Likewise, the men in the inn kept their distance.
Their company was no loss.
It was a long time that passed before there was any chance of fishing. The island suffered from windstorms that would last for days, sometimes for weeks. There were black winter skies and violence in the sea. And this self-same wind, this howling devil, this moaning fiend, could perversely sleep at night; nights when moonrise crawled across the ice forming at the edges of sea-lochs and where sleet would sparkle against the heavens like falling stars. But the great expanse of heather and rough grazing that stretched inland would absorb the pale moonlight throughout these hours of darkness except where the bog water pools glistened like fallen tears.
Still, she didn’t return; my Hildr, the daughter of Arling of Pow. Hildr, one who was so full of grace, full of kindness, with golden hair and amber eyes. She was a rare thing; as beautiful as a pale-yellow flower in meadow grass.
What man wouldn’t have wanted her to be his? What woman wouldn’t have been jealous?
But she chose me; fled from her home and family disapproval.
‘She is a daughter of the earth,’ her father railed. ‘A princess. Of what use is a worthless fisherman in this world? How can a troublemaker and ill-bred boor like you provide and care for her? Hildr knows nothing of hunger, pain and disappointed but she will unless you bring her home.’
I clenched my fists. Stood my ground in silence. Old as he was, Arling of Pow was a man to be reckoned with.
‘Don’t threaten me with your stance,’ he said. ‘I should strike you and your brazen insolence down.’
‘You are to be a grandfather,’ I said.
He staggered backwards, as if my words had struck him physically, and all fight, all anger, and all hope drained from his face.
‘Then it is decided,’ he said. ‘She is no longer a daughter of mine.’
The child never came and Hildr changed.
Spring. Not that an outsider would know. They see little change between the seasons on this island; the signs are imperceptible to them, but one morning there was a streak of bone coloured light between sky and water. The ocean heaved a sigh beneath the clouds, the wind stopped its yowl and the prospect of fishing returned.
From my doorway I looked towards the shore and to the small stone building where my skiff had sheltered throughout the winter. It would be good to go to the fishing banks at last, to have my boat dance across the waves, experience the breeze on my face, and to feel alive again.
But just then, without warning, a draught of shining black-blue flashed past my head. I ducked and instinctively raised an arm in protection. A crow had flown into the cottage and settled on the kitchen table. It was stabbing the wooden surface aggressively with its bill, taking no notice of me, apparently entranced by the form of a dark knot in the timber. I also saw sinister shapes of cloud shadow sweeping across the grasslands; tasted brine in my mouth, and heard the single screech of a dying vole.
The fishing would have to wait for another day.
At first light the following morning Svienn Olafsson came to see me. A simple lad from the village, (there were those that said he was three-quarters daft), who I hadn’t seen since Hildr had vanished and presumed that the others had poisoned his mind of me. He offered work in return for a share of any catch. I agreed if for nothing else but to ease my loneliness and, although no fisherman, he was strong, smiling and not one for idle chat or questioning. I remembered how his help had been welcomed when Hildr and I first started. She had wanted a small plot beside the cottage for vegetables, herbs and even flowers. These things were new to me; things to do with the land; digging, sowing, weeding, reaping. Tasks I couldn’t do when my priority was the sea.
With Hildr’s guidance Svienn proved to be a good worker. She was happy then and at the end of a day walking homewards from the shore I could hear her singing melodies that were as clear and sweet in the air as from any songbird.
But I had to send Svienn away when we lost the child.
A few days later, when the signs were more favourable, Svienn and I dragged the skiff across rattling pebbles into the surf and jumped aboard. I raised the sail. It cracked and flapped loudly until the wind filled the canvas and the boat leaped forward. I saw fear on Svienn’s face as he cowered in the prow; holding onto the gunwales with limpet hands as the skiff rose and fell against the incoming surf. But then, as the craft settled on its course, Svienn’s broad smile reappeared and he stood up, turned fore and like a child he began shouting and hollering with whoops and roars.
Then I thought - perhaps a fisherman could be made of him after all.
Our summer was exceptionally hot with an absence of rain. Growth was slow and the ground so parched that bog and mud shrank and cracked. In places the grass was dying; pale yellow patches appeared where the soil was thin above the rock. It crunched underfoot; dusty, with the aroma of dry hay. Water sources and other springs disappeared; burns became
Svienn told me that those with farms were fearful of failing crops. There was talk of bad omens; that the timing of the planting was wrong and the moon had been the wrong colour.
I allowed myself a smile and thought that perhaps even a worthless fisherman like me might be of some use after all.
Our fishing days were long and we flourished. The villagers were not so shy of me then when their need was greater than their opinions. As autumn approached it became clear that the harvest would fail. The farmers looked for reasons. There was talk of witchery and the Devil’s work or that it was the malevolent trows that lived underground that were the cause of the disaster. Svienn said that there had been whispers in the village. That the loss of the child and the disappearance of Hildr were the origins and that the trows had taken them into the hill on the moor. I couldn’t believe the villagers were as foolish to think such nonsense.
Then, late summer, and seemingly without reason, the heather on the moor burst into flame. If the wind hadn’t been westerly the village may have been lost. But this was not seen as good fortune. It was taken as another example of the blight that had settled over the community.
In the days that followed the superstitious old crones and their equally brainless menfolk were on the hill; those ones, the followers of the old ways that blamed the trows more than most. Trows loved fire they argued, trows left sickly changelings in place of stolen children, trows abducted new brides. What more evidence was needed? These misguided fools kept me awake for six nights as they wandered over the moorland banging pots and pails with wooden spoons in an effort to drive the imagined sprites away.
But on the seventh night, at twilight, doubt was put in my mind. All was silent for a change, the drummers hadn’t yet started their cacophony, and as I looked across the moorland towards the rise, I imagined I saw a figure that suddenly crouched and scurried into a place where I knew a number of large rocks and boulders lay scattered in the heather. No one knew how long that ancient circle had been there but it was not to my surprise when trows were mentioned in connection to it or that it was said to be an entrance to another world.
Then I heard something, like a type of singing or a chant but then clearly and incredibly the moan became words.
hi dal doodle, an’
tae hiddle doo-dee.
Nonsense really but it was familiar.
‘Of course,’ I whispered in recognition. ‘It’s the chorus of a trow’s song from a story my mother used to tell us.’
But, as I said, I didn’t believe in trows so I made a torch and carrying a stout stick went to investigate.
At first, I couldn’t really see anything apart from what was in my imagination. In the light of flickering flame and shadow the rocks constantly changed shape. I could hear strange rustlings and scrapings coming out of the darkness and still smell the strong reek of burnt heather and ash that lingered in the breeze. There was something else, a sensed presence that disturbed my reason; a feeling that something wicked was nearby.
I entered the circle of stones, into a vacuum of silence. And something else seemed odd, the ground remained untouched by the fire and the carpet of moss underfoot was still wet and soft. There was even a deep pool of peat-stained water to my left.
But then there was that noise again; like the scuff of a rat in a roof or the rub of a razor on a strop. I swept the torch through the air in an arc of roaring flame and raised my cudgel.
‘Who’s there,’ I challenged. ‘I’m no’ feart o’ ye.’
But I was.
I saw a flash of metal at the edge of the pool and drew closer. A piece of partially buried silver chain was lying on the moss. I pulled it free and on its pendant was the figure of St Andrew, the fisher of men and I realised it was the self-same necklace I had given to my Hildr.
I fell to my knees in shock and looked blankly into the pool.
In its depths I saw her.
She lay naked, as if asleep.
The trow must have struck me from behind. I felt a weight on my chest and I couldn’t move.
I opened my eyes. The stars were racing across the vast darkness of the sky as if the universe was spinning at an astonishing speed. Then I realised I was underwater and saw the trow looking down at me, grinning, pointing to the dangling necklace.
But it wasn’t a trow.
It was Svienn.
I felt Hildr’s hand in mine as the first spots of autumn rain blurred the surface of the pool. I turned to look at her.
‘I’ve returned,’ she said.
‘At last,’ I said