A Quartet of Contemporary Folk Tales
Down, deep in the green they swam, Mhairi and her sisters, sliding through the currents like silk through a wedding ring. It was dark down there, murky, with the salt sea stippling their skin and the hissing sound of their flippers swishing through the water. All round the north they had swum, and down through the Western Isles, where the beaches were white as bone and the waters turquoise and purple and as green as seas in the warmest corners of the world.
Now they were returning to the flat island out in the middle of the ocean. Not that it was more beautiful here, or the waters clearer, or the fish more plentiful. But it was here that they had started out from and here they always came back to. They had been gone too long and Mhairi wanted to see it. Her head surfaced from the water like a chubby periscope, her brown eyes taking in the rocky bay, the scrubby slope stretching back from the beach and then the distance where she could not see. ‘The land beyond’, she thought of it, and it held a powerful lure for her. There was a world beyond this watery world of theirs, a world she glimpsed but could not reach.
Mhairi had swum many miles but this island was her home, this and the seas around it.
‘Mhairi,’ called her sister, and she followed in pursuit of a shoal of fish, dipping her head and allowing the currents to pull her down into the water’s depths. They worked fast, searing through the silvery creatures and snatching them in their mouths before swallowing them whole. But later Mhairi came back to the bay. She could not stay away.
The land was dark now. From the water, the beach and the rocks and the slick of green land beyond all merged into one indistinguishable smudge. Brown eyes slowly traversed the landscape. Looking. Longing, on this twilight evening, for the sound the woman made, the sound of human music.
There was none here when they were growing up, but since the woman had come the music had started. She would stand on the rock and coax the music from a curious wooden box for them, just for them. Mhairi’s sisters tried to shut their ears to it – they thought it sounded screechy – but Mhairi couldn’t. On nights when the woman was happy, the music was fast and gay, tripping out of the instrument the way water bubbled up sometimes across the rocks. On nights when she was sad, the music was low and sweet and plaintive and filled Mhairi with feelings that were too large for their life beneath the water.