The Knitter

The clicking of her knitting and the soft purrs from the cat beside her raised the room from silence. Even the fire, to which she had added her last peat, was smoking soundlessly. Outside the wind had dropped from the savage storm of the afternoon as if, too, was readying itself for bed.
Her fingers moved themselves along invisible paths in the air, paths they knew so well from years of treading, paths that turned the soft spun fibres into warm, patterned, stockings for others feet to wear when treading much more solid paths.
She had no need for light, save that from the fire, for the moon was full and beaming through the small window at the knitter and her gently breathing cat. Her eyes, no longer as sharp and piercing as in her youth, were not needed for her work so she allowed them to rest and as they did so her mind, which retained those very same qualities that time had drained from her sight, drifted back through the years…
Her father’s voice, as he tended to the nets beside his boat, warning her too late of the wave that bravely ventured further up the shore than its fellows, washing the sand from her feet and wetting the hem of her dress with its cold, salty waters. As the wave slunk back to the sea, it dragged a strand of seaware across her toes and she squealed as the thin fibres tickled at her feet. A laugh from her mother, who was further up the beach, carrying the swathed bundle of her baby brother was joined by one from her father and she, embarrassed by the silliness of a moment before, joined her parents mirth…
The needles clicked on.
The young woman was the first to see the postie approaching. They never got mail, it being of little use to her parents and she not having yet met the friends whose travels would render letters necessary. The man saw her but did not wave, confirming her fears as if any confirmation was required. She ran towards the house, reaching the door just after the man had been greeted by her parents, her father slumping, her mother preparing a tear, and all this before the man had passed the piece of paper to them. All four went inside, her father taking the letter from the postie and a penknife from his pocket, she holding her mother’s hand as tightly as on the day they had waved her brother off, the brother that the letter, which the postie was now reading, confirmed she would never see again…
The needles clicked on.
There were children round her feet, a seemingly endless thicket of nieces and nephews, the fruits of her two much older sisters marriages. She had never asked her parents why there was this gap between the first two girls being born and her own arrival, the five fallow years being those of famine when many a child had perished, some at birth, some due to their mother’s dessication and others through disease and malnutrition. It was something to be borne but not discussed.
The children, for whom being gathered together in one place was a novelty, were excited but respectful. The coffin on the table in the neighbouring room told the story of this rare communion. Her father had died some years earlier, taken by the sea and kept in its unforgiving grip, and now her mother lay next door, her body finally succumbing to the gnawing from within that the knitter had nursed her through for several years. Her mother had blamed herself for her youngest daughter’s spinsterhood but, in truth, the lack of young men since the war and the effect upon her mother of losing her only boy-child in that hateful conflict had turned her away from bearing children.
She had always enjoyed her work and, as she was one of the best-known knitters on the island (her work had even won medals at exhibitions on the mainland), she could provide not only for herself but also for her widowed mother. They had been joined for a while by one of her nieces, partly to help her sister who had recently added another little boy to her family and partly to give the girl training. In fact she had proved a diligent pupil and almost as skilled as her ageing aunt and this, together with her liveliness and loveliness, had meant that she was soon someone’s wife and moved away.
Her mind found the memory of the funeral, the boat journey, the climb across the island and the interment in the ancient burial ground, too traumatic too bear, so it kindly spared her the agony…
The needles clicked on.
The moon had climbed through the night, moving its beams away from the knitter and her cat and exploring further round the room. The peat that had fuelled her memories now lay char-glowed in the grate. The light had dimmed, the warmth of the room had grown, and the bone-like fingers of the knitter had slowed.
The needles fell silent, slipping from the fingers which then gently followed them onto the her lap.
A strand of wool lay across the knitter’s hands, as a strand of seaware had once been lapped across a child’s feet by a wave of long ago…

The Immigrant

Her parents wept as the boat set sail, leaving behind the small fertile land at the head of the fjord on its journey to the open sea. They knew she had to go, to make a new life for herself and her man and the swelling that was growing inside her, but that only dulled the edges of the pangs of near-grief that accompanied her departure.

On board, she too was crying as the two specks on the shore diminished in stature before fading from view forever. The men, pulling on their oars, had each made this same journey to the Southern Isles at least once before. That was how it came to be that her man had persuaded her to leave the place of her family and live in the new lands of open space and fertility for plenty. His descriptions of the shell-sand beaches, the bordering strip of bounteous earth, the rugged rocks and the health and vitality of the peoples there had been the stuff of dreams. But they were not dreams they were real and from all over their icy Northlands young couple just like them were emigrating towards these warmer isles.

The wind was in their favour so the men ceased their rowing, shipped the long oars and raised the single sail. She felt the ship come to life beneath her, a gentle kick just like those that her belly had recently been feeling. She ran a hand over the warm roundness and smiled at the thought of the little boy (it was a boy, the wise-woman of the village had assured her) who quite soon would be playing at her feet outside the new house that her man had already built for them. It was, he told her, in a beautiful spot and they had used the best timbers, brought there from the Northland, to construct the roof. She had been astonished to learn of the lack of trees on this paradise and even more astonished when he had explained how not only roofs but also boats were taken there as packs of pre-cut parts that were then reassembled. It seemed an almost impossible idea and she was sure that in time such practices would die-out.

It was not long before the wind carried them to the mouth of the fjord and, for the first time in her nineteen summers, she saw the open sea. It was as if someone had parted the trees in a forest to reveal the space beyond. No longer did the towering cliffs of the fjord blinker the vista but all the ocean lay before her in a dizzying panorama of sparkling blue-green topped by flecks of white and as far as the eye could see. The ship began to rock a little more in response to the currents and waves below but she was determined not to display any weakness to the men. In fact the rocking of the waves, the gentle breeze at her back and the warm morning sun conspired to lull her into a happy sleep.

When she awoke several hours later and looked around she was shocked to see nothing but the ocean around her. The land, as far as she could tell, had dissolved and the whole world was now her, the men and the ship. She felt a slight panic at this new sensation but when she peered more closely to the side she saw the rippling darkness on the horizon. They were certainly far from land but not so far as to have lost sight of it. This, she knew, was the safest way for ships to travel for the waters here were less troubled by the spirits of the sea and by the rocks and shoals that lay nearer to the shore.

The journey South took several days, partly due to the vast distance involved but also because en-route they were to leave two of the men at their own new homes and collect two replacements who, like them were settling in the new isles. This was a common occurrence and the ‘leapfrogging’ allowed them to combine trade, communication and expansion. She enjoyed seeing the new places and, in one of them, met an older girl from her village who had made the same journey a couple of years earlier. Talking to this happy young mother about living in these new lands was particularly helpful as it convinced her that choosing to join her man in the Southern Isles had been the right decision.

The final leg of the voyage was full of anticipation and, although the sea was particularly rough for a couple of hours, the sight that emerged from the parting storm clouds made any past fears recede. In front of her was a small island and as the ship entered the strip of sea between it and the main island she saw for the first time the seemingly endless beach of pure-white sand, speckled with bright green seaweed and backed by the lush band of crops and the hills beyond. The sun turned the sea into a myriad sparkling mirrors and, as they ship reached the shore, her man put his arm around her waist and said, ‘Welcome to Seilibost.’…

Time to Reflect – a (pre)cautionary tale

He nearly walked straight past it. The stallholder was already wrapping her smaller items in newspaper and packing them into the collection of gaudily assorted plastic crates and the car-boot sale was due to end in half-an-hour. He stopped to tie his shoelace for the umpteenth time. It is a little known fact that some laces are particularly unsuited to left-handers and, for some no-doubt highly complex reason involving the way the lace is woven and the physics of knotting, they steadfastly refuse to remain fixed fast. It was whilst he knelt (bending down to touch his toes was beyond the reach of his middle-aged back) that he saw it. The mirror itself was perhaps no larger than a normal photographic print but the deep, dark elaborate frame was huge. The wood was crisply carved into a rain-forest of leaves and flowers and fruits that was so overwhelming in its design and execution that the small pool of tarnished mirror appeared almost incidental. He finished tying the lace (it was always the left shoe that came undone) and lifted the mirror onto the now nearly cleared table. The spotting on the mirror was caused by the silvering on its rear surface having deteriorated over time but it added to the charm of the piece and the small size of the mirror rendered its reflecting properties somewhat secondary to the decorative function that the frame performed in heady, intoxicating abundance. As it happens, this style was something that usually wouldn’t appeal at all to his taste which was more often attuned towards the Bauhaus, Mackintosh and the generally unflowered form. Nevertheless he found himself enquiring as to the price and the stallholder, one crate short of a cleared trestle, requested twenty English pounds. Normally he would have haggled but instead he handed her the twenty pound note with the words ‘Clydesdale Bank’ printed proudly across its surfaces, picked up the naked frame and returned to his car.

Car, mirror and man survived the journey home, despite him swearing loudly about ‘English pounds’ and reminding himself to replenish the stock of Scottish banknotes that he kept especially to antagonise shopkeepers in England who used the phrase. He took the mirror into the house and placed it on a coffee table. The table was one he’d had made by a female friend who was an extremely talented welder and it replicated in metal one of Mackintosh’s designs. They had designed it to be a prototype but the complexity of the construction taught them not to take the project any further. The whole room was decorated in similar vein and the effect was all the more surprising for visitors who stepped through the door of a seemingly regular Victorian brick and slate terrace and into a world of very un-English design. He hadn’t been too sure until a call from one of the glossy fashion mags offered him a ridiculous amount of money for doing a ‘feature’ on the ‘property’ convinced him that it was all in incredibly bad taste or really rather successful. He gave half the money to his kids and the other half to a candidate in the forthcoming local election. The candidate came last but not without being able to ensure that the neighbourhood was bombarded with literature supporting his cause.

This was the house that the mirror and frame found itself inhabiting and it also soon found itself being carefully dusted with a selection of soft paintbrushes. The man was delighted as the layers of dust were removed and the intricacy of the carving became steadily clearer. It was, quite simply, exquisite. The accuracy of the work resembled that of a diamond cutter and what made it so amazing were the plethora of piercings, many of which had been blocked by grime, that gave the frame almost as much surface on the ‘inside’ as it presented to the world. The back revealed no clues as to age but equally there were no signs of it ever having been removed. The mirror itself, that tiny, almost insignificant rectangle of glass, must be original. A fact that the discolouration amplified in abundance.

There were two metal loops and a piece of elderly, tired cord from which to hang the object but he decided to install some fresh cord rather than risking the glass to the frail health of the existing stuff. This task accomplished, he took the photograph that hung above the fireplace (one of his own images that had won a National competition) from its hook and replaced it with the mirror.

He stood back to better survey the effect and was extremely delighted. The frame was a wall sculpture, a piece of architectural art and the ‘floral’ nature disappeared in a tangle of shapes and shadows, forms and figures that defied description. He almost forgot that it was a mirror. However, as he stepped forward and focussed upon the distressed reflection something very strange happened. He saw his room, the door to the left, the large bay window to the right but the walls were papered in some hideous patterned paper, the floor covered by a large and vibrantly coloured rug, the furniture all dark brown and puffed and very, very large. He blinked. The hideous picture was still there, but now there was a man standing at the window and a woman sat sewing in the adjacent seat. He turned from the mirror and the room returned to normal. He turned back and the couple and their furnishings sat within the forest frame. Entranced, he watched as the couple conversed but suddenly the image began to fade and the pockmarks, whose disappearance he had neglected to notice, returned to disfigure the mirror. He sat. He had to sit for he had nearly collapsed in shock. Either he was ill, going mad (possibly both) or the mirror was, well, magical. He sat. And thought. He decided that he would not look at the mirror but would take it into the dining room, hang it there and see what happened. This he did but when he looked into the mirror he saw a range with pots on it, more hideous décor and all the trappings of the kitchen that it once had been. There were no people this time but he was sure he smelt something cooking. He looked away from the mirror and examined the frame intently. The strange foliage writhed this way and that, flowers and fruits displayed in their profusion and then he noticed it. A very small flower in the bottom right hand corner, tucked away towards the rear of the frame but with twelve petals and upon each petal five striations and, surrounding this flower, an almost circular leaf that had a curious notch like a tiny caterpillar bite. He reached forward to the flower, took it gently between his forefinger and thumb and applied some gentle force. The flower rotated. It notched its way around, each time stopping as a new striation aligned with the caterpillar’s blemish and as it did so the image in the mirror changed. He was rotating the dial clockwise and as he did so the mirror’s reflection revealed a new novelty until, after half a full turn, the room was lit by gas light, the crockery on the dresser was of finer quality, the range had shrunk in size and the ceiling gained in stains. It was still the past, but a more recent past, a more modern past, a newer past. The mirror had taken him forward in time, no, the mirror’s image had moved forward in time. He renewed his grip on the flower-dial and rotated it against the clock, against the flow of time and watched as, turn by turn, the mirror took him back until bare, unplastered walls and a roofless void appeared; still further and the walls melted into sky and trees and grass; further and the ground buckled and heaved and water came and went, creatures swam past, primeval forests sped into view before, as his fingers felt the flower stiffen, the rocks themselves melted and he felt himself sinking into the molten warmth.

The fire-fighter said he was lucky. It was only because of the stranger in the window (‘Dressed rather weird like’) that the lady over the road had dialled 999 and, when the police broke in, they had nearly choked on the fumes from the leaking boiler. The intruder was nowhere to be found but the man had been discovered lying on the dining room floor amongst the fragments of glass and wood from the smashed mirror. Oh, and there was a funny smell, an odd mixture of boiled rabbit and sulphur but they couldn’t find where it had come from…

seallaidh-tìre (landscape – a poem, perhaps)

…ice-scoured tongue-scape rising from the sea. Each Gaelic-gifted name-place, of hill, of river, of beach, of bay, of headland, of pass, of time, of space smooth-softened into place. Feet treading paths populated by ghosts, spirits of the land guiding exploration. Low, broad walls whose turf-topped tracks bounded by mortar-less concentric bands of stone stubbornly refuse to fall. Roofless, lifeless testament of attempted genocide.
See? Where? Sea-ware. Kelp-skelped. Ruin.
Children of the Norse clinker-carried upon the sea, cast adrift to cast line, net and pot for salt-seasoned harvest, many themselves cast into the boiling sea. Husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, nephews lie scattered round the shore. Sacrificial homage paid in exacting price.
Fisher, Fissure, Craic, Crack.
Gneiss, niece of granite, rocks of ages, rocks of eons, rocks of cradles. Peat, moss, heather, moor, run the rig no more. Lazily the rippled land sprouts forth small yielding. Blight. Famine. Laud the land. In ports, import of grain, sustain, but emigration’s this season’s crop. Seven-hundred souls. A fair return? (no return).
Pest-i-cide, gen-o-cide, you-de-cide. Clear a path. Clear a way. Clear away. Clearance
Clock chimes the quarter
Quarter the clans
Cull them.
Clearance. Clear rants. Clear rats. Like vermin.
Factor in the Factor. Blame is absent. Landlord is absent. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Factor in greed. Blame apportioned. Lord it over the landless. Nature has no dominium.
till the land
reveals bones long-buried.
cleaving, displacing,
overturning communities.
Improvement. Impoverishment. Chart the ice-scoured tongue-scape…

Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo:

A Study in Social Morphology
Marcel Mauss 1904/5

I recall being sufficiently fascinated by this Durkheimian piece of Sociology as to elect to write an undergraduate essay about it. The phenomenon that Mauss was examining was that of the people living in large communal houses during the Winter and then dispersing into nuclear family units for the Summer. The details of what he discovered are beyond the scope of this current piece, but  ‘A recent study of 183 societies supports the hypothesis ‘that different types of rites and the elaborateness of public rituals are determined by social density’

What I’m pondering at this moment are possible/probable Norse origins of ‘seasonal transhumance’ in the Western Isles (the use of summer shielings) and possible links to patterns of ritual behaviour that exist to this day.

Is the traditional pattern of biannual Communion services on the isles vestigial evidence of pre-christian rituals, one at the end of Winter and the other at the end of Summer, that were originally ‘determined by social density’ which varied during the year?

These ‘Communion Seasons’ are spread out over several days and are literally a ‘coming-together’ of families from all over the world to participate in a manner reminiscent of Mauss’s study.

That study of 183 societies suggests that we would expect to see some sign of seasonal variations in rituals on the isles, whether or not the communion practices are truly an example remains to be shown.

16/05/2010, 05/16/2010 or 2010/05/16?

A friend recently commented on Word altering, for example, the ‘4th of June’ to the ‘6th of April’ and this stimulated me to explore further into the history of calendar dates:

There is an article here on the Swiftian ‘battle’ between the UK ‘Littlendians’, the USA ‘Muddledendians’ and the Asian ‘Bigendians’:

The question as to when and why the USA opted for ‘July 4, 1776’ (as it is written on the Declaration of Independence) is interesting and some suggestions are to be found here:

The film ‘Born On The Fourth of July’ should, of course, have been ‘Born On July Fourth’ and a clue is to be found here , for it comes from the song ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ by George Michael Cohen.

The song is probably best-known from the 1942 film ‘Yankee Doodle Dandle’ where it is sung by James Cagney and from that performance it is better-known as ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’.

So, if the format ‘Month/Day/Year’ was indeed a symbolic act of defiance, then one of America’s best-known patriotic songs strangely overlooked that point, or did it?

I have an 18thC Scottish periodical before me, dated ‘Wednesday, March 7, 1792′  (the same format as the Declaration of Independence) and the very first article talks of someone who ‘was born the 26th January 1707’, indicating different formats used  in different contexts, as deemed appropriate, whether in the USA or the UK.

No wonder there’s now an International Standard:

ISO 8601 has today as 2010-05-16…

…but it remains ‘The 16th of May 2010’, in correct English!