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Authors: Karin Altenberg

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Island of Wings

BOOK: Island of Wings
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Copyright © 2011 Karin Altenberg

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This edition published in 2011 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina
Avenue, Suite 801
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017


Altenberg, Karin, 1974-
Island of wings / Karin Altenberg.

eISBN 978-1-77089-051-0

I. Title.
PT9877.1.L846I85 2011     839.73'8     C2011-903475-1

Library of Congress Control Number: 2010924089

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk
Cover art: woman © clayton bastiani / trevillion images; feather ©

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing
program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.


that wing white and low

that also leeward go

go leeward to the tor-lands

where the tin-veins maculate the fire-rocks

The birds

have a home

in those rocks.

David Jones,
The Anathemata

The swan's blare

my seldom amusement; for men's laughter

there was curlew-call, there were the cries of gannets,

for mead-drinking the music of the gull.

To the storm striking the stone cliffs

gull would answer, eagle scream

from throats frost-feathered. No friend or brother

by to speak with the despairing mind.

The Seafarer
, translated by Michael Alexander

To cry to the sea

that roared to us;

to sigh to the winds, whose pity, sighing back again, did us but loving wrong.

The Tempest



The young woman rose from her berth almost before she heard the knock on the cabin door. ‘The Reverend asks for you, ma'am,' called the deckhand. ‘He wants you to come up on deck.' The English was awkward on his tongue.

She could not remember how long she had been lying there, fully clothed. Her new travelling dress of light tweed was unpleasantly damp from the salty air and she felt queer and sad as if she had missed part of a day – or a life. Had she been asleep? She had been deeply immersed in something, a drowning or a dream where mythical sea creatures had been calling to her from the deep. She leaned against the worn timber of the cabin wall as she let the last of the nothingness dissolve around her. As the nausea cleared she squinted and looked around the dim cabin. There was a chipped enamel bucket half-full of sickness on the floor next to her feet; she looked away in humiliated disgust as she decided not to accept it as her own. Grateful to be alone with her shame and this filth she made a mental note to ask the lad to wash it out before her husband noticed. She attempted to smooth her uncompromising hair but knew, even without a mirror glass, that she was ugly.

The boy called again. The cabin floor was still at an angle and the timbers were moaning, but everything seemed to be relatively stable. She recognised a few of their possessions which had been strewn across the coarse floorboards and wondered about the child inside her; what must it be like in there? The baby was floating in its own ocean, which would have been very choppy indeed as the seasickness set in. She smiled wryly as she made for the companion ladder, hoping her child was a better sailor than herself.

The wind had died and the rough sea had softened, a dark flickering of mercury upon the swell. The skies rested heavily on the horizon, gravid with rain that would not fall for days, not until it reached the Long Isle and the world beyond: the world that was still real to those who had stayed behind. Somewhere in the west a thin band of light was breaking through the North Atlantic mist, dyeing it the colour of old sheets.

The grey uniformity of the world around the ship was almost as nauseating as the rolling waves of some hours ago – but this time, as she reached the deck, she managed to steady herself. They were two days out of Oban and it was on leaving the Sound of Harris and Pabbay behind early that morning that the sea had roughened and sent her below decks.

Her husband, the Reverend Neil MacKenzie, was standing with Captain MacLeod and Mr Bethune, the taxman's representative, by the starboard. The three men had removed their hats and were scanning the sky in boyish excitement. Mrs MacKenzie stumbled across the deck to join them and breathed again as one hand grasped the bulwarks, the other one protecting her stomach.

‘Lizzie – look, look out there!' said her husband pointing eagerly as he saw her by his side, and then, embarrassed at the exposed intimacy of his exclamation, he started again in a more sober way, ‘Can you see the big bird out there? It's a mollymawk, an albatross blown here by yesterday's southerly storm.' She followed the line of her husband's index finger and looked up through the rigging and the canvas, which was limp and passive now where before it had bulged and shuddered. The sky was milky and the light hurt her eyes at first; and then she saw it – a lonely cruciform shape high above the mast. Suddenly it dropped and swooped alongside the length of the ship, its huge white wingspan and black-backed body slashing the mist in a soundless dive.

‘Ah,' she gasped as the majestic bird with its beautifully domed head seemed to look at them from under dark brows. ‘What is it? I have never seen such a bird before; will it hurt us?' Captain MacLeod looked at her and laughed. ‘Don't you worry, Mrs MacKenzie. It is the king of the ocean travellers. Some seamen say it is the reincarnated soul of a lost sailor who watches over us living ones.' The Captain lowered his voice to a theatrical whisper. ‘They say it should be hailed in God's name or it could decide to bring bad luck upon us.' He made the sign of the cross and winked at her.

‘But did you see its eyes, Captain? They look so stern and displeased,' she replied anxiously as they watched the bird glide elegantly over the top of the waves.

‘Only a superstitious fool would believe that the bird carries a human soul,' said the Reverend with a short laugh.

‘Perhaps,' agreed the Captain, ‘but the lore of the sailor is as ancient as the sea. We may do worse than to let it serve as a reminder of the burden of humankind, of all our sins and shortcomings.'

The Reverend looked up after the departing albatross, his gaze suddenly dark and distant. ‘Yes, in this you are right, Captain, we must always be prepared to recognise a source of penance and the possibility of redemption.' Lizzie winced at the unfamiliar tone of her husband's voice, and Captain MacLeod examined the Reverend's face with a serious expression.

They were all quiet for a moment as they watched the albatross bank westwards. ‘I believe it is taking our course; it has come to guide us to the islands – it is a good omen indeed!' said Mr Bethune to ease the mood, and the Reverend, suddenly sweet again, looked up and laughed with him, ‘Indeed, Mr Bethune, indeed.' But Mrs MacKenzie remained serious as she said, ‘Let us hope also, Mr Bethune, that it brings some fortune to the natives of this island – I hear they are poor and wretched.'

‘Poor, madam? The St Kildans want for nothing. Their bairns are better fed than any of the children on the Long Isle and their clothes are warm and tough,' answered Mr Bethune. ‘But they could do with some spiritual guidance that is for sure. Your task is truly noble, Reverend,' he added dryly, and spat over the side.

The Reverend did not seem to have heard the light tone of sarcasm in Mr Bethune's voice. His earlier spell of bad mood seemed to be gone. ‘My friend the Rev. Dr John MacDonald of Ferintosh, who has visited the islands several times, tells me that they are a fine people, remarkably innocent but closer to the ancient soul of the Gael than to the moral codes of our civilisation. They carry the simple faith of the peasant,' said the Reverend importantly. ‘I knew as soon as I heard about them that they were my calling,' he added with poise.

‘Well, I say! That call must have been mighty strong to be carried so far on the Atlantic winds,' Mr Bethune said gleefully. ‘There is no other place in the Empire as remote as St Kilda, and the inhabitants are as savage as the naked blacks in the King's territories in Australia. I know nothing of their faith, but I tell you this: I'm happy as long as they pay their taxes so that my Lord of the Isles can sleep well in a feather bed.'

‘You occupy yourself with the material life of the St Kildans, Mr Bethune. I have been chosen by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge to deal with their spiritual life, and I will not let them down,' the minister said firmly, hoping that his steady gaze would convince the rather impudent older man of his formidable authority in the matter.

‘Let us hope that your calling will be as spiritually satisfactory to the missus when the winter storms set in,' Mr Bethune muttered coarsely in reply, and turned to cross the deck.

‘I must be grateful to you, Mr Bethune, for your encouragement and concern.' This time it was MacKenzie's turn to sound sarcastic as he addressed Mr Bethune's departing back.

Lizzie studied her husband, who was deep in his own thoughts. She did not like the way in which Mr Bethune had spoken to him – and the revenue man had a most disagreeable countenance. Her husband, on the other hand, was a handsome man. Even with his dark hair tousled and matted by the sea air he looked elegant in his black minister's coat and white cravat. He was taller and leaner than the Captain, who remained at his side, and the scholarly pallor of his skin made him look dignified. To think that she had married a minister! That she was a minister's wife, and that they were sailing towards their manse. She could hardly believe it. Her sister, Annie, had laughed when she heard about the engagement, saying that Lizzie would become as dowdy as Mary Roberts's sister Peggy, who had married the minister in Kilbride. Peggy was no longer allowed to come to tea parties or the Hogmanay dance, and she wore dark dresses with high collars and long sleeves even at the height of summer, but, worst of all, her hair had gone all dull and greasy as she wasn't allowed to wash it in vinegar on a Sunday morning. Her minister husband had told her that if she didn't stop her vanity she would be dancing in the fire of Gehenna next! Lizzie had shivered a bit for the fate of Peggy Roberts, who had had such beautiful hair at school, but she told Annie that this Neil MacKenzie was not like the minister of Kilbride – he was modern, and both handsome and courteous. Her cheeks coloured as she recalled how he had looked at her when they first met at the house of Mr Grant, where he had served for a while as a tutor to the younger children. Perhaps Annie was just a bit jealous of her; the thought struck Lizzie for the first time. Annie was two years older and maybe it was not easy to have a younger sister who was getting married to a handsome minister, who had studied at the university in Glasgow – a sister who would soon be the mistress of a manse!

Lizzie had seen Annie kiss James Hamilton, the publican's son, in the alley at the back of the pub in Love Street, like a common factory girl. She wondered if Annie was in love with James, who was as strong as his father and could carry a barrel of beer on his shoulder. He was a charming and cheerful fellow, and they had known him all their lives, but surely Annie could do better? Their own father had made some money in the recent building boom, and they had both been given schooling. Their household was respectable, Lizzie reckoned, yes, quite respectable, and even the Mayor's wife had called on them once or twice.

She thought of her husband again. She had overheard Dr John MacDonald, the man they called ‘the Apostle of the North', telling another man at the ordination ceremony the previous year that ‘MacKenzie has the zeal and mind that will make him go far'. She suddenly thought of her own inadequacy – she was ignorant of most things, she suspected, and, although she had never told anyone, she was not sure if she could believe in God in the right way, if at all. She was changing too fast, like the world that she observed around her. How could she not be ignorant and un­educated when everything that she learned altered the constellation of the things she already knew? The nature of her thoughts was her greatest weakness, Miss Gilchrist had told her at school; they made her mind spongy as they whisked around. She must learn to separate the real world from the world of her imagination. She had tried to tell Miss Gilchrist that she was afraid that her life would be too dull without the romanticising, that life would never be quite good enough if she was just herself – that somehow she would always be found wanting.

She was not sure if her husband knew of her weaknesses. She tried to hide them as best she could. Sometimes she would agree with things he was saying although she did not know what he was talking about, and on occasion he had looked at her as if the thoughts she expressed were not her own. Ah, she was painfully ordinary! And then there was the matter of her appearance – her hair was impossible, curly and unmanageable, not at all shiny and sleek like Peggy Roberts's had been before she married the minister of Kilbride. She was quite sure that her complexion was not as fair as that of the ladies her husband would have encountered in Glasgow, but, on the other hand, Annie said she had a fine figure and he seemed keen enough to hold her in the dark. Lizzie sighed unhappily; would anyone ever be able to find beauty in her?

However, she must not forget that she was fortunate all in all, and she carried his baby – their baby – a creation of both their bodies. At that moment, as if in response to her thoughts, she felt the baby move inside her and she reckoned that she may yet begin to understand her purpose in this marriage.

The Reverend was staring hard into the melancholy grey air. The lull of the vessel as it moved slowly through the limitless seascape was making him sleepy and his thoughts were retreating deep into his head. He had not been at sea for over ten years, not since the night when William MacKillop drowned. He did not wish to think of Will now. He had met Will's father in Lamlash the previous April as the
left for Canada. Old MacKillop had come from Glen Sannox, along with the other families that had been cleared from their village by the laird, who had turned the arable land into grazing. MacKenzie had not told his relatives that he would be at Lamlash to see the ship off, but old MacKillop had spotted him in the crowd and come up to greet him.

‘I know you favour the modern ways now, son, but we are going out there to Canada to continue living the life we know. Our kin in Megantic County tell us that in spite of the name the old language is spoken in Nova Scotia and the traditional ways are honoured. This old land of ours is for the sheep now, they say, and man has no place in it.' He laughed bitterly.

MacKenzie did not reply, and after a moment's contemplation the old man added in a softer voice, ‘Pray for my boy's soul, minister. I leave young William behind with a bit of my heart.'

MacKenzie nodded mutely and avoided his gaze. The old man sighed and stooped to pick up a bundle at his feet. As he stood up again he seemed taller than before and his shadow fell over MacKenzie as he said in a low voice, ‘He was a good sailor and a good swimmer too, my lad. You were the last one to see him alive and the only one to know how he died. Aye, you can pray for his soul – you who lived to be a minister with a fine black coat and all.'

The Rev. Alexander MacKay, who had escorted his congregation to the ship, preached a sermon as the group from Glen Sannox boarded: ‘Casting all your care upon Him for He careth for you.' Neil watched from a distance as the last of his kin embarked and left Scotland forever.

But their exodus had nothing to do with him – had he not left the village a long time ago to spread the Gospel? Neil MacKenzie had read
The Wealth of Nations
and knew well that in order to build a new society for Scotland it was vital to remove the obs­tacles that hinder the natural progress of economic change and social order. This is what he had been taught at university, and he believed that it was the only way to a modern society based on moral and scientific achievement. The new world would be created to make way for advanced human happiness. He himself would like to add faith as one of the founding pillars of that new society, and it worried him that his teachers had not seemed too concerned with it, nor did it feature much in the
Edinburgh Review,
which must undoubtedly be the reading matter for any man with ethical and intellectual aspirations, such as himself. Perhaps the great intellectuals in Edinburgh considered faith to be such a basic principle of society that it was not worth mentioning. The thought was comforting and he felt encouraged by his own reasoning.
There was nothing I could do to stop it.

BOOK: Island of Wings
8.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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