A clan storyteller unfolds the tale of Seonag and the wolves, and the wolves and the waves.
I know you’ve heard the story of An Duine Aonarach, who one day walked into the sea and never returned. And likely you have at least heard of Seonag as well, who did the same thing but to less collective memory.
It’s been a long time since I’ve told a story, a ghràidh. It’s been a long time since I was our clan’s storyteller, but I think I’ve got one more in me, and I think it’s Seonag’s, because I remember her, and I’m the last one who does.
The rest forgot, mostly because they wanted to.
This is the story of Seonag and the wolves, and the wolves and the waves.
She came to me, not so very long ago. She carried no bother on her about whether her people had forgotten her or not (they have), and she took no worries from her brief visit. But she did bring with her a warning.
“Thoir an aire,” she said. “Thoir an aire a-rithist.”
The simplest of warnings, really. Beware and beware again.
I knew it was she the moment I saw her, even though what she has become is beyond what she once was. But that is for you to discover as I did.
So let us begin. Come closer, for my voice weakens and soon will not be here at all.
Seonag is born on a day where the clouds race each other across the sky. They pile up, layer upon layer, like a stampede of red deer in the glen. Like the deer, the clouds that day kick mist into the air, only down and not up, and the mist falls lightly upon Beinn Ruigh Choinnich.
It is low tide. The sea has drawn its breath to wait for her.
Seonag is born on Là Buidhe Bealltainn as the women go out into the mist under that jumble of clouds to wash their faces in the morning dew.
It is not dew that covers Seonag at her birth. It is more alive than that.
And yet the midwife brings in a sprig of heather, flicking a tick from the sprig into the fire. The wind through the open door dries the sweat on Seonag’s mother’s brow. The midwife lets the winter-aged and browned bells dust their dew across the newborn’s, melding with the blood and the birth fluids, a shock of cool water after the heat of the womb and the birth canal and the smoldering peat fire, and Seonag opens her eyes wide.
Somewhere the cuthag begins to call its gù-gù, gù-gù, and the midwife hurriedly dips a finger in ewe’s milk and places it against the lips of the baby to break Seonag’s fast before the bird can finish delivering its news of ill luck.
This is a lot for Seonag’s first moments.
Upon seeing the place she has just been thrust into, Seonag looks around. And then she goes to sleep.
It is as if this world has already shown her all its faces, and she is just born and tired of it.
This doesn’t change as Seonag grows older. Where the clouds raced each other on the morning of her birth, whispers race each other through the villages, from Loch Baghasdail to Dalabrog to Cill Donnain as she grows into an infant, and then a child, and then an adolescent.
She is peculiar, they say.
They think she does not hear them, because she is out of earshot.
Seonag is beautiful the way the each-uisge is beautiful. She has no rosy cheeks or hardiness in her features, though she is hardy enough (she has to be, to survive on our island). But some say that that first touch of dew meant to bring beauty came at the wrong moment, or at the wrong hands, or at the wrong time. It is the early dawn of early summer when she is born, the sky lightening after only just having darkened—it was the in-between time, and Seonag becomes an in-between person. Like the water-horse, the people fear she will lure them off to drown.
Sometimes Seonag sings when she is cutting peat in the springtime. Her voice unnerves the crofters and the fisherfolk who lift their own at the cèilidhean. Seonag never sings at a cèilidh.
For all that, you will think that Seonag is not of this world, and I must assure you: she is.
She feels those whispers even when she does not hear them. She wants to sing at the cèilidhean. Seonag wants to build a house for herself and cut peats with her own hands and work the machair like her father and mother. As Seonag grows into an adult, she learns the waterways of Uibhist the way she learns the waterways of her own body, and she loves this land.
When Seonag has just passed her twenty-fifth year, her parents board a ship to Canada.
Seonag is meant to go with them. They can no longer afford their rent for their croft.
Instead, Seonag hides in the cleft of the glen, weeping softly as her tears drip into the bog under a sharp bright sky.
After she has dried her face with the folds of her dress, she comes to visit my father.
My father is Tormod Mòr, Tormod Mac Raghnaill ’ic Aois ’ic Dhòmhnaill, Tormod the Bard, Tormod Ruadh—sometimes I think my father collected a name for every year he lived.
I see Seonag coming that day. I am some few years younger than her, and I’ve only ever really seen her in glimpses. I tell my father she’s coming when I see her crest the rise in the road.
“Tha Seonag Bhàn a’ tighinn,” I say.
My father leaves the Gaelic where I put it and answers in English, because he is trying to teach me. “Don’t call her that.”
My father is a big man (hence that first name), but Seonag came to her far-ainm in a way I often forget. Bàn means fair, and while she is pale, her hair is black like a crow’s feathers and shines like them besides. It is a small cruel joke, one at the behest of Dòmhnall Geur (who is known for small cruel jokes throughout our island) and one I still don’t understand. I am a wee bit infatuated with Seonag. I also don’t quite understand that.
“I thought she was gone,” I say softly. English feels wrong in my mouth. It lives in a different part of it.
My father understands both my infatuation and my words even if I do not. He also looks out the window and understands Seonag.
He opens the door before she can raise her hand to knock. He speaks Gaelic to her, even if he only speaks English to me.
“Madainn mhath, a Sheonag,” he greets her.
“Madainn mhath, a Thormoid,” she says as if she did not just let her parents sail across an ocean without her. “Ciamar a tha sibh?”
“Tha i teth,” Father says. “Fosgail an uinneag, a Chaluim.”
This last is to me, and it is a dismissal. I open the window as he asked, letting in the cooler air. And then I set myself in the corner to mend a net and listen, pushing their Gaelic words into English so I can prove to my father that I’m doing two useful things instead of one, if he asks (he won’t).
“I had no expectation of seeing you here still,” Father says.
“I had the expectation of leaving,” says Seonag.
She sits on a small stool by the peat fire. Her eyes are the color of that mòine, of that peat, and she does not use them to look at me. She looks at the peat instead.
Seonag puts her head in her hands.
“The ship has gone to its sailing already,” my father tells her softly.
“That is why I am here.” Seonag looks up.
I watch as breath moves her stomach, filling it. She holds her left hand out to the fire. And then she begins to speak.
“This is my home, a Thormoid,” she says. “Even if you or anyone else think I do not belong. There is nowhere else for me.”
“There could perhaps have been a life for you in Canada.”
“My life is here.” She says it with the heat of the fire, that low burning smolder that will not be put out, and she glances toward the open window as if she is looking through it and down through the years that have not yet had the chance to touch her.
My fingers still on the net in my lap and I hear her words in Gaelic as she said them and not how I clumsily pasted English on them. ’S ann a-bhos a tha mi beò. It is here I am alive.
“There will be more ships,” Father tells her. “Full of more people. The rents are too high and the food too scarce. Death will find us in Uibhist. You may yet change your mind.”
She will not change her mind. Anger reaches tendrils across the floor from Seonag to me, and now she does meet my eyes, as if I summoned her. I feel something like indignation and fury meld together on my face, and to my absolute shock, Seonag smiles at me. Her teeth do not show. Her lips are straight and even, despite the expression.
I am seen and understood. I will never forget this moment.
“Very well,” my father says in English, looking back and forth between us. I think he knows that in this moment, my allegiance has shifted. “In that case, I think I should tell you of the wolves of Uibhist.”
“Ach chan eil mic-thìre ann an-seo, Athair!” I fall into Gaelic and hurriedly say in English, “But there aren’t wolves here!”
My father smiles in the way of parents who know more than a child who assumes, in childish folly, that they know more than their parents. That smile turns back in on itself much like that sentence.
He holds up his hand, watching Seonag. “Ah, but there are madaidhean-allaidh.”
Madadh-allaidh, faol, sitheach, faol-chù—they are all words for wolf. This is why I need my Gaelic. My father has used these words as though he means there is a difference and in English there would be none. What is it that he means?
Seonag is now watching my father, too.
My father is a bard, and I almost expect him to sing. But he does not sing. Instead, he goes to Seonag, kneels at her feet, and takes her hands in his.
“Listen,” he says.
And I know neither Seonag nor I intend to do anything else.
It was two hundred years ago that we chased the wolves from Scotland, two hundred years, they say, since the last wolf howl was heard, but sometimes, just sometimes, in the Western Isles beyond the Minch, you will hear a sad and stolid song. In Steòrnabhagh, perhaps, in Leòdhas. Or in Èirisgeigh when the moon is healthy and bright, or in Beinn na Faoghla, or the Uibhist to the north.
I have never heard their voices, when Father begins to talk. I have thought the tales of their howls were only their ghosts, or the songs of selkies twisted by the gales.
“When the hunters come, it is their job to move through the land and push their prey out in front of them,” Father says. “They will go from place to place, here and there, over and under, yonder and back. They will seek out their prey and while their minds will be heavy upon it, the object that they seek will not be of consequence.”
Father is telling two stories at once. This is a power of his that I envy.
The wind coming through the open window is cold, but I cannot get up from my seat to close it. The net in my lap holds me faster than a fish in the sea—or perhaps what holds me is Seonag’s face.
“Hunters who hunt only to kill all have that in common. They seek no nourishment from it. They have a wider goal, and a narrower. It is prey that understands their minds that can survive. The wolves understood. The wolves scented the hunters on the wind and they found their survival in the waters.” Father pauses. For a moment his cheeks are slack, the weathered lines curved instead of taut, his jaw hanging although his lips are closed. When he speaks again, his lips part audibly. “They will have your answers, a Sheonag.”
“The wolves.” Seonag looks at me over my father’s shoulder where he still kneels on the floor. “In the water.”
She sits up even straighter, body tight; I could likely use her spine to draw a straight line against the wall.
I know that tightness. Even in my glimpses of her throughout the years, I have seen it. I’ve seen it when Dòmhnall Geur calls her Seonag Bhàn, I have seen it when she turns away with her wares at the shops and knows she leaves whispers in her wake, and I have seen it when I caught sight of her in the glen, when she was mid-song and her voice died at the sight of me. I swallow.
“How am I to get answers from wolves when even their hunters have no words of kindness for me and I am neither wolf nor hunter myself?” She asks the question in a low tone, the lilt of her words in English almost sarcasm.
I do not know what I expect from my father in this moment, but whatever it is, it’s quite something else that I get.
He gets to his feet and points to the west, toward where the ship would be sailing off with Seonag had she gotten on it, toward the open sea.
“If you came to me for advice, this is what I can tell you,” my father says. “You will go to the west, into the water, and swim until you can’t see land. You will pass Heisgeir. Do not come close to it. You must keep swimming until you hear them. Only then will it be safe to seek land.”
“Is this a joke?” Seonag is completely shuttered now, and my fingers have given over any guise of mending this net.
What is my father doing?
Tormod Mòr, Tormod Mac Raghnaill ’ic Aois ’ic Dhòmhnaill, Tormod the Bard, Tormod Ruadh—for all my father’s many names, right now I do not know him. He shrugs once and goes to shut the window.
“You could have had a new life in Canada,” he says.
It is then I see that he is angry.
He is angry at Seonag, but I do not understand why. He loves this land. He drinks its waters and taught me how to recognize the eggs of the cuthag where they push them into the nests of other birds. When I look at him looking at Seonag, I wonder if he sees her as a cuthag, thrust into his nest when he expected only eggs of his own.
But this is Seonag’s story, not my father’s.
She gets up from her seat quietly. Seonag leaves without looking at me.
My father stares after her, his expression like the lochans before the stirring of the breeze. I get to my feet and run after Seonag.
“Wait,” I say, just as she reaches the edge of the heather.
Seonag looks at me once, then out to the west. The sun is trying to burn off the mist this morning, but I have a feeling Seonag sees all the way through it. I am nineteen to her twenty-five, and in this moment she has a lifetime on me. I follow her gaze to the sea where my father just told her to swim to her death.
“My granny’s house,” I say. The words tumble from my lips like drips of wax over the edge of a candle. “You could go there. It’s just on the edge of the machair.”
It comes upon me that I do not know what Seonag can do to live, alone, with few friends (am I her friend?) and no husband, and in that moment the urge to propose to her nearly overtakes me. It renders me so confused that I forget what I was saying about my granny’s house.
“Tapadh leat,” she says, her voice the equivalent of my father’s expression.
And then she leaves, and my gut twists itself into a semblance of the tangled net I threw on the floor to catch her. Just before she goes out of sight around a hillock, though, she looks once over her shoulder at me, a sad smile painted with one brush stroke on her lips.
I am filled with anger.
At the time, I thought this was my story. I was wrong. It was hers. It is still her story. I am merely a player in it, and what happened to me next is also what happened to her.
I spend an hour walking by the edge of Loch na Liana Mhòire before I return home. When I do, I hear voices through the open-again window.
One voice is my father’s, naturally.
The other is Dòmhnall Geur’s.
“It is to you to report her,” Dòmhnall Geur says. “She cannot be allowed to stay like a ghost, stealing from crops and honest working people.”
“You have decided this will be her future, then?” My father’s voice is that wry, flat calm I know too well.
“She has no land or husband or property; what is it you think she will resort to?”
“She may make another choice.”
I know my father is referring to the wolves, to these creatures that do not even exist. At this moment I think the only wolves in Uibhist a Deas are the two men in my house.
“And what is that, a Thormoid? Are you going to marry her? Or perhaps Calum will—I’ve seen his eyes on her. She will drain the life from your boy; it would be best for your sake to keep him from her.”
I have never known Dòmhnall Geur to have a kind word for anyone who was not currently licking his boots. His words are too close to my own thoughts this time, and I slink back farther from the window to avoid being seen.
“I told her of the wolves.”
Dòmhnall Geur does not scoff. He goes quiet. “And you expect her to believe this tale.”
Dòmhnall Geur believes this tale. I hear it in his words.
“’S dòcha,” says my father.
My father believes Seonag will believe it.
Which means my father truly does believe it.
I hear the crack of Dòmhnall Geur’s knuckles and can picture the expression on his face even though I cannot see it. His weak chin does nothing to reduce the harsh lines of his cheeks. His lips he holds at a constant half-sneer except when he has made a decision—usually one few will like—and then light reaches his eyes as if causing harm to others is the one thing that brings him joy.
“That’s me away,” he says. “Shall I congratulate you on your forthcoming nuptials?”
He laughs as his footsteps make their way toward the door. I am a coward. I steal around the edge of the house on light feet and wait until he has passed out of sight before I go in.
I cannot shake the feeling that Seonag is in danger.
I cannot tell if that danger is my father’s making or if it is Dòmhnall Geur’s.
My father stands by the sputtering fire, staring into it.
“Dùin an uinneag,” he says without looking up.
I close the window. It is now cold, outside and inside the house.
“He believes in those wolves,” I say. My anger feels like the sharp edges of shells on the beach. “I think he is one of the wolves.”
I say it in English even though for once Father made his words of Gaelic for me.
“Amadan,” my father says.
I don’t know if he’s calling me a fool or Dòmhnall Geur. Perhaps both.
“Do you remember what I said earlier, when you said there were no mic-thìre here?” Father adds a brick of peat to the fire. He is speaking English now. A puff of smoke, full of the scent of the earth, whispers through the house.
I do remember.
He said there are no mic-thìre, but there are madaidhean-allaidh.
The first means children of the land.
The second means wild dogs.
By the time I make it to my granny’s house after all of my work, it is clear Seonag has been there.
Granny’s house has sat empty this past half year, the windows shuttered, the door closed. Father and I come here once a week to check the thatch and make sure no beasties have made it their home. When I arrive, there is a small bundle on the table and a snubbed out candle. A basket of peats sits by the fire, untouched. The stove is clean—she hasn’t used it.
There is a note on Granny’s table. It has my name on it.
It’s written in charcoal on a scrap of rag, and all it says is a thank you.
I clutch it in my hand, where a stray tail of string tickles against my skin.
In my chest there is—something at war.
It feels like fingers pulling apart my heart. I do not know what my father meant. I do not know what Dòmhnall Geur means to do. I know only that I need to find her.
The sky is liath. The clouds have burned off, leaving only a lump of them smeared across the horizon to the west, over the sea.
It will be hours yet before the sun sets, but it is the light of a twilit sky.
I run due west from the house. It is perhaps a mile to the shore. My legs are strong, and I run as fast as I am able.
It is Monday and tomorrow the crofters will begin the plowing of the machair. They will not have begun such a large task today; it invites trouble to begin a large task on a Monday.
I try not to think that beginning a large task is exactly what I myself am doing.
When I reach the dunes, there is the sound of bleating sheep in the distance, an answering lowing of the cattle. The tide is out, pulled all the way out, like a breath drawn in and waiting to be screamed.
Footsteps lead from the dune to the shore.
With them, drifted to the northeast with the wind, are scattered clothes. The thick wool dress Seonag wore this morning. Her shoes, set in a perfect pair. Stockings, blown a bit away. Chemise flapping in the breeze.
The footsteps become imprints of feet and toes. There is another set near them, near me. I try not to think of those ones. They turn back halfway to the water.
The bare footprints lead directly into the sea.
It is said that the warmth returns to the water at Bealltainn.
I have known that to be a lie for most of my life, but when I throw off my shoes back toward the dunes and wade into the water in my stockinged feet and trousers, cold shoots up to my knees, my hips, jabbing into my heart and lungs. I press on. Father said to swim until she couldn’t see land.
I cast one glance behind me, at Uibhist a Deas, at my home, my island.
Then I turn out to sea and dive.
When Seonag reaches the water’s edge an hour earlier, she is naked and grìseach, shivering and rubbing her hands against the bumps on her skin. She is too aware of the irony of walking naked into the sea when she could have been sailing west on a ship, clothed and warm.
She doesn’t know why she does it anyway. Perhaps she believes my father wants her dead. Perhaps she believes Dòmhnall Geur does too. Perhaps she simply believes.
This seems as good a way as any. The shore is an in-between place, and Seonag is an in-between person.
She wades into the water.
Like me, she decides it is best to dive.
Seonag comes up gasping and sputtering, her entire body revolting against the cold. Her arms and legs spasm. Behind her, someone shouts.
It might just be a sheep or a goat.
She dives again, the waves pushing against her.
Seonag is a strong swimmer; the brother of her mother drowned when he was fifteen, and her mother insisted Seonag learn to swim.
It has been some time since she did, though, and fighting the waves is different than the smooth peat-colored waters of the lochs.
The tide is turning.
Seonag swims west.
Every stroke of her arms feels like a miracle from the very first of them. She is certain this will be her last act, an act of defiance, an act of doing precisely as she was told, just as she always did, convinced that if she were good enough, modhail enough, kind enough, the whispers would cease.
She feels this will be one more story for my father to tell at the cèilidhean.
(My father will never tell this story. He will forever carry on him far too much shame. No matter how he washes, he will not be able to scrub it away.)
So Seonag swims.
She looks back every so often, when she can spare any small bit of energy. The land disappears quickly only to appear again on the other side of a swell. It does not recede fast enough. Seonag stops looking back.
Her muscles are fire under the ice of her skin. Her lips choke on salt, and her eyes and nose burn with it. Her eyes and nose make their own in retaliation, but they cannot compete against the sea.
Once, Seonag sees dolphins, which in Gaelic are called leumadairean-mara, sea jumpers. She watches them and feels envy, because her body was not made for this and theirs were.
They circle her, out of curiosity or confusion. One comes close enough for her to touch; her elbow brushes against something warmer than the sea and rubbery, and if she were less exhausted she might recoil from it.
When her ear dips beneath the rolling waves for an instant, she hears them. They call to each other, with clicks and whistles that she feels she should understand.
They swim with her—which is to say, they swim ahead, then back, then ahead again, winding around her as she aims herself into the now-blinding light of a sun that has peeked from behind the clouds—and Seonag at once is glad of the company and resents it.
She has always wanted to get close to these creatures, but this is not how she thought it would happen.
Eventually, they swim ahead of her and vanish. She does not see them again.
We are aware of the worlds beyond our own. We know there are times when you can touch them, at twilight and dusk, at the shores and on days that mark the turning of the year. But it is impossible to know when we have gone from touching those worlds to finding ourselves in one.
Seonag certainly never thought she would swim herself over a blurred boundary, into something deep and cold and dark but full of life and salt and energy nonetheless.
When Seonag pauses in her swimming to rest aching shoulders, she is surprised to see Heisgeir breaking the waves ahead of her. The sight of land in front and not behind shocks her into flailing beneath the waves for a moment, coughing and struggling to stay afloat.
Seeing Heisgeir is impossible. It is west of Beinn na Faoghla. She has drifted to the north as she swam. She has left Uibhist miles behind.
Seonag remembers my father’s words. She cries out then, in sorrow or in frustration, and she moves herself to begin swimming due west again, keeping Heisgeir on her right.
She will not go near its shores.
When it fades from view, Seonag realizes she is crying. She tastes her own tears over the brine of the sea. She is sure she will soon drown.
She begins to pray, not to a god who forsook her all of these years, but to the each-uisge, to the selkies, to the storm kelpies, to anything that would listen. She longs for the dolphins to return, belatedly thankful for their company and kindness.
She swims until the late evening sun finally touches the horizon.
She swims until she can see nothing except the red, red clouds touched by the sunset, the sea turned from gorm to dearg itself, waves like flames.
Seonag is not sure if she is still cold, or if the sun has turned the sea to hellfire.
And then she hears it.
A voice on the wind, raised high and so bright for a moment Seonag is blinded by the sound of it.
She fumbles in her swimming.
It comes again, unmistakable. A howl.
Seonag has never heard wolf-song. Seonag has never seen a wolf.
Here, miles from shore and swimming through water turned red, she hears a wolf howl for the first time.
She has nothing better to do. She swims toward it.
At that moment, Seonag is nearly overcome. She expected to die, and oh, she does realize she still might. She does not know how she has swum so far, alone and naked, into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
It does not occur to her that she has already passed into a world she was not born into.
On the horizon, Hiort appears.
Seonag’s experience is not my experience.
When I begin to swim, my clothes stick to my body, trying to strangle the life from me before the ocean can. I don’t know what it is I expect to happen. Fatigue sets in before I’m a hundred yards from the shore.
I hear a muffled shout, and before I can find where it’s coming from, a hand grasps me by the back of my shirt and hauls me over the edge of a fishing boat.
The hand is Dòmhnall Geur’s.
There are two other men in the boat, Seòras Eachainn and Dòmhnall Dubh, whose black hair is now far closer to white.
It’s a small fishing vessel with a sail. The boat is called Anna, after Seòras’s mum. I’ve been aboard it before.
“What’re you doing, lad?” Seòras grunts it at me while Dòmhnall Geur dries his hand on his trousers.
“S-s-eonag,” I stutter, pointing westward.
Seòras exchanges a glance with the two Dòmhnalls.
“Saw her going into the water,” Dòmhnall Geur says, his voice surprisingly thoughtful.
“If the weather holds, we’ll go,” Seòras says. There’s caution between his words, and I don’t think it’s about the weather. “We turn back if—”
“I’ve been sailing at least as long as you, Seòras,” says Dòmnhall Geur.
“Sail where?” My teeth are chattering.
Seòras throws a plaid over my shoulders. It’s wool and rough and smells of fish and brine.
No one answers.
Seonag pulls herself onto the sand with arms that quiver like the leftover gelatin in a mutton stew.
She has no reference for the kind of tired she is in this moment. Her fingers are shaking from exhaustion—she stopped shivering from cold long ago—and when she looks up, moving only her eyes from where her cheek is glued to the sand, feet still getting tickled by the waves lapping the shore, she doesn’t know where she is.
Seonag aimed herself at Hiort. She thought it was Hiort. But Hiort has been inhabited for two thousand years, and this place looks like it has never seen the footprint of a human being.
But there are paw prints in the sand.
Seonag drags herself farther onto the beach, close enough to look at one of the paw prints.
It is the size of her hand, almost. If she curls her fingers in—which she does—she can lay her hand in the depression made by the paw pads and see the indentation of a wet tuft of fur, the pricks of claws.
She has never seen such a track.
The set of prints leads away from the water.
There is more than one set of prints.
If she expects to hear more howling, she is disappointed. There is only the sound of the wind and the waves and her own labored breathing. Seonag knows she will need to find shelter soon. She will likely need to build it.
She has swum through the short summer night, and already to the east, the sky lightens.
She is covered in sand, only on her right side. There are no clouds. She is alone.
Seonag is used to being alone, even when she is surrounded by people.
She pushes herself to her feet.
The sound of waves is in her blood, her ears, all around her. Indeed even the land seems to be shaped like waves; from the small beach where she landed, cliffs rise up like arms embracing and sheltering the center of the small island, far too small to be Hiort in truth.
There are trees over the dunes. Trees. There are almost no trees in Uibhist—they don’t grow because the wind likes to be able to run across the machair and moors unhindered.
The word cuts through Seonag. She could not have told you what language it came in, only that she feels it the way she is feeling the waves.
She looks around.
There, at the top of the dune, is movement.
Something beckons her.
Seonag’s heart gives a jolt, a spark. She follows on unsteady feet.
There is a glimpse of driftwood, moving. Of seaweed and kelp streaming out behind. Seonag tastes fear, but it tastes like the salt of the sea and she has steeped in it all night. She ignores it now.
A figure passes between an oak and a hazel.
More movement shows through the trees and underbrush. A tail beyond a bush of holly, upright ears passing just behind a rowan.
Seonag does not know much about trees, but she remembers learning that different kinds don’t grow all in the same place.
The wind falls quiet here, in the embrace of the cliff arms. The slope up is steep; the island looks like a god reached down with a hand and scooped out the middle of a mountain. Seonag doesn’t know what a volcano is. This one has been hibernating for a long time, and will not wake in any lifetime soon.
She walks for an hour into this bowl of trees, past elm and birch, alder and yew. They are the trees that make up the alphabet in Gaelic. She wonders what stories they will tell here.
The figure is among the trees, in a circle of them, on spring grass both thick and green like a bed.
Seonag longs to lie down on that grass and sleep in the circle of these trees. She might never wake if she does.
Someone is here.
Seonag is confused by this. Of course someone is here; she is standing right in front of the figure, which she cannot bring herself to look at. She hears rather than sees the rustle of seaweed. Beyond that, a low, rumbling growl that seems to come from all around her.
And beyond that, a crackle of underbrush from the direction she’s just come from.
My feet are heavier and heavier as I help drag the boat onto the shore of the island. Seòras and Dòmhnall Dubh help me secure it, with Seòras turning toward the cleft in the cliffs where Dòmhnall Geur vanished and muttering “Craobhan” over and over, so shocked is he by the presence of trees.
My feet are heavier, or perhaps it is my heart. Urgency creeps up my spine, using each ridge of my vertebrae for a ladder. There is a need to hurry.
Almost before I have tied off the ropes, I start to pull away toward where Dòmhnall Geur left.
Seòras catches my hand. “Duilich, a ghille.”
I don’t understand why he is apologizing to me until Dòmhnall Dubh catches the other.
Before I can react, Seòras stuffs a rag into my mouth. It tastes of fish and sweat, and I almost vomit. They wrench my hands behind me and tie me to the boat.
In the distance, a wolf howls.
Seonag is not surprised to see Dòmhnall Geur striding into the clearing with no hint of wariness about him. She is not surprised by the gun in his hand, an old hunting rifle that belonged to her own father, who by now is far from the sight of land and crossing the Atlantic forever.
“You must have hidden your boat well,” he says.
“I swam,” she says.
Seonag is still naked except for the crust of sand on her right side, which itches. His laugh has always been a spiteful laugh, one that made her skin into bumps as if ready for anything that might follow.
“I’ve been wanting an excuse to come here for a very long time,” he says. “When I rid the islands of wolves once and for all, everyone will know my name.”
He does not seem to see the figure behind Seonag, or perhaps only Seonag can see them.
“And you will be put on the next ship to Canada where you cannot pollute my island any longer.”
“Your island?” Seonag hears all of his words distantly, like the waves barely audible over the whispers of the leaves around her. But that bit stays. “You are born to a place and believe you own it more than others who are the same as you.”
“You are not the same as anyone.” His voice is low and thick with disgust.
“Why do you hate me?” Seonag truly wants to know.
Dòmhnall takes a breath to answer, but before he can speak, a wolf howls behind him.
He raises his rifle and fires.
I hear the shot ring out through the air. Seòras and Dòmhnall Dubh are out of sight already, following after with their own rifles.
There is another shot, then another. Closer—without reloading time. The others are shooting at whatever Dòmhnall Geur shot at. The sound of a distant snarl.
I jerk at my bonds. The rope is rough and made of heather. It digs into my skin like a flail. My father and I make this rope together. We may have made this one.
I let out a scream of frustration and rage.
The sound of breathing greets me when my scream dies away.
A wolf stands at my right, soaking wet and staring at me with liquid amber eyes. In its jaw is a cod, still twitching.
The wolf looks at me. I forget to breathe.
They are real. The story my father told was real. It is large, far larger than the working dogs we use to herd the sheep on our island. It comes up to my waist.
I can smell its wet fur, full of brine and warmth and the manky smell it does have in common with the working dogs. I can smell its breath, hot and fishy.
It melds with the taste of the cloth in my mouth.
The wolf drops the fish, and fear spikes from my bound wrists up the nerves of my arms. My nose is half-stuffed, and my breath enters in gaps around the gag as much as through my nostrils.
The wolf stalks closer, close enough for its breath to glance off my skin and my still-damp clothes.
Its muzzle is cold and wet, its nose colder and wetter.
When it ducks behind me, between me and the boat, I almost cry out. Warm breath hits my wrists, then the wolf’s powerful jaws clamp down on the rope, pulling and gnawing. My skin warms with the animal’s saliva.
Another shot rings out. The wolf flinches against me, but does not stop.
When my hands pop free, I pull the spit-covered rag from my mouth.
“Taing,” I say, trying to thank the animal, but it has already taken its fish and gone.
I go after it.
Around Seonag, a dance of chaos swirls.
Wolves partner with hunters, at least two fur-covered bodies to each of the three men. In its center, Seonag stands like a maypole, her body warm from something she cannot place. The figure recedes behind her, waiting, not intervening.
Seonag feels something well within her. She is certain of it, even though it comes to her without words, without voice. It is like the waves that lifted and dipped beneath her as she swam. It is like the impulse that made her turn and run from the ship the day before, an age before, and hide in the glen.
She has to make a choice.
She feels it again, then, as she decides. Her feet hold to the grasses she so longingly admired a short time ago. Toes dig into their young growth.
Seonag stands taller. Perhaps she is taller.
It comes upon her like the tide, creeping with every breath closer. The smell of leaves around her. The scent of seaweed and kelp. The grit of sand against her skin…and something else.
Her skin is flesh and not.
Her body turns with the swirl of air and breath and grunts around her.
She says one word: stad.
Everyone in the clearing does. They stop. They turn to stare at her, men and wolves alike. There is blood on the wind, human and canine.
“I told you, I told you,” Dòmhnall Geur says, stumbling backward. “She is not of our world, she is not—”
“I was,” Seonag says softly. She looks at Seòras, at Dòmhnall Dubh. “Go.”
Seòras looks over his shoulder once. He sees a glimpse of the figure beyond Seonag herself. Whatever he sees, it is enough. His face goes so white that it is he who will be named Bàn when he returns, though he will never tell anyone why.
This is the scene I come upon when I enter the clearing.
Seòras is half-dragging Dòmhnall Dubh with him. He does not look even to the side to see me. They stumble away.
What I see is this:
Seonag, and not Seonag.
Her arms are no longer pale flesh but the soft, sun-bleached grain of driftwood that curves with her muscles, her joints, her neck. She is naked, but her nakedness is no longer human nakedness. Where her black hair reached past her hips is now seaweed, lustrous and shining in the first rays of the early morning sun. Her eyes are obsidian, their whites abalone.
Behind her I see a figure like her, smiling with seal bone teeth. This figure leans against a yew.
Seonag walks to Dòmhnall Geur, who stands rooted to his place on the earth.
When I step closer, flanked by two wolves I hardly notice, I see that rooted is not a metaphor.
Where Dòmhnall Geur’s feet were, now his toes have entered the earth, punching through the leather of his boots and digging deeper by the second.
He writhes where he stands, but he does not scream. I think he cannot scream.
When Seonag touches his face with gentle nails of shining scales, he flinches away.
“You will stay here, like the others before you,” she says absently. I cannot tell which language she is speaking, if any.
I look around me at the trees, so many different kinds.
“Dair,” Seonag says. “Darach.”
Dair is the name for D, the first letter of his name. He will become an oak.
Already his hair has sprung free of its tie.
Seonag has an acorn in her hand. She places it in Dòmhnall Geur’s open mouth.
It sprouts before his lips close, a sprig of green reaching out, another sprouting from his nose.
A wolf howls, so close to my side that I jump, a stick cracking under my feet.
“A Chaluim,” Seonag says, looking over her shoulder at me. Then, sadly, “You shouldn’t have come.”
Like the others, I cannot seem to speak.
The figure behind Seonag moves forward. Slowly. I think I hear the brittle crack of wood.
“Who are you?” Seonag asks.
The figure is like her, like this new Seonag, and not. Where Seonag’s seaweed hair hangs straight and glossy in ripples, the figure’s is wild, covered in barnacles and fragments of shell and motes of sand embedded in the leaves that sparkle in the sun.
Perhaps this figure is simply older.
“A guardian,” says the figure. “I was.”
I understand before Seonag seems to.
“Was,” she says. “Of what?”
The figure gestures around her. “Of whom do you think?”
Those who are hunted.
For the first time, I see a dead wolf. The figure gazes sadly upon it. There is a knife in its side, and a cod by its mouth.
I cannot make words, but a strangled cry escapes me.
The figure seems to understand.
Seonag goes to the wolf and pulls the knife from its chest. She walks to the new oak tree, now reaching up higher, higher. Flutters of fabric wave in the wind. Seonag tears away what was Dòmhnall Geur’s shirt.
She wraps the knife in it, blood and all. She walks to me. “Carry this home.”
Before I can try and ask her how, she pushes it into my chest. In through my shirt and in through my skin and ribs. I feel it, harsh and heavy and sharp inside me, against my heart that beats so quickly.
Seonag looks at me once more. If she is sad, I cannot tell.
Her sudden smile is fierce.
I blink once, and she is gone. I hear the beat of wings above my head, in the branches of a tree.
The figure remains.
My voice works again. “Who are you?”
The words sound strange in the air, like they are not words at all.
“Old,” says the figure. “Tired.”
I look upward. My hand massages my chest. I can feel the knife there. It feels like panic just out of reach.
“Tell your father thank you,” says the figure.
When I jerk my gaze back down, they are also gone.
You will wonder, I suppose, how I made it home. Seòras and Dòmhnall Dubh returned, days after I did, silent for days after that, jumping every time they saw me.
The wolves swam me out past the breakwater, the pack leading me around the riptides and into the open sea with yips and broken notes. Some peeled off to hunt on a small chain of rocky islets; others waited until we reached a place I could never find again no matter how I tried. Hiort appeared in the distance.
Oh, how the fear gripped me then. It coated me more heavily than the water, ready to pull me under with its weight.
I swam, though. I swam through the length of the day. They say the journey back is shorter than the journey there. I think in this they are wrong.
When I arrived on the shore of Uibhist a Deas, I collapsed and lay for hours before one of the crofters found me and carted me home, naked and shivering, on the back of his horse.
I did not hear what he said to my father.
Father built up the fire and closed all the shutters and when the heat from the peat warmed me enough, I rose to my hands and knees and began to heave, spots swimming in front of my eyes and a terrible ripping feeling in my chest and when tears stung at me, I heard a thud, and to the floor fell the knife that had killed the wolf.
My father picked up the small parcel and opened it. The blood appeared as fresh as if he had stabbed me with it himself.
“Dòmhnall Geur killed the wolf that freed me,” I told my father then, unthinking of how absurd my words would sound in any language. “He became an oak.”
“A life for a life,” was all my father said in return.
I think of the many trees on that island sometimes.
I think that is why I am telling you this now.
When Seonag came to me not so long ago, she came with a warning. I do not think it was meant for me.
Perhaps it is meant for you.
There are no mic-thìre left in Scotland, but there are madaidhean-allaidh. They are wild and they are free, and they found that freedom in the sea.
Their hunters are the ones to fear.
Sometimes, when the winds are still and the tide pulls back far, far from the shore, I hear their song echo across the waves. I am not the only one who hears them; perhaps Seonag as their guardian strengthened them after the strength of their old guardian flagged.
On those nights, it is whispered that Seòras and Dòmhnall Dubh hide with their pillows over their ears, but no matter how they try, they cannot escape the sound. They forgot her, but they still remember that sound.
I am old now, and Seòras and Dòmhnall Dubh are older still. But you are young, and the young have the chance not to repeat the mistakes of their elders.
If you look around you, you might see someone like Seonag, who wants so desperately to belong. Let her sing at the cèilidhean. Invite her to share your meals.
You know who I mean and who I do not. Those someones like Seonag are not like the hunters who prowl for something they decided was their own, to take, to steal, to kill.
Someday perhaps someone else will take that swim to relieve Seonag of her duties. I have thought sometimes that it might be me, but I am still a coward.
Sometimes, on those nights, I think of her.
Sometimes, on those nights, I walk the glen.
Sometimes, on those nights, I hear her singing again.
There are hunters among the sheep of the machair, a ghràidh.
But there are wolves, too.
“Seonag and the Seawolves” copyright © 2019 by M. Evan Matyas
Illustration copyright © 2019 by Rovina Cai