If he hadn’t had red sails, I think we’d have trusted him less.
The boat was visible from a long way off, much further than white sails would have been against the pale haze to the north-west. Those red sails were a jolt of colour that caught the eye and grabbed your attention like a sudden shout breaks a long silence. They weren’t the sails of someone trying to sneak up on you. They had the honest brightness of a poppy. Maybe that was why we trusted him. That and his smile, and his stories.
Never trust someone who tells good stories, not until you know why they’re doing it.
I was high up on Sandray when I saw the sails. I was tired and more than a little angry. I’d spent the morning rescuing an anchor that had parted from Ferg’s boat the previous week, hard work that I felt he should have done for himself, though he claimed his ears wouldn’t let him dive as deep as I could, and that anchors didn’t grow on trees. Having done that, I was now busy trying to rescue a ram that had fallen and wedged itself in a narrow crack in the rocks above the grazing. It wasn’t badly injured but it was stubborn and ungrateful in the way of most sheep, and it wasn’t letting me get a rope round it. It had butted me twice, the first time catching me under the chin sharply enough that I had chipped a tooth halfway back on the lower right-hand side. I had sworn at it and then tried again. My knuckles were badly grazed from where it had then butted my hand against the scrape of the stone, and I was standing back licking my fist and swearing at it in earnest when I saw the boat.
The suddenness of the colour stopped me in my tracks.
I was too shocked to link the taste of blood in my mouth with the redness of the sails, but then I have little of that kind of foresight, none at all really compared with my other sister Joy, who always seemed to know when people were about to return home just before they did, or be able to smell an incoming storm on a bright day. I don’t much believe in that kind of thing now, though I did when I was smaller and thought less, when I ran free with her across the island, happy and without a care beyond when it would be supper time. In those days I took her seeming foresight as something as everyday and real as cold water from the spring behind the house. Later, as I grew and began to think more, I decided it was mostly just luck, and since she disappeared for ever over the black cliff at the top of the island, not reliable luck at all.
If she’d really had foresight, she would never have tried to rescue her kite and fallen out of life in that one sharp and lonely moment. If she’d had foresight, she’d have waited until we returned to the island to help her. I saw the kite where it was pinned in a cleft afterwards, and know we could have reached it with the long hoe and no harm need have come to anyone. As it was, she must have tried to reach it by herself and slipped into the gulf of air more than seven hundred feet above the place where waves that have had two thousand sea miles to build up momentum slam into the first immoveable object they’ve ever met: the dark cliff wall that guards the back of our home. She wouldn’t have waited for us to help though. She was always impatient, a tough little thing always in a hurry to catch up with Ferg and Bar and do what they did even though she was much younger. Bar later said it was almost like she was in such a hurry because she sensed she had had less time ahead of her than the rest of us.
We never found her body. And with her gone, so was my childhood, though I was eight at the time and she only a year more. Two birthdays later, by then a year older than she would ever be, I was in my mind what I now am: fully grown. Although even now, many years after that, Bar and Ferg still call me a kid. But they are six and seven years older than us. So Joy and I were always the babies. Our mother called us that to distinguish us from the other two.
Though after Joy fell, Mum never called any of us anything ever again. Never spoke at all. We found her halfway down the hill from the cliff edge, and we nearly lost her too. Far as we could make out she must have been careering down the slope, running helter- skelter, maybe mad with grief, maybe sprinting for the dory with some desperate doomed hope that she could get it launched and all the way round the island against the tide to rescue a child who in truth could not have survived such a fall. She never spoke because she all but dashed her brains out when she stumbled forward, smacking her head into a rock as she fell, temple gashed and watery blood coming from her ears.
That was the worst day ever, though the ones that followed were barely lighter. She didn’t die but she wasn’t there any more, her brain too wounded or too scarred for her to get out of herself again. In the Before she’d have been taken to a hospital and they would have operated on her brain to relieve the pressure, Dad said. But this is the After, so he decided to do it himself with a hand drill: he would have done it too, if he had been able to find the drill, but it wasn’t where it should have been, and then the bleeding stopped and she just slept for a long, long time and no more fluid leaked out of her ears, so maybe it was best that he didn’t try and drill a hole into her skull to save her.
I hope so, because I know Ferg hid the drill. He saw me see him, but we’ve never, ever spoken of it. If we did, I’d tell him I admire him for doing it, because Dad would have killed Mum and then would have had to live with the horror of that on top of everything else. And, even though she’s locked away inside her head, you can sit and hold her hand and sometimes she squeezes it and almost smiles, and it’s a comforting thing, the tiny ghost bit of her that remains, the warmth of her hand, the skin on skin. Dad said that day was the darkest thing that ever happened to us, and that we’re past it, and that now we have to get on and live, just like in a bigger way the worst thing happened to the world and it just goes on.
He holds her hand sometimes, in the dark by the fire, when he thinks none of us notice him doing it. He does it privately because he thinks we would see it as a sign of weakness, a grown man needing that moment of warmth. Maybe it is. Or maybe the weakness is hiding the need, which is something Bar said to Ferg one evening when she was upset and no one knew I was listening.
* * *
I’d had enough time to leave the ram, whistle in my dogs from their rabbit hunting and sail the narrow sea mile back home to warn the others long before the traveller came ashore. I could have taken my time, because sharp-eyed Bar had seen the red sails too and they were ready and waiting, eh, which meant that she and Dad were at the shoreline and Ferg was nowhere to be seen. Bar was not sure it was necessary for him to be hiding and watching over us with the long gun because she thought the boat under the red sails looked like the boat the Lewismen used, and that maybe they had just found new sails. The Lewismen were a sixperson family who lived five islands north, the closest people we knew, and we knew them well. Bar wore her hair in a long plait that now reached down her back and she would, in time, pair up with one of the boys. This was what she had decided, though being Bar and thus contrary in all things, said she did not see why she should be in any hurry making a choice as to which of the four it was to be. It was not as if they were going anywhere, or as if there were four other girls they might pair up with instead. They were a ractical family, and we sometimes joined together to do things that needed more than four pairs of hands, but we never took up their suggestion that we move to be closer to them, and they never thought of moving south. Or if they did think of it, they did not think well of the idea. But they were our neighbours and the only other people within a hundred miles. They were just the Lewismen to us, though they had a family name which was Little. And when the red sails got closer we all saw Bar had been wrong, that it was a different boat beneath them altogether. It was bigger and the man at the tiller had hair that streamed behind him like a banner in the wind. All the Lewismen cropped their hair close to the skull for cleanliness, even Mary the mother did so, though she was in fact more mannish than woman, for all that she’d borne four boys.
The long-haired traveller proved to be the only person on the boat, though at first sight it seemed too big for one person alone to sail. He neatly drew into the shallower water in the lee of the small headland that topped our beach, showing a good eye for a sound anchorage, and hailed us as he dropped anchor. His voice was hoarse but strong, and he said he was alone and wished to come ashore if we would have him. He had things to trade and indeed had been told of our whereabouts by the Lewismen, who he had left two days before. He bore a letter from them, which he waved in the air, the paper white against the darkening sea behind him.
Dad beckoned him in, and he dropped a small dinghy over the side and rowed in to the beach. I helped him ashore, and we pulled the boat above the tideline together.
I felt Dad’s hand like a warning on my shoulder, as if I’d been too enthusiastic and unguarded, but then he ruffled the short hairs on the back of my head which he only does when he’s feeling kind.
I’m Abraham, said Dad, nodding at the stranger. Call me Abe. And this is my boy, Griz.
Hello, Griz, he said with an answering grin that I liked the moment it split his thick red beard in a flash of white.
And then the dogs barrelled down to surround him before I could ask his name. They barked and snarled and arrived in a great tangle of teeth and tails and then, as he knelt to greet them, the tails started thumping and the snarling turned to whines as each dog seemed to want to be patted and petted by this stranger from the sea. He had the way of dogs, and he told us he had lost his own one only weeks ago, over the side in a storm around the North Cape and he missed him like an arm. She was a half Husky crossbreed called Saga, clever like a man he said, white, black and brown with a brown eye to match her ears and a blue one to match the sky. He’d had her safely kept below in the small cabin, but when he fell and hurt himself as the boat eh, slammed into the trough of an unusually big wave, Saga heard him cry out in pain and – being a clever dog – pawed the latch and came to help him. The next wave took her over the side and he never saw her again, not even a head bobbing on the face of the mountainous seas piling up behind the stern as the wind blew him beyond any chance of finding her. He showed us the scar on his head, and we could see in the gentle way he ruffled the fur of our dogs as he spoke that the hurt was deeper than the healed skin.
Like I said, it was a good story. And – as I found out later – some of it was even true. The dog with one brown eye and one blue being clever as a man, that was true as death itself.
* * *
Looking at a new person is not something you would have found as interesting as we do, I expect. You lived in a world full of new people all the time. If you lived in a city, they must have flowed round you like a great mackerel shoal and you’d be just one of thousands or millions, still yourself alone in your own head no doubt, but part of something much bigger too. Here, every fresh face is an event, almost a shock, every new person rare enough to seem like an entirely new species. The traveller looked like no one I had ever met. His long hair, for a start, was thick and wavy and the colour of flames. A redhead. Something I’d read about and seen in faded pictures but never met in real life. The hair was a startling colour, as alien and abrupt as the explosions of orange flowers we found on the other islands, always close to old gardens, flowers my mother called crocoz, when she still spoke. She knew all the flowers and plants. Bar told me she said crocoz weren’t native to the islands, but were tough survivors, like us. And he was not just a redhead, but a redbeard too, a slab of a thing that jutted as far down in front of his face as his hair hung behind it. His skin was pale but weather-beaten and his eyes, which peered out at the world from beneath the high cliff of his forehead, were dangerous blue. I don’t know why I thought the blue was dangerous, but that was the word that jumped into my head as I saw them. Maybe it was because they turned on me in the same instant and just for a moment, as he caught me looking at him, I saw them without the smile that followed, and I do know I thought it then and that this is not something I added later, after things happened: I definitely thought dangerous blue, but then I thought better and discounted it.
Maybe you, swimming in a world full of difference and choice, were better tuned to believing your gut when it came to people. I had – still have – little to compare people with. So I dismissed the dangerous blue in his eyes when he smiled at me an instant later, and decided it was just different, the blueness, only having seen brown or green eyes before. And when he smiled it was hard to think of those eyes as cold, but maybe that was part of why he was hard to keep a hold of in the mind, juggling the two things at once, the fire in his hair and the shiver of ice in his eyes. The face that was hard as a hammer when it was not smiling and the smile that seemed to warm the world when it found you.
You look like a Viking, were the first words I said to him. And he did. I had seen him, or faces like him, in history books and old pictures, men in horned hats carrying axes and plunder.
And the second words he said to me, this man who had sailed out of the north, were:
What’s a Viking?
Which shows that even a question can be a lie if asked in the right way.