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.