Please, don’t call me Frog.
Go on then, stare at my hands. Everybody else does. Call me a freak from a travelling show if you must. I’ve heard plenty worse these last few months, so one more insult won’t make much difference. I might not even cry.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. You’re becoming a woman, Nettie told me, but nobody expected my hands to get involved. Some of the other girls started growing taller, developing a bosom and sprouting hair in odd places; I’m getting those and more besides.
I’ve grown webbed fingers and toes.
“Thank the Lord, we’re almost there…”
Nettie stifles a belch and grips the guardrail tighter than ever. Beneath us, foaming waves batter the swaying SV Tanna’s hull. Masts crrrreak and sails whapwhapwhap in the incessant gale, and the deck lurches to and fro like a broken pendulum. Poor Nettie turned green the moment we left Ullapool this morning, and she’s spent much of the voyage vomiting over the side. Every time we hit a big wave she prays for salvation and awaits our drowning.
I’m not afraid. I was born for the sea.
Finally, Thurso emerges from the drizzle. My goodness, the north of Scotland is bleak! The houses lining the shore look hunkered down against the wind. Our captain steers us into a narrow estuary, and we’re soon tied up alongside the fishing boats by the pier. My long journey north is almost over.
I suppose I should be pleased, but I’m not.
Nettie totters down the gang-board quick smart. She’s still swaying when I join her on the pier. Thurso is supposed to have a wonderful view of the Orkney Isles, but all I can see is cloud and rain. It feels more like January than late March.
“Please don’t leave me here,” I say for the dozenth time. “Are you sure I can’t stay with you?”
“Hush now, Mairi,” says Nettie, holding her stomach in her hands. Her real name is Mrs Mackay, and she is — was — my father’s housemaid. She’s tall and broad-shouldered with an enormous bosom, and she keeps her hair gathered in a bun so severe it stretches her forehead taut.
“But I could live in your attic and help you in the kitchen, and — ”
“Mairi, we’ve been through this a hundred times. It’ll be hard enough me finding another job without worrying about another mouth to feed.”
This is one of many things about Daddy’s death I don’t understand. He wasn’t a rich man and his business hadn’t been doing well of late, but did the bank really need to take his house and possessions, leaving nothing behind to look after me? Nettie only brought me this far because Daddy’s executors paid her to get rid of me. We couldn’t even afford the steamer passage through the Caledonian Canal. My uncle will arrive soon, ready to whisk me off to an island that may as well be in the Arctic. Stromsay, it’s called, and it’ll be bleak and windy and freezing. I don’t want to live in a draughty crofthouse surrounded by sheep and seagulls. I want to move to Glasgow with Nettie.
Won’t she miss me?
“Oh Mairi, don’t cry,” she says, ruffling my hair. “Perhaps your uncle will take you back to Largs for a visit one day.”
“I hope I never see that cursed place again!”
Not one of my so-called friends stuck by me when the webs came. Instead, they laughed and called me names. Go back to your pond, freaky frog they cried, and the boys were worse. Some of them threw stones and said awful things when I passed by. I learned to hide my hands by clenching my fists, and that made people think I wanted to fight them.
They were right, sometimes.
“Here you are, ma’am,” says a crewman pushing my trunks on a trolley. “Where are you headed for now?”
“Regrettably, I am sailing with you again this evening,” says Nettie, visibly queasy at the thought. “Mairi here is Stromsay-bound.”
The sailor’s face darkens. “Stromsay? You wouldn’t catch me going there. A ships’ graveyard, that place.”
“She’s going to live with her aunt and uncle, not to become a sailor,” says Nettie. “Please don’t frighten the poor girl.”
I’m dying to hear more, but when Nettie’s lips turn thin I know to keep quiet. Why is it a ships’ graveyard, I wonder? Perhaps Stromsay might turn out interesting after all.
“Now where is your uncle?” says Nettie, checking her pocket watch. “His letter said he would meet us at four…”
As far as I’m concerned, Nettie is more my family than my uncle and aunt will ever be. I haven’t even met them before. They didn’t come to Mama’s funeral on that grey September morning six months ago, and we buried Daddy on the First of March without any sign of them.
No Mairi, don’t cry…
I dry my eyes on my handkerchief and hold in tears. I can’t let Uncle Donald think I’m a giddy slip of a girl. I’m thirteen-and-a-half now, and Mama said I must be my own woman, whatever that means.
“Perhaps this is him,” says Nettie. A tall, grey-bearded, well-built man is walking towards us. He’s wearing a flat cap and smoking a pipe, and his navy-blue overalls are worn and stained. His wrinkled, tanned skin is rather nut-like in appearance.
“Good evening, ladies. I’m Donald Campbell.” He takes off his cap and gives Nettie a nod. “You’ve had a breezy journey, no doubt.”
“Jeanette Mackay,” says Nettie, her nose wrinkling. I expect she can smell the whisky as well.
“And this must be Mairi,” he says, looking me up and down. “It’s a sorry way to be meeting at last…”
I greet my uncle with a shy hello and a curtsey. He speaks slowly and carefully, as though unsure of the King’s English; his accent is rather strange, albeit soft and melodious.
“Well, Mairi: we’d better take up our lodgings and get something to eat,” says Uncle Donald.
“Can you come with us, Nettie?” I ask.
“I won’t have time, unfortunately. Now do as your aunt and uncle say, and make sure to wash behind your ears every morning and say your prayers at night, and — ”
I can’t hold it in any longer, and I’m now crying in Nettie’s arms because she’s been so kind to me since Mama died and I’m so afraid —
“I promise I’ll write to you,” Nettie whispers in my ear. “Be brave, Mairi Elphinstone.”
I look up to find Uncle Donald staring at me, utterly horror-struck. What have I done wrong? Do tears and hugs offend these island folk?
Then I realise.
He’s staring at my hands.
Our driver guides his miserable-looking horses through Thurso. The houses are elegant and well-to-do, but the streets are deserted now that the rain is lashing down and the sun is setting. Uncle Donald hasn’t uttered a word since I bid a tearful farewell to Nettie. Should I say something and risk a gruff seen and not heard, or remain quiet? I can’t think of anything to say, though. We might be family, but I don’t know him any more than I know Queen Victoria.
Our carriage turns a corner and rattles merrily along a road facing the shore. The tide is halfway out, revealing a sandy beach hemmed in by rocks on both sides. Goodness me, look at the size of those waves! Largs Beach is a Robinson Crusoe-esque tropical shore in comparison.
“Thurso Bay is a millpond compared to the seas off Stromsay,” says Uncle Donald when I mention this. It’s a thrilling thought; my swims will be all the more exciting for it.
Presently our driver stops outside an inn called The Sleekit Silkie. Uncle Donald effortlessly carries my two trunks inside, greets the innkeeper like an old friend and takes me upstairs. The low rafters, straw mattress and stained blankets are a shock after my airy, bright bedroom overlooking Largs Bay and Cumbrae. Uncle Donald retreats to the room next door for a pre-dinner nap, so I crawl under the blankets, close my eyes and drift into a troubled doze.
In my dreams, I can go home.
It’s almost nine ‘o’ clock when Uncle Donald summons me for dinner. The public bar heaves with fishermen and farm workers drinking ale. It smells of smoke, fish and boiled vegetables; oil-lamps cast eerie shadows around the low-ceilinged room. Jaunty fiddlemusic spills from some hidden corner, competing with the raucous shouting and laughter from the bar. We sit down at a table by the fire and wait for our meal.
“What do you and Aunt Molly do?” I ask, breaking the awkward silence.
“I’m a fisherman, like most men on Stromsay. You’ll be helping your aunt on the croft.”
“I’d much rather help you with the fishing,” I say eagerly.
“Dinna be silly. It’s a dangerous life, a fisherman’s.”
“But I love the sea! Mama and I swam for hours in the Firth of Clyde in the coldest of winters, and I can hold my breath underwater for more than two minutes.”
Uncle Donald turns pale at my words. He must think I’m cracked, like so many people did in Largs.
“Well, I won’t have you swimming off Stromsay.” His voice has turned stony and harsh. “The greatest sailors in the land fear our stretch of coastline, and many a ship has come to a bitter end on the rocks off Stromsay. The sea can be a deadly place, Mairi, so let’s have no more talk of you swimming.”
“Very well,” I say, but inside I’m secretly planning my first swim in those wild, wreck-strewn waters. Uncle Donald might know the sea, but he does not know me.
The sea and I were made for each other.
Our dinner presently arrives. Alas, herring tastes far too fishy to me, and the potatoes are old and tough. Uncle Donald devours his meal and my leftovers with relish and finishes his fourth tankard of ale in two draughts. I do hope he isn’t a drunkard. Daddy took to the whisky when Mama fell ill. It was cancer of the breast, and she faded rapidly. On her deathbed Mama cradled my newly deformed fingers in her trembling hands and said my little seal pup is growing up in a sad, longing voice.
Don’t worry about your paws. You’ll understand one day.
That was six months ago, and I still don’t understand.
Daddy’s drinking worsened after she died, and he soon fell ill too. On bad days he’d weep all evening and shie from the sight of my hands, wailing cancer didn’t take Rachel, it was homesickness and it’s all my fault! Our doctor said his liver failed in the end, but I think he died of a broken heart.
“There’s a friend of mine.” My uncle gestures towards a ruddy-bearded Colossus of a man by the bar. A family of four could sleep underneath his sou’wester. “You sit here while I talk to him.”
Uncle Donald brings me a small glass of ale as a guilty treat then joins his friend at the bar. I sip the warm, bitter brew and read Emma, feeling rather self-conscious. Not many thirteen-year-old girls sit alone in drinking houses, I’d warrant. Daddy would have a fit if he knew.
Mama would probably call it a great victory.
The weather soon distracts me from my book. Wind booms down the chimney, making the fire dance and gutter in the grate; the steamed-up windows rattle unnervingly with every ferocious gust. The musicians stop playing and the singing ends. The inn’s patrons huddle together and hunch over their drinks.
“I dinna envy those sailing the Firth the nicht,” says an old man sitting at a neighbouring table with his younger companion. Their accents are hard to follow, but I can’t help but eavesdrop. Oh, I hope Nettie’s ship is safe!
“Aye the Swilkie will be out for sure,” the younger man says.
“Dinna mention her in my presence,” says the older man after a mouthful of ale. “She’s near claimed me twice now.”
My goodness, this sounds exciting! I picture myself aboard a fishing smack on a stormtossed night, trying to spot the dreaded Swilkie before it rears out of the waves with jaws wide open —
“Aye, they’ll be lighting lamps on the Sgeirskerry the nicht,” the older man says. “Nae moon nor stars, an ebbing tide: it’s perfect hunting weather.”
“Ach, you’re haivering. That’s nowt but rumours.”
“Dinna you be so sure. I’ve seen the lights myself. Those de’ils have a special pit in the hellfire reserved for all eternity.”
De’ils. Daddy used to say that sometimes. It means devils. What on earth is the old man talking about? His companion gives me an odd look as he makes for the bar. Blushing, I bury myself in Emma, but I can’t concentrate for thinking about deadly Swilkies and mysterious lights. Who goes hunting on a dreadful night like this?
The sea will tell me.
The thought comes from nowhere, as though a passing ghost whispered in my ear. All of a sudden I’m desperate to brave the storm and see the sea for myself. Nobody notices me slip outside. I run across the road, down a flight of steps and onto the beach, the storm tearing at my hair and dress. Massive waves smash the rocks offshore, roaring like dragons in the night.
And then I hear the cries.
At first I think I’m imagining things, but then I hear them again: a mournful, wordless wail above the wind. Dear God, there must be people shipwrecked on the rocks! I run into the freezing-cold sea, past my ankles and knees. A huge wave almost knocks me over but it doesn’t matter, I must help them —
“What the hell are you doing, Mairi?”
Uncle Donald grabs me by the shoulders and drags me ashore kicking and screaming.
“Let me go! Please, there are people drowning out there! Can’t you hear them?”
“Calm down, child! It’s just the silkies. Seals, Mairi!”
“But they sound so human…”
“Aye, they do.” Uncle Donald’s shoulders slump as the seals call once more. “But they’re animals like any other, and you dinna want to get yourself drowned chasing after them.”
Uncle Donald drags me up the beach and into the smelly, steamy inn. The barman and his patrons stare balefully at the puddle forming by my feet.
“Go upstairs and get to bed at once,” snaps Uncle Donald.
“But — ”
“You do as I say. We’ll discuss this in the morning.”
Embarrassed, I creep upstairs and shut myself in my bedroom. I can’t find any towels, so I dry myself on a blanket and hang my sodden clothes on the bedstead. Relishing the scent of the sea in my hair, I open my large trunk and search for a nightgown.
Look at this, Mairi.
Another voice in my head, this time from the past. I think back to that strange day a month after Mama died, when Daddy was oddly excited about his new travelling trunk.
This trunk, in fact.
Look inside, he said that rainy afternoon. What do you see?
Nothing, I replied, baffled.
Exactly. The trunk is empty. Or is it? Watch this.
He pressed hard on an innocuous-looking screw-head. The bottom of the trunk lifted up with a faint ping, enough for Daddy to get his fingers underneath and remove it entirely.
There you are! he said triumphantly. A hidden compartment!
Anything you want, Mairi. Something special, something secret even.
Back then I thought Daddy was going mad. He was never without a glass of whisky, and I’d overheard Nettie fretting about the money he was gambling and drinking away. But now I understand! Daddy wanted me to look in here after he died.
I empty the trunk at once and worry the false bottom free, dreaming of the money and gold Daddy concealed from his executors —
Nothing. It’s empty.
No: there’s a silvery-grey dress inside that shimmers in the candlelight. It feels more like leather than cotton or linen, and it’s so long it trails on the floor when I hold it up and —
Nearly drop it in shock because —
The dress has flippers. Dear God, it has a head for a hood! Large mournful eyes, a cat-like nose, whiskers…
“A sealskin dress?” The perfectly preserved hide smells faintly of the sea. I set it aside and pick up a piece of paper lying at the bottom of the trunk. My heart clenches at the sight of Daddy’s spidery handwriting.
I took this from your mother many years ago, and now I want you to have it. Please keep it safe in memory of your dear mother, but above all please keep it SECRET. I have kept it hidden for many years, and you should do the same. I cannot say that I regret my theft, for I loved Rachel with all my heart and will do so forever more. Always remember your beloved mother’s words, Mairi: be true to yourself and do not take heed of other’s spite or jealousy, for you are your own woman.
All my love,
The letter falls from my hand. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I return Daddy’s confession and the sealskin dress to the trunk. And as though in mourning for their long-lost cousin, the seals keen above the distant waves.
They’re more than mere animal cries.
The seals are calling me.