Authors: Jaclyn Reding
For Christine, a true and wonderful friend.
Give Zach and Jake a kiss for me.
The sportsman now roams o’er the Sutherland hills
And down where the Naver runs clear;
And the land a brave race had for centuries owned
Is now trod by the sheep and the deer.
The halls, where our ancestors first saw the light,
Now blackened in ruins they lie.
And the moss-covered cairns are all that remain
Of the once pleasant homes of Mackay ...
Unflinching they bore the proud ensign aloft
When their foemen the penalty paid;
And the same noble spirit inspires them to-day
Their poor broken clansmen to aid.
The aged and weak they have sworn to protect
By the “Strong Hand” and kind watchful eye.
For faithful in friendship and valiant in war
Has aye been the Clan of Mackay ...
Then flock to the standard and join the roll call!
Once more the banner’s unfurled,
The slogan’s been sounded, and kinship been claimed
By clansmen all over the world.
Exiled or at home, love of country and clan
Are feelings we’ll never let die;
Defy and defend, stand true to the end,
And honour the name of Mackay.
—Elizabeth Mackay Bridge of Allan
There was a boy, who really thought of himself as a man, sitting on a high bluff, staring out at the waters of the sea.
The wind off the shore rushed across his face, a face that even at the youthful age of twelve already showed the rawboned lines and rigid slant of jaw passed down to him by his Gaelic forefathers.
He was a product of the land as much as of its people. His hair was dark, not quite black, but the color of the rich peaty soil of his Highland home. His skin had been toughened by the harsh north winds that blew across the moors, often with the fierceness of an arctic gale. His eyes, expressive and keen, were a mix of all the shades of green and gold and brown that carpeted the hillsides behind him, his body lean and wiry from having raced across the cragged hills all throughout his short life.
The rock he sat upon was called “Mackay’s Stone,” and fittingly so, for generations of Mackay men had sat upon that same stoop of granite over the centuries, watching the twist and tow of this particular stretch of the Highland sea. His own father, Artair Ros Mackay, had been one of them.
The sky was fair, the weather warm, and the wind teasing. The boy narrowed his eyes, shading his brow with his hand as he tried to focus on a distant bit of jagged rock poking its head out of the surf like the tooth of an ancient Gaelic giant.
It was there that he watched ... and hoped.
Would she come out today?
When the tide was at ebb, he could often see the shipwrecked corpses of Spanish galleons, Dutch brigs, and English men-of-war. The bay was littered with them, their battered masts sticking out of the water like the outstretched fingers of the drowning. Through a natural pull of the sea, they drifted along the sea floor before coming to their final rest at the bottom of this bay. Some of the ships, it was rumored, had even taken their treasure cargo down with them, and legend claimed that the thousands of lost doubloons and pieces of eight that had been scattered into the depths were the true reason the sand on the bay’s shore was so incredibly golden.
Was she down there,
frolicking among the slumbering hulks? Ducking through yawning portholes and gathering up pieces of Spanish gold in the same way Scottish lasses gathered up bunches of heather and wildflowers?
He’d been sitting at that spot for hours, and for days, and even months before that. Whenever he could manage to steal away to that same spot, and wait for her to appear.
Just as his father had.
Scarcely a stone’s throw off the south shore of the bay stood a slender cragged sea stack called
The Herdsmen. This high narrow column of sandstone, broken from the mainland by centuries of the tide’s pull, was reputed to be the figure of a Mackay ancestor who had stood watching and waiting for her so long, he’d finally turned to stone.
She was myth.
She was fantasy.
She was celebrated clan guardian.
And it was claimed that only a true Mackay could see her, dance with her ... love her. So he’d always known if he could see her, just once, he would know ... he would finally be able to say once and for all that he was the one.
The real Mackay.
But it would not, it seemed, be happening this day.
Already the sun was starting to drift lower on the horizon, casting a twilight brush of shadow on the distant isles lurking to the west. Night was closing in quickly on the day, signaling that it was past time for the boy to go.
He got to his feet and began to leave, reluctant as he always was. Somehow he couldn’t dismiss the fear that as soon as he went, she would appear, only he wouldn’t be there to see her.
He took up the sack he’d left at his feet, a sack he’d filled earlier with the cockles and winkles he’d gathered along the shore and in the beds of the loch that fed inland off the bay. It was a tedious task, but he was always keen to do it, for it gave him yet another reason to come to the spot and watch.
Watch for her.
He walked two steps back toward the hills where he lived. The wind came from the west, a peculiar wind that rushed across the moor grass in a reckless swirl, embracing him, pulling him back. He hesitated, for on that wind he swore he’d heard a song, a siren’s song ...
... the song of
an maighdean mhara.
The boy turned back to face the sea.
And he saw her.
She was even more beautiful than legend had promised she would be. Her dark hair blew on the sea wind like twisting ribbons of black, her slender figure poised upon the stony ridge that had been made for her, so that she might hold court with the fish and the gannets and the puffins.
She sat upon her sea throne, and looked at him.
He could not see her eyes, but he knew they would be bluer than the ocean depths. It was what all the stories of her had promised.
It didn’t matter how much time passed, or if any had passed at all. His eyes never left her while his feet carried him forward until he was standing at the shore. So close ... yet still so far. She held out her hand and beckoned to him. He stood, unable to span the stretch of sea that stood between them.
“Come to the shore, sea maiden ... come and dance with me.”
It was his voice, but he didn’t remember having opened his mouth to speak.
She lifted her hands above her head with the grace of a swan—he took a breath and held it, waiting, knowing she would come to him and would bring back the treasured stone of his clan to him. He waited. In a flash of shimmering green, she dove into the depths.
He watched the water, his heart pounding in time to the tumble of the waves on the shore. He walked to the edge so the surf rushed across his toes, splashing against his bare legs, bitingly cold. His feet dug into the soft sand and planted him there.
He would wait forever if he had to.
He saw the break of water, caught the flash of green that was her tail, and his heart began to pound, clogging in his throat because he knew she was coming ... coming to him, and only to him—
“Calum! Calum Mackay!”
He blinked. He slowly opened his eyes.
But it wasn’t the mystical mermaid who stood blocking the sunlight above him.
It was his foster brother, Fergus Bain.
Four years older and a good six inches taller, the fierce blond towered over Calum with arms akimbo, eyes fixed in a dark and utterly menacing elder-brother stare.
“While ye’re aff sleepin’ in the grass like a bluidy lamb, Lachlann and I are working our arses off pullin’ stones outta tha’ scabbert excuse for a field. And look! You hinna gathered a single winkle all the day!”
Calum scuttled to his feet. “Oy, I have! I’ve got a sack full of ...”
Fergus snatched up the sack before Calum could reach it. “You’ve got a sack full o’ naethin’.” He turned it bottom side up and shook it. “Nae a winkle in it!”
Calum stared at the empty sack, and was utterly mystified.
It had been full just moments before, sitting at his feet as he’d stared out at the ...
He turned his eyes to the bay.
The sea rock he’d been watching stood empty.
“Da’s nae going to be pleased at a’ when he comes back from Durness this e’en to find the supper pot filled with nae bit more than tatties and kail.”
Fergus was frowning, but the spark in his eyes showed he knew exactly why Calum hadn’t gathered any winkles.
“But I saw her, Fergus. I tell you I did this time! She was just swimming in to meet me on the strand when you called out to me.”
Fergus looked out onto the bay. “Well, then, where is she now?”
Calum shook his head. “I dinna know. You must have frichted her away.”
“Och, lad, you were dreamin’ it, you were, like you a’ways are. ’Tis what Da gets for fillin’ yer heid with all that clan bletheration when you were a wee laddie. I’m for telling you there is no mermaid in these waters. Nae a thing but dead broken ships and the bones of old sailors.”
But Calum knew what he’d seen, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe it had only been a dream. How could it have when it had looked so real, when
had looked so real?
“She was there, I tell you, Fergus. I know she was. I was standing at the strand just waiting for her ...”
“But I found you here, lad, lying in the
Calum glanced down to where the grass was still flattened from the weight of him. He shook his head. “It canna have been a dream ...”
Fergus ruffled Calum’s dark head with one great hand. “Och, lad, the sound of the sea is a powerful thing. You were sitting ’ere all alone with the sun warming yer face and it tempted you to sleep, ’tis all. ’Tis time to put it ahind you, for we’ve only anither hour o’ daylight to try to gether up some winkles for tha’ stew pot. Let’s get to it, aye?”
Calum took up his sack in a swipe of pure adolescent frustration as he started down the hill above the loch, behind his brother.
Fergus was probably right. There was likely no more a mermaid in that bay than there was a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. They were only stories, meant to while away the hours of long winter nights by the glowing light of the peat fire. They nurtured the Scots imagination and filled lads’ heads with grand and fanciful thoughts. But Calum was no longer a lad. He was a man. It was time he gave up on grand and fanciful things such as mermaids and magical charmed stones. It was time he came to accept that, much as he wanted, he might never know the answer to the question that had followed him through all his life:
Just who was the true Mackay?
He knew in his heart that he was Mackay through and through, and that was all that should ever matter. So he decided right then he was never going to come back to that stoop and waste foolish hours, waiting and hoping for a glimpse of something that just didn’t exist.
Squaring his lean shoulders, he went on in Fergus’s wake, kicking at stones and swiping at the tall reedy marram with his fist. Until one last wind swept in off the bay to tease the trailing end of his plaid. Calum hesitated, for on that wind he swore he’d heard a song, a siren’s song ...
... the song of the mermaid.
“It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves—in finding themselves.”
19 May 1747
My last day in Paris.
The sky above the rooftops is bright, perfectly blue, and dappled with tufts of fat white clouds. I close my eyes and the air is soft with the mingling scents I’ve so come to love, morning breezes, roses in bloom, and baguettes just pulled from hot brick ovens. The birds are nattering beneath the shady boughs of the chestnut trees like ladies gossiping over afternoon tea. And I can hear the children laughing, playing at quoits in an adjacent courtyard, while somewhere, someone is performing a ballad upon the harpsichord ...
Lady Isabella Drayton lifted her pen from the vellum page of her journal, and sighed. Springtime in Paris. Could there be anything else quite like it in the world?