By JGC MacKenzie
It was true that Alexander Byrnson had always been a little fey, and so for some it was no surprise when one night he didn’t return home – and continued to not return home for the entire week, then months, then a year.
This isn’t to say the community of Kenray wasn’t worried. Sandy was barely 16. On the day he went missing there was no ferry, and no fishing boats had given him passage off the island. He was seen last after lunch, walking down the road with his coat over his shoulder and a choir song on his lips.
Sandy was prone to long directionless walks, following invisible pathways across fields and beaches while he opened his voice to the sky and the sea. The west of Kenray broke into high cliffs, where the ocean had torn off fistfuls of rock and flung them out to form jagged snags and deceptive currents. Things could slip and catch just below the surface on those rocks and, stuck fast, perform a private show of decay for the waves and tide crabs. The land also held dangerous, secret places, especially in the south where forgotten people had left barrows and mounds that could be rediscovered suddenly under the weight of a foot.
Search parties were sent across the small island and around the coast. The thousand pounds were paid for a search helicopter to run circles in the sky, and a thousand warm hands came to support Sandy’s mother, Jade Byrnson, and his sister Ashleigh-Rose, who was barely 13. Every furrow in the earth, every hollow in the rocks, every shadow from a dry stone wall, was searched multiple times. The ferries were on alert. Farmers and fishermen watched the tidelines for any sign.
No sign came.
Sandy was – had been – the sort of boy everyone liked, but he was a daydreamer. Sometimes his future seemed limited for it. The fishing rod slipped from his hand, if he’d even managed to stand upright on board long enough to hold it, he couldn’t mow a lawn let alone drive a tractor, and he left livestock gates open. He was also too distractible to do well in subjects the small school offered. The classroom had a window that looked out onto Bhegg Bay and its skerry where flocks of seals basked and swam. Sandy was fond of seals. In fact, it seemed the only skills he had were to know the name every wild animal that lived on and around the island, and to sing.
The boy could sing.
His voice came out like a stream bursts from the earth at its source. His control was like the moon conducting the tide, and his voice could rise with the passion of the highest storms or soothe like the smooth waters of a summer evening. Ashleigh-Rose had sworn to her friends that sometimes in the late afternoon the birds would stop their own chorus just to listen to him.
But though his voice had reached up to the very foundations of Heaven itself (according to Ray Cruikshank, who was both the school’s gym teacher and the church choir master, and now cringed at his use of that phrase just a week before the boy disappeared), Sandy had never been focused enough to take his singing further. He didn't make it through the Scottish Nationals because he didn’t practice his planned repertoire enough.
“There’s still time for the boy,” Ray Cruikshank had said. Ray had been researching singing scholarships and arts grants, funding for students from remote areas, allowances for low income backgrounds and first-in-the-family studiers. Ray also mourned deeply when Sandy didn't come home, alongside Jade and Ashleigh-Rose – especially alongside Jade. They grew very close as those days stretched on and on.
Speculation and theories were exchanged on front door thresholds and in the pub. Pirates, human traffickers, lost memories, the faerie folk, but finally it was decided the most likely scenario was that Sandy had slipped at Calf’s Head, where even those high cliffs fell away from themselves.
The speculations ebbed and flowed until eventually the tide rolled right out and Sandy’s absence became a permanent feature, to be weathered and worn by time.
Alexander Byrnson was dead.
Jade Byrnson came to accept it. It was not easy. It’s immeasurably hard to accept things like that even there is evidence, but Jade knew that she had to. She had to accept it, for herself and for her daughter.
But Ashleigh-Rose couldn’t. She knew her brother better than that. She knew the island better than that, the cliffs and rocks and the ocean waves. She knew her brothers’ voice when she heard it, and she still heard it some nights.
Ashleigh-Rose was not like her brother. She had hard edges to her, and a practical logic that took her easily to the top of science and maths. Though she was quiet, it was the sort of quietness that watches the world to measure it and understand how the pieces fit together. She was anything but fey.
And that’s why it was a surprise to some when it was Ashleigh-Rose who continued to believe, long after her mother had conceded her son to the rocks and waves, that Alexander Byrnson was alive.
She wandered Kenray’s beaches, particularly in the evenings, even past the summer sun’s setting after midnight. It was as if there was a map in her head with a clear route plotted. She spent most time on the beaches where there were views to the skerries, where the seals came to bask and play.
Sandy’s bedroom, or the bedroom that had been Sandy’s, looked out onto the ocean and had a deep, wide windowsill. With the catch undone, the window could open entirely. Hours could be passed sitting in that liminal space between ocean and home. Sandy had written and read there, and sung. Ash used it for watching. In the space between walking the beaches and everyday activities – eating, showering, going to school – she would sit and watch the ocean.
Ashleigh-Rose became harder still, even more focused and drawn into herself. Her school work didn’t suffer, but was done with a new efficiency that lacked passion. She even ate dinner this way, cutting square bites, afterwards laying her cutlery across her plate and politely waiting for the others to finish while her mind turned to inward matters – the map in her head, perhaps. Her mother worried. Ray Cruickshank worried.
Ashleigh-Rose’s attentiveness to the shoreline didn’t decrease over the months, or after a year. Her mother decided to have a conversation with her.
She took her daughter for a walk along the hills – deliberately away from the beach – where they had a picnic underneath a wind-stunted tree. She looked at Ash's face, as smooth and giving as the gneiss rocks, and said to her, “Ashleigh-Rose – he’s gone.”
Ashleigh-Rose looked sharply at her mother, and there was nothing to be read on the girl’s face except a trace of sadness.
“I know, Mum,” she said. Jade realised that the sadness was directed at her rather than the loss of Sandy.
“Ash. Sandy is dead.”
Ashleigh-Rose shook her head, and a strand of her hair came loose. “No Mum. He isn’t.”
“Ashleigh-Rose… I know, believe me I know, right through me, how painful and horrible it is–”
“Mum!” She cried it so loudly she surprised even herself, and the skylarks broke from the grass. “He is not dead.” Everyone said he was dead. She was tired of hearing that her brother was dead. That was why she told her mother what she knew to be true, even though she knew she wouldn’t be believed.
Alexander Byrnson could sing. He sang like the moon moved the tides, like storms and clear sunny days, he could sing to the foundations of Heaven itself. He loved to sing, and he loved to walk along the beach giving his voice to the ocean and the sleek headed seals who listened from the water, fascinated, enraptured.
It was true that others had seen seals follow Sandy, fishermen in their boats, farmers at the fence line, dog walkers, child minders. It was true that once Katie Macdonald told Jade she’d seen Sandy at Bhegg Bay, boots left back on the grass and the tide foam washing his toes. His voice was loud and bright across the water while an audience of a hundred odd seals bobbed just offshore. Jade and Ashleigh-Rose had been with him themselves one afternoon on a boat borrowed from the pier, when two seals appeared to see what was happening. Sandy began to sing to them. As he sang their numbers multiplied. They counted twenty sleek heads, then thirty, then fifty.
Sandy had loved the seals, beyond any other island. It was true there were old stories of selkies, seal folk drawn by music, who shed their hides on the beach and took human form, and whose woman were taken as brides by the menfolk to live on the land. Why not a boy full of music be wrapped in the hide of a seal and taken to sing in the waves?
“Mum, come with me one night,” Ashleigh-Rose said, taking Jade’s hand. It startled her, because Ashleigh-Rose hardly touched anyone. “Sometimes you can hear him singing when the other seals call. His voice travels along the beach.”
But Jade couldn’t believe the story, wouldn’t go with her to listen to the emptiness of night. Night, when all people have gone home from the bustle of day hours, is the hardest time of all when there is someone who will never return home again.
Ashleigh-Rose stood up and walked away, and Jade was left sitting alone on the blanket on the hill with the remains of a chicken sandwich.
Later, when Jade made her descent, she saw her daughter walking along the tideline. The sigh of the waves rolled up to her ears, and the pic-pic of dark oystercatchers that dotted the sand, and the silence of both her children.
Ashleigh-Rose didn’t bother to keep what she knew secret anymore. She ignored the teasing of the other children, the whispers in the pub and houses. She walked on along the beaches. When she did, her mother (and sometimes Ray) would ask or tell or beg her not to for all sorts of sensible and emotive reasons, but it made no difference. Even in a storm she’d wrap herself in wool and an oversized parka and forge through rain that sliced sideways.
Sometimes she cursed the seals. She cried out to them, and called her brother’s name when there was a flock on a skerry or out past the surf.
When seals had been at the fishermen’s found catch, they’d say, “Young Sandy’s been round today.” And when they head the seals crooning at night, it was, “Aye, there’s the dulcet tones of Alexander Byrnson, all right."
But the ebb and flow of time caught even Ashleigh-Rose, and over three years, four, her walks became less frequent. She didn’t give up on her brother, but her A Level Exams were drawing nearer.
Then one evening she was sitting at Bhegg Bay, looking out onto the ocean silver and gold in the sunset. Annie MacEwen, several generations an islander, was out walking the night and made her way to Ashleigh-Rose on the rocks.
The old woman sat beside her. There was no acknowledgement of each other except when Annie, looking out at the waves, said, “Wherever he’s gone, you have to let him be there, and you have to let yourself be here.”
Ashleigh-Rose Byrnson left the island of Kenray. She got a scholarship for Edinburgh University and studied Chemistry and Physics. She had a weekend job at a café, where she learned to make espresso and smile sweetly at strangers who made terrible jokes. She met a boy studying Biology, then one studying English, then one who worked at a lawyer’s office. She visited Kenray as often as she could, to see her mother and Ray, and to walk along beaches where seals basked in the moonlight.
One evening, just after Ashleigh-Rose had completed her final exams, she and Jade took a bottle of wine and set up folding chairs on the sand looking out to the skerry. It was just dark, and the sky above the sea was still coming to terms with the idea in a faint glow. The first stars were bright on the horizon. Ash’s results were still to come, but she’d done well in all her studies so far.
The world was full of possibilities.
Across the air the seals began to croon and keen and then, weaving amongst their chorus, another voice, a melody clear as the stars. It was there for just one moment, just one moment where mother and daughter sat up straight and sudden. Jade took Ashleigh-Rose’s hand and gripped it.
Jade moved to Fort William with Ray Cruickshank, who started a choir at the community centre. Ashleigh-Rose became a scientific researcher for a large company and was published in journals. She married a geologist from Greece.
She went back to Kenray sometimes. The last was when she was pregnant with her first child, Aaron Alexander Hallas, who would be born in the summer and have his father’s eyes and mother’s mouth. She went back to Kenray and knew most of the people there, but there were new faces too, and some of the old ones seemed distant, as though the miles between Ashleigh-Rose’s life now and the small island in the North were a tangible part of every conversation.
She walked along the skerry beach. It was nearly winter and her breath hung low and white in the air. The constellations were fresh as if they’d only just been written in the sky and there was electricity in the atmosphere.
Out on the beach was a village boy. He was playing in the driftwood, having snuck from his window knowing his parents wouldn’t realise (they never did) and when he saw Ashleigh-Rose he hid and spied. She didn’t see him.
But he saw her walk to the water’s edge and heard her call into the breakers. The sky began to hum, to glow, and faint waves of the Northern Lights appeared above the island. He watched as they grew and danced, pinks and blues and greens swirling in a silent sonata. He looked back at the woman on the beach, and saw that now there was a man with her. He seemed to be wearing – and the boy squinted harder to be sure – nothing but a cloak across his shoulders.
They stood on the beach, a pregnant woman wrapped tightly in coats and a man in a cloak, in the cold with the colours of the Northern Lights echoing against their bodies. They embraced, and spoke, then embraced again.
The boy was shivering. He climbed from the pile of driftwood and crept home, but he swore later that as he walked away he heard someone singing right up to the very stars and the Northern Lights themselves, a human voice in a strange lilting language he didn’t know. Its sent his skin up in shivers.
The next day was the last day there was a Byrnson on the island for decades. Ashleigh-Rose left with her husband and didn’t come back. But the boy on the beach told his story of a strange man who stepped out of the sea with just a sealskin around his shoulders and a voice uncanny but endlessly, boundlessly beautiful.