As Recounted by an Island Fisherman, my Grandfather’s Friend, 1762

We kept dying, burned by icy waves, our wooden boats smashed to pieces on rocks or by sheer force of dark water churned madly by malevolence, or meanness, or spirits, or perhaps by nothing at all. This happened in days before we became enlightened, and we explained things in ways you find silly or superstitious, fit only for a campfire. But if you could know how we handled these matters in broad daylight without hint of embarrassment, you might understand the candlelit age we lived in. You might see the broken nets, the pale looks on men’s faces after fighting a whale, the pregnant widow’s lost expression as she surveys the sea — that fickle master that lived in us, through us. You might see the dark stone rooms where we made sad and merry, drinking powerful drink, shadows on walls, wild gestures, brisk movements of hands, life pouring out of us day and night through sweat and blood and water and the life-force we sank deep into our women, burying our treasure at the bottom of their seas to replace ourselves, to give them wealth before we died our poor existence at the edge of the world that was always our centre.

You might learn that we were not so different from this current strange time you occupy — not so different as you might imagine. And if you can peel back the layers that have grown over your eyes and mind, that cover you like moss, or haar, you might be there with me, in days when prayer was as good as strong rope, and a spell might mean fish in hand. When the world was long and growing longer, unmapped, so big our nets could not cover it, and the sea hid our deepest fears and only way of living. If you could get out of your homes, touch the waves with bare feet, cut yourself with knives and endure the sting of salt, you might think different thoughts, not those that come to you in dry places where you have coal and peat to keep you warm, where you receive news from the furthest parts of the territories and your bellies never know hunger. But to know true want — to know what it was to visit women who talked with spirits and saints, who told of old traditions and newer ones, things men in robes told our grandfathers’ grandfathers. We tried to understand the pain, how to conquer it, how to change the grave fortune that befell our village that year, tragedies that will never be recorded but only remembered in vague recollections that you might pass along to some passerby or child of yours, memories that now cool like earth after the sun has flung itself into the sea.

What I did? What I did when the squall took your grandfather with no warning, a cloudless sky gone in less time than it takes to eat a piece of bread, his body washed and buried with incantations that the squalls might stop, he being the twentieth man to die that year, nearly a third of the upright men in the village? The chantress told us to sing, to gather men along the shore and sing on a moonlit night, songs the dead, or selkies, would whisper from the water’s froth. The fiddle had come to our village of late and your grandfather was the only one to play it, but they handed me his instrument as we walked in silent procession to the moonlit shore. I shook as I held it, not knowing what I would do with the bow, fearing this would all end badly as we found a clearing amongst the rocks to stand, a few bodies’ length from the tide that stretched its sickly fingers towards us, beckoning like a lover with black death, looking for one last kiss, one that might take both lovers to perdition.

We stood like half men, no longer strapping and brawling, throwing our nets impossible distances, laughing with open mouth, squatting to lift boulders with ease. We hung limp at the shoulder, stooped, forlorn, shadows in the moon-glow, wrung out by an endless churning that had drowned our brothers and friends and sent them back as shriveled dolls with locks of seaweed. I looked up and saw a thin black cloud cross the moon, floating like driftwood from a doomed ship, and listened for my cue. All were silent — all but the waves with their greedy lapping, sounds that might bring you sleep but were to us like wailing, constant reminders that the space between life and death was as frayed as old fishing line, and might break as easily.  

We stayed rooted like trees for minutes or hours, days or weeks, assaulted by the water’s rhythms, listening for voices of the dead or living, human or animal, spirit or god. It’s difficult to say what happened, and more difficult for you in this skeptical enlightened age to believe what I saw. But believe me when I say this, young one: your grandfather, at some appointed time unknown to man, walked up on shore — wet with sealskin coat and long eyelashes, thin shoes that spread circles of water wherever he walked — and took the fiddle from my hands.

The moon-glow hovered, softer than reflected silver, the way the white day looks when you open your eyes after a drunken sleep, and he played the sailing tune we all knew, but now the words had changed. We sang a new song, with all of us — near forty men and a few bairns — shouting and weeping, ‘The dying days are over, the new day’s come; the dying days are over, the new day’s come’. We kept singing and singing, with locked arms, entranced, a song that had always existed but one we’d never sung in that way, encircling your grandfather as he played with eyes closed, head tilted back, looking half-animal. At first light, we opened the circle, and again, as if appointed, he walked through our gathering, back into the water, as easily as a man walking home from a day’s fishing.  

We stood in silence for a long time, watching the last ripples from where his head had disappeared into the black water, wondering what had happened. The sun rose, full and gentle, and slowly, one-by-one, men walked back to their homes or boats, as if the world had been set to rights. And it seems it had.

We had troubles after that — bad catches, illness, boats lost at sea — but never another year with so much death, so much indescribably bad weather set on sacrificing wet, long-faced fisherman, people like your grandfather and I, men who wanted nothing more than a roof, food, a crackling fire, a woman to bed, children to father, work to do, strong drink to soothe.

Young men never tell such stories, and I was a young man then and never spoke of what I saw, nor did any of the others so far as I’m aware. Yet when the wind would come up, one of men in the boat might whistle a wee bit, whistle the very tune we sang that night, and one of us would get a look in our eye and then look at the other, and the other would look at the man to his right, and we’d all nod, and it was in the nodding I was reminded that none of it had been a dream, but had really happened. You’ll believe none of this, young one — old men are always fools to the young, especially old men who speak of old ways, of fanciful stories, of a world that seems to have never existed, or only existed in imagination. So in the end, I don’t ask you to believe this story; I only ask that you re-tell it, that you let the listener decide.

0 Responses to “As Recounted by an Island Fisherman, my Grandfather’s Friend, 1762”


Comments are currently closed.



University of Edinburgh Privacy Policy and cookie information