The International Writers Magazine: FIRST
did the dirty work of the Big Master did not bear their blows proudly.
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.
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
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
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 womans 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 womans 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 mothers 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 mothers
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 shell never get away, answered the woman,
bitterness vying with the exhaustion in her voice. If shed
been a boy she could have sailed away. Theres 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
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,
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
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
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 Mhairis refrain - If
shed been a boy she could have sailed away. Theres 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,
first novel will be published this September 2004 by Oxford University
Press -be first to order it here - click on flying machine
ANGELS AND FLYING MACHINES
OUP September 2004
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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