There had been no spring to speak of. The ancient Cailleach, Queen of
Winter, refused to release her bony grasp on the land. Drops of rain wept
perpetually down the council house windows, streaming into a garden patch
too soaked to tend. There was to be no summer either, but they did not
yet know this. Scotland was well on its way to floating off into the nether
world, bloated and waterlogged. The already sodden peat in the hills just
to the north had turned to bog. The domestic beasts were getting hoof rot,
and not much to be done about it. If the wild creatures suffered, nobody
but the game keepers and forestry commission workers knew, for who in their
right mind would be out hill-walking in this? And as for the city creatures,
the foxes and wild cats, even the toads, had all been flushed from their
barrows and found slaughtered on the roads, or gone who knew where?
Janet gingerly touched the damp running down the inside of the wall,
where it blossomed into splotches of mildew. The sharper scent of mold
and decay almost overpowered the gentle stink of dog. Beyond the distorted
glass of the kitchen window, the view of the cemetery stones was simply
one more depressing sight heaped on all the rest. But then again, there
were trees all around, lush and healthy, feeding their roots from the compost
of the dead, offering the illusion of a beautiful park in a wealthy estate.
In fact, Janet had recently seen a small herd of deer, come down from the
hills, grazing where the manse bordered the cemetery wall. She imagined
herself a lady in a grand house, and this her land. She would tell the
servants what to do, in a kindly yet firm tone, and all her simple needs
would be met. Her estate would be known as the best run, most lucrative,
and she’d host parties that everyone would compete to attend, in a swirl
of food and music and light and colorful fabrics, laughter and joy.
Then she saw Ewan and the dog, trudging between the headstones, both
hunched against the cold wind, both bedraggled and miserable. But a pang
of regret quickly dissolved into anger.
It wasn’t the rain that had flushed Ewan from the house. A small thing
started the argument. What did he want for his tea, she’d asked, as he
sat like a king on the sofa. Beans on toast, maybe with an egg? Or a fish
supper? He didn’t care. Well, neither did she, so what was to be done?
He said again with strained patience, he didn’t care. And was she going
to take the dog out before it shat the carpet again?
Old Bonnie lifted her heavy muzzle and peered at them with heart-rending
sorrowful eyes and thumped her thick tail. “Shit factory,” he said.
Ewan’s cigarette didn’t quite make the saucer for the tap, and ash
fell to the sofa. He belched loudly. She knew fine he did it to annoy her.
He reached for the television remote, pointedly ignoring her hand on her
hip, her pinched mouth, her waiting for a reply. She hated it but she could
feel the hardness flowing against him. She hated herself for suffering
this, but what could she do?
It took guts- and that’s how it felt, as if her guts were twisting
inside her- to tell him that she’d walked Bonnie that morning, implying
that it was his turn. To blatantly say that it was his turn would have
evoked a physical response, something broken, or the dog kicked yelping
out the door. A fine line. He’d not struck her yet, but unhappy men had
a trigger in them it was not prudent to trip.
Ewan didn’t stir. A football game was underway.
Janet went into the small kitchen. She bent over to open the fridge
and pulled out the carton of six eggs. But clumsy with silent rage, she
let the carton fall, and three split open on the floor. She stared at them
for a moment, then leaned against the dirty counter and let the tears come.
Bonnie shambled in and nosed the eggs. Her big tongue came out and
made a sloppy attempt at retrieving the mess. Janet pushed at the dog’s
greasy fur to no avail, and wailed all the louder.
A hand jerked the dog aside by its collar, and it yelped in expectation
of a blow. Ewan dragged Bonnie to the door, the dog’s toes wide and nails
leaving lines across the carpet. Janet could not see them from where she
slid down and sat on the kitchen floor, but heard the scuffle into a jacket,
dog huffing, pinched between Ewan’s knees, the pause for the lead to clip
onto the collar, then the inevitable splash off the front step and the
slam of the swollen door.
Janet studied the mess of yolk and shell and snotty white on the floor.
She knew then what to do. Her heart thumped dully, but resolutely. Ewan
would erupt in a fury if he knew she was pregnant. Even though he had been
the one to decide the Durex was unnecessary, as if something as feeble
as Janet might conceive. Or, more to the point, the condom would dull his
pleasure, such as it was, such as he could find. The poor man’s opera,
he called it, sex. Ewan would erupt in a fury if he knew she was going
to get rid of it, he would erupt if he thought she would keep it. He jealously
guarded what he was willing to deal with, and the rest was silence. The
only thing to do then was have an abortion on the sly.
The Cailleach Bheur raises her ancient, blue head from a temperate
season of gathering strength. She stands to shake the idle summer off her
back, draws her tattered cloak over her bony shoulders, and strides forth
over the mountains and sea. The leaves turn, the wind howls over the moors.
She washes the dun plaid of Scotland in the deadly whirlpool of Corryvrecken,
its deep roar heard twenty miles distant to call the tempest, and when
the plaid is washed white, so is the country blanketed with snow. She strikes
the earth with her wand to bring storms and ice. She will not be neatly
relegated to the dark half of the year, but makes her presence known in
bizarre times and places, reminding, always reminding the creatures in
her wild realm that nothing can be assumed. The untamed places named for
her, still and always on the tongues of the native Scots. Beinn na Caillich.
Lochan na Cailliche, Bathaich na Caillich. Storm hag, harsh old woman.
The red deer stags, her heralds, bugle down the mountain glens. Sometimes
the folk in the village lift their heads from sleep, the skin on their
scalps prickling and tugging an ear to catch the primeval sound.
Mrs. Kemp watched Ewan slam his front door and stomp away along the
row of houses on the far side of the cemetery. Dragging the reluctant dog.
So, Janet had finally gotten him to take Bonnie out, for a change. At what
cost? Ewan there walking past all the miners and their families under the
stones of the cemetery. All the premature deaths, the blackened lungs hastened
to defeat by coal dust and cigarettes. Janet’s parents, and their parents
before them. Her two brothers. Ewan’s Dad. That had been an accident, when
the tunnel roof had given way, and the town’s best man, the strongest and
bravest of them all, always ready with a joke, a kind word, had been instantly
crushed. The collapse was so bad, the unexpected shale above so unstable,
they’d sealed the shaft and left him there in the tomb of his own making.
How God could take such a lovely man as callously as the worst rogue, was
beyond Mrs. Kemp’s understanding. Though doubtless the minister would have
a ready explanation; beyond our comprehension. Mysterious ways. Infinite
wisdom, larger plan. Aye, that’ll be right.
And gone with Ewans’ Dad, a time and community, with the closing of
the pit. Now the houses falling to bits in the relentless rain, workmen
unable to do anything. The tarry smell of coal smoke replaced years ago
by tidy gas fires. God help the young people, she mused. The heart had
gone out of them. Not that memories of her heyday were anything to boast
Poor Ewan had been only a wee boy, eight, when his father died, but
had sworn never to set foot in the mines. Not that it mattered in the end,
with the pit closure. A rough justice. His mother moved away, his brothers
and sisters as well, to escape the continual reminders of the accident.
But something compelled Ewan to live as close as possible to the only light
in his life, the collective memory of his Dad. She watched him seek out
the camaraderie of his Dad’s pals clapping him on the back in the pub and
waxing nostalgic. The broad-beamed women in the shops slipping him a sweetie
along with a special, sympathetic smile, and she’d done the same herself,
true enough. He’d stand in the old colliery yard, having marked the distance
by footsteps over the shaft where the collapse had occurred. He’d been
as handsome a young laddie as his Dad, all the girls vying for his attentions.
Janet had been the lucky one, a pretty, submissive, attentive lass. Vaguely
expecting something from him he’d never be able to identify nor give. The
hope of young love gave way to the grim realities of life quickly enough.
Mrs. Kemp watched in no surprise as his heart grew as cold and black and
hard as the lumps of coal his father spent his life for.
Last week, in a haze of over-pouring sympathy, Mrs. Kemp had knocked
on their door. To the dark suspicion of Ewan’s glare, she said she was
on her way to the shops, and would Janet perhaps like to come for a girl’s
day out? They could have tea and scones after they’d done their shopping.
No, Ewan said with finality. No, she’s not doing that.
Janet’s round wee face was glimpsed in the dark cold room behind, eyes
large and pleading and apologetic. Herself thirty five years ago, even
in the comparative richness of daily work for the miners, and her days
spent caring for the family. The tyranny of their situation. She’d never
seen that lassie smile, never mind laugh. No, some things never change.
But Janet was steeling herself that very moment. She tried to scoop
up the mess of raw egg with her hands and dump it in the stained sink.
She could not take the problem of her pregnancy home to her parents, with
their dire warnings still circling her muddled head from a year ago, the
alienation, the hurt. Move in with him, and you needn’t come back when
he gets sick of you and tosses you out, lazy bitch, her father’d said.
Her mother scrubbing the griddle as if she couldn’t hear. No help there.
In everyone’s mind the unspoken, all-consuming dread, that the minister
would condemn the entire family for Janet’s foolishness.
But she’d gone to Ewan anyway. There’s little enough affection in the
Janet wiped at the floor with a damp, tattered rag, and rinsed it out
in the sink. She would go to the health clinic next morning, and have it-
the unexpected, the inevitable- seen to. She would try to get a job in
the town, anything, anything at all, and if it affected the dole, as Ewan
insisted, she didn’t care any longer. She held the secret of the new life
inside her with pride, and the secret of her power over its destiny with
pride. Wee Janet. Creator of life, bringer of death.
If only Ewan could be hit by a car or a bus and never come home- his
home right enough, as he frequently reminded her, but still. Then she thought
of Bonnie, innocent, stupid, fat loyal Bonnie, and her heart melted, melted
too for her lover Ewan, for his masculinity when it was strong for her
and not against her. Why it needed to be pitted against her soft and giving
nature, she could not fathom. She was not a lazy bitch, however many times
she’d heard it said. That was the darkness in her dour father’s soul spitting
out frustration and self-loathing. She an easy target. The way of men and
women in the gloomy and desperate world.
Mrs. Kemp heard a scream and looked up again, hands hesitating in their
accustomed movement of knocking a cigarette out the packet. Across the
dreich cemetery, close to the manse, with its grim gray windows overlooking
the dead, as if to say, ‘I told you so’, Ewan’s arms lifted and birled
around. The dog’s legs splayed. A tombstone tilted then disappeared. Mrs.
Kemp squinted through the rain-washed window, and rubbed a sleeve over
its foggy glass, unable to comprehend. The weird scream came again and
Ewan’s body sank like the stone until only his head was visible. Then the
water poured in from the low-lying ground just beyond, and everything,
man, dog, tombstones, rock and earth, air and water, plummeted in a torrent
into a gaping maw.
Mrs. Kemp shrieked and called her husband and he ran out after her
in his slippers into the sodden grass and through the cemetery gate, all
the while she babbling about the earth swallowing Ewan, he thinking she’d
lost her mind, but convinced by her untypical hysteria to follow. Then
they saw the great hole in the ground, and the whirlpool of foaming soil
and planks of coffin and flash of dull bone, and a small tree going round
and round, its branches sweeping the collapsing edges of the pit.
The only thing Ewan comprehended, the last image he ever saw, as the
earth gave way beneath him, and the bony arms of his ancestors reached
for him, was the dog going down into the whirlpool; was the forlorn and
resigned look on her face, her eyes piercing him through with all the sorrows
of creation, implying, how, oh how could you have done this to me? The
same eyes he saw in the mirror when thinking of his father. It was all
The minister had never before darkened her doorway. But standing tall,
insofar as possible given his girth, half turning to smile grimly to the
flashing cameras, he eventually noticed Janet cowering behind her door
and stepped in, unable to hear her weak query under the shouted questions
from the reporters.
The very sight of him, the shining collar pinching the fat neck, the
bulbous eyes and sparse wheaten hair, made Janet to feel tremendous guilt.
In the first panic-stricken moment, Janet assumed this was the long-awaited
and obvious reason for a visit: she was living in sin. She was carrying
a bastard. (Could he know that? Probably.) But then any number of reasons
for condemnation flooded her mind. Maybe he’d heard that the unchurched
in the town called him Buggerlugs for his protruding and ever-vigilant
ears. Or perhaps the guilt came from her unfathomable mix of emotions regarding
Ewan’s come-upance, all of them no doubt reprehensible. Then there was
smoking. Wanking. Drinking. Oh, shite, she’d hung the laundry out on the
Sabbath a few weeks ago, to dry under the dark glare of her pious neighbor.
Alienation from her devout parents. Bringing shame to everyone associated
with her. Not attending the kirk. And most damning and inescapable of all,
being a human being, and worse, a woman. Daughter of Eve, source of all
sin to follow in the sinful world. Predestined to be doomed from the start,
and nothing to be done about it.
But for some reason, he spoke to her with civility. “Ah, Janet,” he
said, and studied her with tilted head and rheumy eyes that had been unsurprised
witness to all the evils of the world. “Janet, my wee Janet, how you must
be in shock and grieving. But our Lord Jesus Christ offers the balm of
divine grace and succor to those who turn from the wickedness of their
“Tea?” she asked too shrilly, caught off her guard, not knowing the
protocol for having such an illustrious and massive guest in her poor home.
Except, of course, that it was Ewan’s house, and she’d no idea what was
going to happen now.
“And to those who are unable for some reason, for some essential failing
of human nature, to partake of the divine grace offered, well, as we’ve
seen. God’s retribution can be swift and unexpected. The wages of sin,
Janet, the wages of sin is death.”
Surely he was not meaning Ewan and the accident. Or perhaps he was.
She scratched her unwashed head. The only interesting thing she knew about
the minister and his wee wifie, was that a very old statue had ended up
in the manse garden, and that it drove them mad to have it there. Originally
pulled from a bog not far to the north in the last century, at the mouth
to a sea loch. It was a female form, five feet tall and black as pitch.
Her eyes white pebbles. Her weight far more than wood could possibly be.
Janet remembered it well. This thing, removed from its original shelter
of decomposing wickerwork by unrecorded hands, had found its way into the
manse garden long before the cemetery was half its size. Back when the
pits were in full operation, and the days and nights punctuated by the
blast of the colliery whistle.
When this minister, Auld Buggerlugs, came to live in the place, seven
years previously, he’d insisted the black hag be got rid of, the filthy
pagan heathen thing it was, yet no one would come near it. Nor would they
hear of the minister removing it, fearing that he would destroy it, and
with its destruction, the fortunes of the town. Which was yet another irony,
as things couldn’t be much worse. But even in dire straits, the people
knew better than to tempt fate from the ancients. Buggerlugs was baffled
and infuriated, but found the entire town was in dead earnest, and bided
his time. He had enough sense to know relations would be irreparably harmed
if he acted in haste. If Christ could have such patience towards the fools
who made his life a misery, so too could he find temperance in his soul.
For a bit anyway. He was only a man, after all, and measured time in man’s
Janet remembered childhood playmates daring the others to climb the
wall and touch the black statue. None ever did, but whether from fear of
the dark figure, or the ever-simmering wrath of the new minister and his
equally sour-faced wife, who knew? Except that Janet, in those days of
youthful wildness, had gone herself one night just to see the thing. She’d
broken off the flowers that glowed in the moonlight, the white foxgloves
so beloved of Wee Wifie Soor-Face, and laid them at the feet of the effigy.
The entire town suffered for that misdeed the following Sunday for almost
three hours in the kirk, ears ringing as they meekly filed out, a hand
or two pressed over a grin, but nobody ever suspected who the culprit could
be. It was the perfect excuse for the minister to finally get rid of the
thing that had been giving his wife the willies every time she caught it
When it became clear that Buggerlugs had reached the end of his endurance,
someone suggested the National Museum of Scotland be contacted. At least
that way the effigy would be protected. The museum sent out a politely
bored archaeologist, greeted by the apologetic minister, who said he knew
this caper was a waste of her valuable time, both their valuable time actually,
and all the while thinking, a woman archaeologist? It boggled the mind.
He explained it was necessary to placate the superstitious locals, did
she understand his position? He’d as soon chop it up for the fire and not
trouble the professionals from the city, but there you are.
No sooner had the archaeologist seen it, than fate, like her increasingly
annoyed attitude, turned. Her eyes grew big and round. She put her hand
to her breast. She studied the statue so intently she did not hear him
ask if his wife might make her some tea. Certainly the museum wanted it.
She insisted they want it. Immediately. She punched numbers on her mobile
phone. Hullo! She thinks, she’s not sure, but did they recall the missing
statue from the bog in Ardnamurchan? What sort of eyes did it have? Oh,
Jesus Christ! The minister cringed. Yes, yes, a two and a half thousand
year-old statue, possibly the oldest Goddess effigy found in Scotland.
Buggerlugs heaved a silent sigh of thanksgiving to his offended Creator.
But memory aye runs deep in an ancient land, and the locals would not
touch her to load her for the trip to Edinburgh. They insisted the museum
workers attend to it, and transport her only by placing her reverently
and safely in a proper coffin, while the minister clucked and preached
at the ignorant savages from the safety of his manse window.
The Cailleach, they called her. The Cailleach Bheur.
Janet? The minister looked down at her from under heavy brows. She
hoped she had put the packet of cigarettes into the drawer, and bunged
Ewan’s half-finished can of lager in the rubbish bin. Young woman, he said.
Away with the fairies, are we? He forced a kindly smile.
The manse had lost most of its wall along the graveyard into the pit,
and a bit of the garden, but Janet didn’t think it wise just now to offer
solicitous queries about the flowers or the stability of the house foundation.
Wifie Soor-Face had not been amused to find a couple of graves had been
on her side of the wall all along. She’d fled to the comfort of her parent’s
home in Kingskettle, yet another trial for Buggerlugs to endure in this
vale of tears. You must be sober, he was saying. Be vigilant. For your
enemy the devil goeth about as a roaring lion. His gaze swept over her
and through the kitchen window towards the cemetery. She thought of Ewan
going down into the sucking earth.
Seeking whom he may devour, whom stand steadfast in the faith.
She imagined Ewan’s face, how it must have looked when the inconceivable
occurred. An unbidden smile parted her lips, surprising her. This blunder
re-directed the minister’s stare from his vision of retribution, to Janet.
His brows gathered in an exaggerated puzzlement. Have I said something
amusing, he asked.
One must be careful what one wishes for, Janet realized. A little hiccup
of a laugh slipped out. The more she tried to quell her baffled merriment,
the worse it became under the doom-laden scowl before her. Repressed memories
of childhood, of being held captive for interminable hours in the kirk,
stifling giggling fits while Buggerlugs thundered and ranted above them
all, broke through at last.
Ewan, she choked out, and, and Bonnie! Janet tried, spluttering, to
speak, to explain to the indecipherable look on his face. And what did
your face look like, she thought, and your Wee Wifie Soor-Face, when you
ran outside the shuddering manse and saw your glebe garden gone down to
Christ offers salvation to those who humble themselves, he said, but
then stopped and finally really looked at Janet’s face. Oh, God of our
fathers, he began to realize she was laughing at him. Inexcusable. Unforgivable.
No bottom to the depth wickedness could sink to.
She couldn’t help it. To the righteous indignation turning on its heel
and slamming the door, Janet wept with mirth, sounds more like screeches
than a proper laugh, skin stretched grotesquely across her face, her teeth
bared, mouth wide. Was this madness? If so, how liberating. Her jaws ached,
she pissed herself, she could hardly draw breath. Her legs gave way and
she sat on the dirty carpet and roared.
Mrs. Kemp has stepped in at last, with endless clucks of shocked sympathy,
as the entire community speaks of nothing else for weeks, of how not one
soul had known there were abandoned colliery mines under the graveyard.
Mrs. Kemp gives Janet tea and touches her arm, and wonders how it might
have been if her own husband had been swallowed up in the earth all those
years ago. She suggests Janet ask for a job at the butcher’s, where she
knows a girl is needed at the register, and she, Mrs. Kemp will put a word
in the butcher’s ear. Not much, but better than depression and boredom
on the dole, and she wishes she herself had done that sort of thing when
she still had a chance. And was Janet pregnant, by any chance? It’s all
right, her secret would be safe. Oh, aye, she thought as much. She didn’t
mean to meddle but with Ewan gone, decisions would have to be made. She
would help Janet. History would not repeat itself in this young woman.
Janet has decided to keep the baby after all. A memory, she hopes,
of the man she loved before his demise. Now she sits at the register in
the butcher’s shop with her white apron and wee white bonnet, patiently
taking the pink-stained chits the butcher writes for the cuts of meat,
and punching in the amount, and handing back change. Sometimes Janet is
allowed to help a bit behind the counter, to grind the flesh to make mince,
or to clean up after the shop shuts, to scrub away the blood, the bits
and bones; or in the morning, to neatly stack the pheasant and rabbit in
the window. Mrs. Kemp comes in and beams at what she hath wrought, and
asks for a pound of sausages, please, and studies the posters on the wall
labeling the parts of the carcasses, as Janet’s finger lifts the scales
just a bit. When the new minister’s not-so-wee wifie comes in to ask for
a rolled lamb roast, the scale is tipped the other direction, and it all
evens out in the end. The butcher, oblivious to these dealings, is a kindly
man, as thick-set as his slabs of beef hanging in the back, fingers fat
as his sausages, but gentle, and even though he smells of fresh meat and
haggis, he instructs Janet solicitously. Despite his age, they both ponder
In the museum, the white eyes of the ancient wooden statue gleam in
the subdued lighting of its new home. It- she- waits, attended by Pictish
artifacts she knew in the time of her creation, of carved stones and magical
charms, cauldrons, special skulls and bones. Janet, on a shopping trip
to Edinburgh with Mrs. Kemp, during which they stopped at Jenners Department
Store for tea and scones, has been in to see the statue. Mrs. Kemp shuddered
and left the room, but Janet stayed for a bit. No words were spoken, no
offerings left, only a silent exchange of glances. Janet felt what she
thought was a light muscle spasm, a fluttering in her lower belly. This
time, in the thundering silence of the Cailleach, she knew what it was.
The rain has stopped. Now that November has come, the Cailleach Bheur
calls her own season in, of glimmering darkness, of the Aurora Borealis
shot through with bright stars, of ancient forests all golden and red.
Scotland is magnificent in its cloak of autumn. Life grows in Janet, it
thumps and summersaults and hiccups as the little stag bells in the bracken-covered
glen. Janet pulls the new shawl over her shoulders that Mrs. Kemp knit
for her and watches the sun skirt the horizon, low on its brief journey,
and the wild geese make their familiar cries overhead.