The village slept. A gaunt, yellow fox trotted down the lane. It stood illuminated for a few moments by the moonlight, then melted into the shadows once more. Moments later, the hooded figure of a woman came into view. She moved swiftly, soundlessly. The wind was picking up, blown in from across the sea; the cloaked figure clasped her hood around her chin, trying to keep out the draught. Where the fox had turned into the undergrowth she paused, seemed to sniff the air, and then took the left turning in the other direction – towards the sea.
The high banks on either side of the road were thick with hard, dry vegetation that come the spring, would bloom again into wildflowers: foxgloves, forget-me-nots, field bindweed. As the road sloped down to meet the sea, her pace quickened, and as if speeding her passage, gusts of winds, this time from inland, seemed to propel her down the hill. Her cloak billowed around her violently, like a sail come loose in a storm.
She disappeared into thick shadow, down the beach-steps with their cloak of small trees, grown meshed together to form a ceiling, like a womb: through which only glimpses of the night sky flashed. The gentle roar of the crashing waves was getting closer. Momentarily sheltered from the swirling gusts of wind, she released her grasp on her hood and let it fall to her shoulders.
As Morvern Macrae took the last step onto the beach, the light of the moon unveiled her face. It was the face of a young woman, dark of hair, freckles dusted across her nose, with eyes that to most careless beholders looked black, but were in fact deepest brown, like the colour of a dog’s. She paused for a moment, staring out to sea, as if expecting something to emerge on the dark horizon. When nothing did, she bent down, removed her shoes, and rummaged in her cloak for something: in her hand emerged a small, plain, wooden box. Without pause, she undid the neck-fastening of her cloak and let it drop into the sand around her. She began to sing softly under her breath, the words of the old-tongue, her heart light.
This was a tradition passed down from mother to daughter, the beach at night, the magic of it.
The drift wood had already been prepared. A small ghostly pile arranged in a wreath. Round the edge, white pebbles were piled, encircling the twigs in their funeral pyre. Morvern bent down and inspected them. She looked again out, across the sea. Was she too early?
As if in answer to her thoughts, a gale blew in from across the sea sending sand swirling. Morvern shielded her eyes, her hair whipping against her cheeks in salt-laden strands. She noticed that the above the woodpile, sand spun in a perfect circle suspended in mid-air, like a tiny tornado. Then she heard them, the voices on the wind. It was time.
Recovering her balance, she opened the box revealing a smooth, oval-shaped stone with a hole in its centre. Its colour was indistinct, a dark shifting colour like the night sky or the sea itself, it glittered faintly in the moonlight. Morvern placed it carefully in the middle of the circle of driftwood. Then, she picked up two jagged-looking flints, which looked to have been placed there in readiness, and struck them together. Immediately, a spark flew from them and onto the pile. Quickly, she turned her attention to the other artefacts arranged there: first, a bird’s nest from last season, this she broke in two above the pile and let it fall in, next followed a small phial of sea-water, lastly she smoothed the crinkled page of an old-book, which had been weighted down with a large rock to prevent it blowing away, and placed it too inside the stone circle. Within seconds, the whole thing blazed with light. Silvery smoke spilled out across the beach, blowing seaward.
The wind dropped. The waves seemed to calm, lapping placidly now at the shore. Further out at sea, they rippled, black and opaque as onyx, like stone come to life.
All seemed still. But an owl gliding silently overhead, surveying the shoreline saw the places the water rippled, saw the spines break the surface of the sea and then slip back under the waves. Spines along a scaled back, like midnight, rolled up and down silently and in the blink of an eye submerged themselves again, not making a single ripple.
Morvern walked purposefully towards the sea. She didn’t pause this time to survey the skyline, but waded straight up to her waist, her dress like seaweed floating around her in the black water; her silhouette blazing against the fire on the shore. All of a sudden, on the coastline round the other side of the bay, a light appeared. A moment later another erupted to the east, then another, then another, until lights adorned every beach on the island, like stars that had abandoned the sky and sprung out of the earth. Each a flare, a beacon, the answer to a call.
Morvern lay back in the water and closed her eyes. She released a long breath from her mouth and relaxed her limbs, letting her entire body go limp. This was it. This was what she had been preparing for her entire life, one way or another, without knowing it. Her union with the Gods themselves. She let the saltwater fill her nostrils and mouth and silently bade goodbye to this mortal world. She was glad, really, she felt certain she wouldn’t be missed. She knew deeply that this act was right, the only thing, she felt, she could give to this world was her sacrifice. In her conviction, she felt completely at peace, ready to let the sea consume her.
Until, she felt a hand grip her shoulder.
Another hand, slipped under her arm and grasped her, cold and hard as iron. It couldn’t be. This was not right. She had not yet left this world. Her momentary serenity was shattered as the arms dragged her inland. Her chest heaved violently as she spluttered up saltwater from her lungs and had no strength to fight off the hands that gripped her. When they reached the shallows, she felt the gripping embrace slacken and she was dropped onto the wet sand, sinking into it. Gasping, Morvern crawled onto all-fours to survey her attacker, the sea lapping around her.
A man lay there, a stride away from her, chest rising and falling fervently, relatively large in build and soaked to the skin. She couldn’t make out his face as the moonlight lay behind him.
It was so dark: the fire had gone out.
No – she tried to scream – No – she couldn’t stem the deep wrenching cough as her lungs emptied of seawater – You don’t realise what you have done.
The next morning, the bodies of drowned women washed up on every beach on the island. All, that is, except one.