Short story by Paul McQade
Thus every grave we dug The hungry wolf uptore, And every morn the sod Was strewn with bones and gore; Our mother earth had denied us rest On Ederachillis’ shore
From “The Wolf of Ederachillis”, The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1846.
The hard earth cracks and shudders. Dawn creeps into the opening, turning the soil the colour of honeycomb. He lays the body, careful not to crease its freshly washed clothes, into the grave. In a gesture he knows she on the other shore would disapprove of, he presses his muzzle to the corpse’s forehead before he takes up his shovel.
He has always liked the dawn. Not unusual, among the Folk. Drawn to dawn and to dusk, those waning moments when the walls between the worlds are thinnest. Most of his kind preferred twilight, coming out to bathe in the balm light of the moon. But there is something about the dawn. All its fire and yolk-yellow, how it turns the water between here and Sutherland into a sea of sundered gold.
Shovel by shovel he covers the body with earth.
Some of the Folk could not bear the touch of the sun. She is one of those, her on the other shore. The washerwoman. Bean nighe, they called her. She would have waited for him all through the night, tending the fire outside the cave they shared. Would have kept it burning all night to guide him home, though she knew he liked to tarry here till first light. He can see her there, one long tooth jutting up over her lip, keeping her watch on the waves, hands in her soap bucket, scrubbing blood from the graveclothes. Night-cold water drawn from the North Sea, that is what she likes; the numbness in her knuckles as the scrubs. The washer women, the mnathan nighe, had always been penitent, though he has never known for what, or what made this one outlive the rest of her kind. Would they be friends, otherwise? Would he be doing this work? No wulver had ever dug a grave before. And now he finds himself shovelling dirt over a body. To cover the immodesty of its death.
The morning has won out, the island bright. Gorse trembles in the wind surging from the sea to rejoin itself a few miles later, after passing over the cliff faces of Sìthean Mòr. He works away from the cliffs in the flat land of the Tràigh an Teampaill, the beach of the temple, where only a hunk of stone now char-black remains to signal that it had even been such. The stone and the graves. The graveyard had been smaller, then; now each burial is forced closer to the shore where the water threatens to suck the graves clean, to carry the dead out to sea. Far from the isle and its rest. Handa, they call it now. He had known it as the Eilean Shannda. It doesn’t matter much, though; he has never spoken the words from the confines of his muzzle.
It was the Sìth who were gifted with tongues. And without that gift, he wouldn’t be able to talk with her on the other shore. Talk in their fashion, at least. It’s nice to feel the way he does with her; that they could talk about anything, be free with each other. No secrets. And yet mostly they spoke of the old days. Of all the kidnappings, the mixed blood, the thefts. That incident with Tam Lin. Those things the Sith liked to do, capricious as they were. And she even spoke to him of the other work, the one he has never understood: the washing, the wailing, the death.
‘Why did you take it on?’ he asked her, one night round their fire on the coastline.
‘I suppose you wouldn’t know, at that,’ she said. ‘We were... fascinated with it. What they brought us. We didn’t know it, what it was. You wulvers too. Deathless. Like us. But the humans came one night, to the mound, looking for them. The dead, that is. They thought they were with us. That they lived with us under the hill. Sad, really. Those poor little things. They knew next to nothing. Still don’t, I suppose, though it hasn’t held them back.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘We took pity. We decided to help them,’ she said. ‘We worked.’
A hard work. Strange, to him at least. How the banshee keened to say that death was in the air, and the washer women scrubbed blood from the clothes so that they were still beautiful in the grave. Those humans in the ground. Those humans who died, generation to generation, all the while forgetting the Sìth and their old names; mnathan sìth, mnathan nighe. The cù sìth; fairy dog; a wolf the Sìth made carry the souls from this world to the next. He had always hated the thing, had been grateful when it vanished. Now he would give anything to have it back.
Is he a cù sìth now? He has, after all, agreed to carry bodies from Sutherland to Handa. But he does not feel bound by the agreement. No. More sentimental, though she would chide him for that, as she had done when they first met, wandering the shore so long ago, last of an older world. He remembers how she had laughed, telling the story of how the wulvers snuck into villages at night to place fish on the windowsills for families too poor to eat.
‘Always too sentimental, you wulvers,’ she said. ‘Those on the other side of the hill think you’re half-wolf half-man, you know. And the merrow half-woman half-fish. I always wondered if there wasn’t too much dog in you, myself.’
The mention of the merrow pained him. He missed their company as they swam beside his boat as he fished along the islands. Then they vanished. Like the others.
He looks down at the body, half-covered in earth. Only its head still bare. It lolls to the right, glassy eyes staring up at the headstone on the grave next to it. MacDougall. The stone has been taken by the green mineral that colours the cliff faces. The grave looks like it’s growing out of the earth. As if it were natural. All this dying.
MacDougall. That had been the name of the woman they sent to negotiate.
He understands speech. But he cannot make the words come from his mouth: his face is too narrow, his tongue cannot fit the strange shapes of the sounds. It was the washerwoman who had spoken to MacDougall when she approached the mound near the cave. What a surprise it had been, to hear the words spoken, to feel humans once more in the world. They had screamed when they saw him, but stood their ground, determined to do what they came to. All the time staring at him, fingering their weapons. It was only after that he realised why they screamed. His appearance – the wolf-head, the strong body, the pelt of russet fur – reminded them of the animals that had robbed their graves.
What had it felt like, to see those bodies return? He doesn’t understand. The wolves he understands. They, like the sìth, had retreated from the people on the other side of the hill. When the dwellings spread and the lights came. All that light. It made the night blind. The game fled and the wolves followed and those left took what they could: runt lamb, a slow calf, carrion. He understands why they unearthed the graves.
There is no death among the Folk, no burial. And yet there are only two left. More, maybe, in other places. But in Sutherland, at least, just the two. Him and the bean nighe. No bodies left. Just gone. Vanished. Nothing left to bury; no remains. Why were the people so disturbed by the wolves digging them up, these bodies they had tried to hide? He could understand if they wanted to keep the body, maybe, to look at it and remember. But all these graves, all this hiding bodies in the earth. He does not understand. He would give anything for the Folk to come back, to be returned to him by something as small as the upturning of a stone.
The world seems smaller without them, not bigger. As if one day there will be nothing left, not even enough space for the two of them, in their cave on the shore. Who will go first? Her or him? He cannot bear the thought.
He runs his hand along the headstone. MacDougall. The stone is sea-green, a cluster of snails gathered on one corner. When was the last time a MacDougall there had come to see the MacDougall here? Too many seasons, too many moons to count. Is this why they bury them? To forget? Maybe it makes it easier. Maybe it would be easier if he could forget. But at every moment he is reminded of those who are no longer here. Their absence is unbearable.
Maybe that’s why they hate what the wolves have done. Maybe that’s why they made the pact. The wolves made them remember. And with the pact, they could forget. He and the bean nighe, carrying all these bodies out across the water, where no wolf and no memory can disturb them. He supposes it wouldn’t matter, really, if he didn’t bury them at all. But he buries them nonetheless. For himself.
Mourning. That’s what they call it. The things they do to forget.
She had been old woman, as best he could tell. MacDougall. Younger ones had brought her to negotiate, standing behind her as she addressed them, placing gifts on the mound: sweet milk and honey cake, a loaf of bread, two pennies. The bean nighe had struck the bargain. An exchange: gifts for mourning, remembering for forgetting.
He has no bodies to bury. Of those he once knew, nothing remains. But before he finishes covering the corpses, he places his muzzle to their foreheads and says goodbye. To the merrow, the kelpies, the fetches, the selkies. To the green men, the nuckelavee, and the bodaich. He tries to learn how to mourn, and to forget.
He fills the grave with dirt, pats the earth down with a shovel and makes his way to the boat. It reels and floats, pulling at the moorings, ready to fly now unburdened of its cargo of corpses.
He sets off, back to her. The only one left. The only one he can still communicate with. About anything. No secrets. And yet. This grave digging has changed that. He cannot tell her about the kiss he plants on each forehead. Not out of embarrassment, no. It feels as though it would lead to another conversation. One he isn’t ready to have. As though with each play at mourning, the death of the bean nighe becomes more real. More unavoidable. As if one day he will be laying her, in her dark robes, into the earth. A kiss on the forehead to say goodbye. But he won’t. He won’t have even that. She will simply be gone. And he will never be able to forget.
He takes up the oars of his little boat and presses forward. The blades cut the water, leaving marks on the waves. The sea is gold with the dawn. The light glances from the prow, catching the message the vessel leaves in its wake. Stroke by stroke he makes his way back, trying to forget, the death that has yet to come.
Paul McQuade is a Scottish writer and translator currently marooned in Upstate New York. His work has been recently featured in or is forthcoming from Pank, Gutter, Sundog Lit, and the Freight anthology Out There. He is the 2014 recipient of the Sceptre Prize for New Writing.