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The International Writers Magazine

Those that did the dirty work of the Big Master did not bear their blows proudly.

Fuadach Nan Gaidheal
Hazel Marshall
There has come on us in Scotland a cross, poor people are naked before it, without food, without clothes, without pasture:
The North is utterly destroyed.
(Allan MacDougall)

Ann watched the village burn. Against the backdrop of the dark sky, the flames danced to their own music, nature calling the tune. They had a stark, cruel beauty. The outline of the buildings or the fields were hidden to her. She could only see the fire.

They had come just as the sun was passing below the western skyline, before the men had come back from the hills. For such a large group they had arrived very quietly. One moment the women had been gossiping and washing by the stream and when next they turned they had been surrounded by ten men. Men who had stood there silently, watching the women, gauging their reaction. There had been no doubt what they were there for.

Slowly the women had risen to their feet and, pushing their already rolled up sleeves further up their arms, prepared for battle. This was the part that they had been dreading most. Not the fighting. Crofting was a physical way of life and violence was habitual. No, it was the fact that the Big Master did not send his own men. Instead he relied on the men of the nearby villages, preying on their fears that their village would be the next to burn. So they had to fight their own kin, distant though they might be.

The fight had been short, bloody and brutal. Ten against ten they had stood. Equal, except that the men had carried tools to use against them where the women had nothing but their bare fists. They had put up a good fight though, considering. But it had counted for nothing in the end. Their crofts had still been burnt before them. ‘Those dark and dismal huts’ as the factor had called them last month when he had come to collect their dues, never breathing a hint that their rents would not save them from burning.

Gingerly Ann put a hand up to her head and felt again the deep gash there. Put there by a spade. In the hands of a man that she could vaguely recall dancing with at a ceilidh a couple of years back. He had been sweating then too. But that time it had been from the dancing and the whisky, not from fear and desperation. She smiled grimly as she thought of the scars that he would be hiding come morning. Those that did the dirty work of the Big Master did not bear their blows proudly.

Spades, clubs and sticks had finally overcome even the hardiest of the women. In despair, the women waited to see the first spark of desolation to be lit in their glen. It had not been long in coming and once lit the fire had taken over, given life by the wind, ripping through the thatch. The cries and screams of the women were all that followed the men as they left the village and headed back home, safe in the knowledge that they had given their own villages a little more time.

Wearily, she turned her back on the fires below her and silently watched the women on the hillside. Most were sleeping from exhaustion and pain. Some wept silently. Old Meg lay where she had been put earlier. The women had carried her from her burning croft and lay her on the hillside. The men had burnt her croft around her, and Meg had just lain in her cot and watched them. She had not protested when they had lit the first piece of thatch, and she had not protested when the women had carried her out. Had she wanted to stay? Ann wondered.

She sighed loudly, its sound floating in the wind, across to the women, although few heard it. But Meg did, and she beckoned for Ann. Stumbling a little on tired legs, and tripping on her ripped skirt she crossed to where Meg lay.

‘What will you do now?’ Meg asked in a whisper as Ann leant down beside her. ‘Where will you go?’ She did not include herself in their number.

‘To the sea,’ Ann answered. That was what they had been promised by the agents who had first come to warn them that they would be turned out. Houses by the sea. The agent had taken it for granted that that would be a comfort to them. But Ann knew how talk of the sea had frightened the other women. For what was the sea to them? Few people had even ventured past the next village. The sea was foreign to them. Their only connection with it was with people leaving from it - their men going to fight in foreign wars, their sons going to new lands, new customs, new stories.

Meg had nothing further to say after that and Ann stayed there, squatting on her knees, joining Meg in a brief thoughtful silence. In the cool of the night air, there was quiet all around. Try as she might, Ann could no longer hear the crackle of the burnings. Absently, she picked at the heather by her side feeling it crush beneath her fingers.

Sharp as a thorn, a scream rang out through the night. In an instant Ann was on her feet. There was a strong moon in the sky and from its beams Ann could see the group of women gathered round the fire. At the scream most had looked round, but nobody moved, wrapped as they were in their own misery. Ann moved in the direction of the sound, not waiting to see if anyone followed.

Halfway down the hillside towards the burning crofts, crouching and wounded, she found the other woman. She was deep within the throes of childbirth and could not move, other than to writhe in the agony that the pain was putting her through. She could not talk, but from the state of her dress it was obvious that she had come from a village which had suffered the same fate as the one still burning below.

Ann grasped the woman’s hand and encouraged her to push. Her waters had obviously broken some time ago and she was on the verge of exhaustion. Ann had been present at a few births before, although never alone, and she had never given birth. She was not sure what to do. It was with relief, therefore, that she looked round when she felt a touch on her shoulder.

It was Meg. She had obviously crawled after her when she heard the scream. The other women were still huddled in their mutual misery above. Meg gave Ann no time to remonstrate with her but instead set about the business of preparing for the birth. This, she had done many times before and Ann felt more confident in her presence. A renewed, but weaker scream from the woman caused Ann to look down again. Between the woman’s thighs, the baby's head was already appearing.

Meg looked down and nodded. She seemed to be perfectly content with the way that things were progressing. She leant over the woman and whispered in her ear. Nodding mutely, the woman gathered a breath and pushed. Ann, waiting, caught the babe as it slithered out from its sleeping place. It did not cry and Ann had to look closely at its tiny chest just to see that it was breathing. It was a girl. Her chest moved rhythmically up and down and her clear blue eyes were wide open, staring as though struck dumb with horror at the world into which she had been pushed.

Ann looked down at the tiny infant that lay in her arms. Nobody had spoken since the birth, the mother’s heavy breathing the only sound that spilled into the silence. Ann and the babe stared at each other for a moment and then, turning, Ann placed her in her mother’s arms. The woman was sitting up, leaning against Meg. Weakly she grasped hold of her child, but her look was one only of disappointment when she noted its sex. She muttered something under her breath while Ann and Meg exchanged looks over her head.

‘What did you say?’ asked Ann.

‘I said, now she’ll never get away,’ answered the woman, bitterness vying with the exhaustion in her voice. ‘If she’d been a boy she could have sailed away. There’s nothing in these glens for her.’

Weakly she got to her feet, supported by Ann. Meg was left to crawl since Ann could not support them both. Wearily the three, with the babe, made their way back to the warmth of the fire up on the hillside.

If the other women looked surprised when the group returned, they still quickly made room round the fire for the newcomers. Ann saw them settled and then wandered back to her perch overlooking the burning village.

It was true what the woman had said, she thought. For the fighting or the farming or the settlement of new lands, it was always the men who went first and the women who were left behind to continue the traditions. But now they were all going. Moved to make way for the great white sheep. Deeply she sighed and, moving closer to the fire, she slept.
Ann awoke the next morning to the sound of the men returning. Their own men, who had been off farming the previous day. Stunned they looked around their bit of the glen, that was theirs no longer. Angrily they accused the women of not fighting, angry because they had not been there themselves. Remorseful, they prepared for the journey.

Some wept as they left their glen, others marched stoically ahead, refusing to look back. Laughing, the bairns played amongst their elders feet, never dreaming that they were leaving their heritage behind them, and not caring either. Old Meg was being carried by two of the men. The woman, Mhairi, who had joined them so strangely in the night, followed on behind. She had not spoken to anyone, since telling them her name. She had even refused to name her bairn. Her eyes were empty, her walk aimless, her face strained. Nobody wanted to ask what she had seen to make her look like that.

Ann walked over to where Mhairi was, and asked if she could help, carry the babe maybe. With an eager gesture Mhairi thrust the child at her and then walked on ahead. Ann settled the child on her shoulder and walked on, making no effort to stay with Mhairi. This was one walk that she wanted to make in silence. This was one walk that she intended to remember for the rest of her life.

The weather matched the mood. The clouds were sitting on top of the hills, who were themselves frowning at the pathetic human procession, passing under their majestic ranks. Inviolate, indifferent they watched them go, caring little whether they were populated by human or by sheep.

A lone voice lifted, sharing its anguish with the group. It was one of the older men, singing one of the old songs, telling of his love for the land that he was leaving. Others joined in and even the bairns fell silent as the song reached its climax, staring open mouthed at their elders.

That was the only shared noise that broke the silence that day. People thought that they would never arrive, and hoped also that they never would. Ann knew that the end could only be worse that the beginning. She had not joined in the singing but had rather watched the singers. It had scared her that the bairns had not sung. They had not known the words and now they probably never would. She hugged the baby that she carried closer to her and swore under her breath that she would teach her the words one day.

By the end of the day the group was exhausted, having stopped only for short breaks for food. Although not keen to face their ultimate destination they also longed to halt their futile march. They were not going to make it while daylight lasted and so they stopped for the night. It was then that they discovered that Mhairi had gone. Nobody knew when or where. It would be pointless to search. Nobody could remember seeing her since the singing and that had been hours before. Remembering the blankness in her face they doubted that she wanted to be found.

But the babe was still with Ann. Mhairi had not asked for her at any point during the long day and now never would. Some of the older women, with families, made a move to take the bairn but Ann was adamant that she should stay with her. Old Meg backed her up on this, claiming that as Ann had brought her into the world, so she should look after her. The argument stopped as food was prepared and then people fell asleep one after the other.

Although tired, Ann could not sleep. Her mind tossed and turned constantly, not allowing her to rest. The baby, the fire, the journey - all became mixed in her mind. And through it all Mhairi’s refrain - ‘If she’d been a boy she could have sailed away. There’s nothing in these glens for her.’

In the morning they all set off again, apathetic, waiting to see the fate that fortune had dealt them. But in the night Ann had decided her own, refusing to leave it to chance. She would not stop at the new settlement. Instead she would seek an emigrant ship and head for Canada or New Zealand, or Australia - strange foreboding places whose names had been bandied about during the last couple of years among the men that had left. She did not care where she ended up but she knew that it was pointless to stay. And she would take the babe with her. It was the least that she could do for Mhairi.

As they crossed the last crest of the last hill that led them to the sea, Ann lingered behind and watched them all pass down. She did not feel the need to say goodbye. All the goodbyes had been said the day that their homes had burned down. Down the dank uncaring earth she watched her village straggle. Few had lifted their eyes to look out to the unknown sea, knowing that they would see enough of it in the days to come.

But Ann looked. With the baby silent on her shoulder she stared straight ahead, her fearless eyes not flinching from the vast expanse of grey water which churned in front of her. Turning she looked back at the land she had left, the dark valley and the foreboding hills that she had known all her life. When she was far away across the sea, she would think of them and know that they would always be here, never changing. She turned back to what lay in front of her and noticed that some of her village were looking back up to where she stood, hesitant, wondering if she needed help. Lifting a hand, she waved in assurance that she was all right, waved it in farewell.

The early sun was still rising, for at this time of year it took a long time to set on its course across the sky. It fought with the grey clouds for a while and then broke free. It was an angry sun, scarlet with wrath at the world it had to face. Far off, on the distant horizon, as Ann watched, it set fire to the sea. She shivered. From one fire to another. That was the way of the world.

© Hazel Marshall, 2001

Hazel's first novel will be published this September 2004 by Oxford University Press -be first to order it here - click on flying machine

OUP September 2004
ISBN 0-19-271951-3
192 pages

The Story of Blanco Polo the great-nephew of Marco Polo and his great journey from Italy to Spain to seek out Count Maleficio the inventor of fying machines


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