Rickle O Bones by Anna Stewart
It wis a November night when I foond the bodies on the bank o the river; a heap o puffy faces and frost-patched heids. A wumman wha birthed while the boat wis sinkin lay face doon on the rocks, her blue skinned bairn wis attached by its cord and swayed back and forrit on the waves tryin tae reach her. I picked the boy up then rolled his Mither ower and laid him on her breest, no that it mattered. Among the deid I saw some kin o motion, a limb that twitched, an ee that moved tae meet mine: a survivor. I reached oot and pulled a man fae the watter. He breathed shallow, but I kent he wis livin.
We’re river fowk and peaceful maistly, but this is nae land o milk and honey. Even so, fowk fleein war try tae reach these shores and they wash up frozen, we'd never had a live ain; until this man – a piece o treasure. I thought aboot my Mary and the bairn in her belly, and I kent this streenger wis a blessin.
I lifted him fae the docks tae toon and his trainers squeaked thegither aw the road. In the square I shouldo rung the bell so ither men could come and deal wi the bodies; bring twine and sacks. Had it been a normal night, we'd o had mair Watchers. But that night awbody wis drinkin coz o the shipment o vodka, so I waited afore ringing the bell, let them celebrate, and it bided me time till I got the man hame.
Inside, I laid him oot in front o Mary and we stripped him, she washed the salt fae his body and dressed him in my clathes. We heated the hoose, and covered him wi blankets. Mary lifted his heid and tried tae feed him broth but his mooth wis clamped shut, so she rubbed his lips wi a bit wattery cloot, so's he didna die fae thirst. Mary and me sat at the table and watched him. He wis lang, built fir walkin, and he'd a colour o hair I'd never seen afore. Withoot the batterin fae war he'd resemmle a lad o twinty-five mebbe.
The next day, I’d tae go doon the smokehoose but when I came hame, Mary telt me that he'd wakened. He wis streenge. He said wirds auld fashioned like a Soothmoother. S'pose that's what happens when fowk get separated coz o the elements, yi forget what ither wirds soond like. That night we lay in bed and Mary telt me what he'd spoken; how he'd peyed tae get on a raft wi his sister's money coz they'd heard up North there wis meat fir eatin. He asked aboot his sister, but Mary didna hae the hert tae tell him what happens tae bodies that wash up on oor shores. He told her his sister's name: Li-leth, and Mary said the wird ower and ower coz she liked the tune o it in her mooth.
I kent she felt sorry fir the streenger but it wis hard fir me tae join in wi her thinkin, when aw alang I'd a plan in my mind o what I'd dae wi him. I telt her it wis her work tae keep him weel. She thought I wis a good man, so she didna query my intention.
We've just ain room here, so the streenger had tae go in oor cellar even though it’s some pairt rotten wi damp. Mary went doon everyday tae feed him and weeks went by he started gainin strength, so I sent a message tae Tamhas Raibert, the maist moneyed man in Dundee. There's a circle o fowk that live in the West o toon, they come in their fancy gear the day efter a wreck tae buy the best cuts. That lot dinna wait fir smokin, they want it fresh as it comes.
Raibert visited at night, Mary haedna kent tae expect him and wis surprised tae greet a man like that in oor hame. Her glower wis askin me questions, but she couldnae say onythin in front o him.
Yi ken a moneyed man coz they're ains wi shakes fae eatin brain, they think it’s the best o meat but it gies them disease. Mary gave Raibert a cup o vodka and it wis hard watchin his haund try tae reach his mooth, and the splutterin wey he supped.
"Whar is he?" he asked.
I pointed at the flair.
"Thocht yid keep him tae yirsel?"
"Wis me wha foond him."
"That's no very community minded, dae yir neighbours ken yiv meat alive?"
I haudit his stare, coz I believed then I wis a man withoot much tae lose. He wiped his mooth wi the back o his haund, and his chair rattled. He looked roond the room then at Mary's belly,
"Ach but, Eh'd dae the same in yir situation. Yiv done the right thing comin tae me. Much beef's on the bone?"
I turned and saw Mary's face full o horror.
"See yirsel" I said, "Eh'll take yi doon the nou."
We went undergrund, and Mary follaed. The man stood in a corner; his muscles tightened coz he wis aboot tae move, Raibert took a step closer and laid a haund on his shouder tae calm him, then he stroked up and roond the man’s napper wi shaky fingers,
"A good sized heid but the body's no much pickins. Keep him jis noo, and get wird tae me when there's mair on him."
He reached in his coat and haundit me a poke o money,
Mary gret coz she understood nou, this streenger wis a delicacy. But when yi make a deal wi Tamais Raibert, yi better keep yir end o it. How wis I tae ken what she'd dae?
That night wis the first I’d tae tether the man. We lay in bed and listened tae his moans aneath wir heids. The next mornin Mary went tae feed him and he flung the plate and retched at wir dried meats. But somewey, ower days she managed tae calm him so he’d eat. Wi no much violence on my pairt, we made him tame. When I wis doon the smokehoose wirkin, Mary’d be speakin wirds wi him. I'd come back and see them thegither and I thought she wis doin it fir me – makin a freend o him, coz there wis nae goin back wi Tamais Raibert.
Weeks went by, and Mary's belly came tae be filled wi oor bairn. I noticed a cheenge in her, she stopped leukin me in the ee, and nights she didna like my haunds on her. Then some o her wirds came oot like his: Soothern. I noticed she wis giein him things, she knitted socks fir him fae wool that wis meant fir the bairn, she gave him an auld ganzey o mine, and I thought she musto been lichten him fires coz my axe had been moved fae the hack-block.
Then came the night I wis hame early, and she wisnae happy I wis back. I went doonstair and saw she'd loosened his ropes so's he could move aboot and he wis on the flair in exercise, biggin his muscle. I wondered how lang she'd been lettin him dae that, and why he'd stayed when he couldo easily broke free? I wondered aboot her and him, and aw that time they'd been speakin. What did they speak aboot onywey? He wis an ootlin.
It wis time tae get him taken awa. I gave him the taser and a good kickin. I tied his ropes, then came up and put my smart coat on fir walkin the West o toon. Mary said, "Whar yi goin in that?"
"It's time he went"
"Yir bringin Raibert the night?"
I nodded, and she ran doonstair. I went oot, then haufweys up the street I heard her bawl, "There wis nae need tae kick him, you!"
I walkit alang Blackness tae Raibert's hoose and wis invited in by his man. Raibert wis in the back room leukin oot a windae at a rarebird diggin the stairved earth, "It's been howkin that bit an oor," he said, "must be some creature livin unnerneath."
I stood in the lobby no wantin tae drag my muddy boots on the flair. He turned and smiled, his wallies shiftin in his mooth,
"Yir meat’s ready then? Wi'll away and get it the nou."
Ootside, stood his car and three o his men. I wis tae go in the vehicle wi them, and I'd a sinkin in my belly, I hate sittin my airse in they things; a man's feet should be stappin the grund in motion, no ensnared by machines. We traivelt the Perth Road, and aw alang Raibert twisted beads through his fingers and dragged releegious wirds deep up fae his throat.
When we arrived, Mary didna raise her een fir Raibert or his men. But she gazed at me – the door tae the cellar wis wide open and I kent then: the streenger wis gone. I went doonstair and saw the room empty, Raibert’s feet clunked on the steps behind uz,
"Yir wife's a bonnie wumman, but she must be daft. She’s let yi doon."
He turned and climbed the stairs again, scunnert.
I wis shamed, we’ve only peace in Dundee coz o men like Raibert and his forebeirs. I kent my wife wis different fae me, but I haedna imagined her tae be fuilish and seempatheesin. Raibert would make us pey. I looked roond fir a weapon but I'd cleared awthing when I first brought the streenger in, and my taser wis on its cleek. Mary screamed: I ran up the steps but they grabbed uz afore I could reached her, I felt a shock o heat through my body, then the wid o the flair; my ribs, back, belly and heid aw dinged wi pain, and Mary wis thrashin aboot – Raibert’s haunds on her in violence. There wis a breeze nou and I felt my heid bump across grund, I wis ootside – dragged the road, and when finally we stopped, I saw the smokehoose.
Raibert rung the bell in the square and fowk came oot their hames tae look fae a distance; feart but wantin tae see. Fae the grund I watched Raibert’s men drag Mary inside, they’d a bag ower her heid and were tyin twine roond her legs. Thegither, they strung her up and lit the pitfire. My last sight o her, she wis hingin; strands o hair fallin oot fae a jute sack, her belly and my bairn turned upside doon, and her locket blinked a wee reflection o the flames. I got tae crawlin but Raibert’s man dealt uz anither blow and I fell intae a dwaum.
I started fae my sleep in the same spot o dirt ootside the smokehoose. My teeth chattered and body ached; when, by licht o the lamps, I saw Raibert and his men on the grund lying by the pitfire, moanin coz they’d bluid spewin fae wounds looked tae hiv been made by an axe. And the eerie thing wis – the rope Mary’d been hingin fae had been cut doon. I pulled mysel up and searched inside and oot, but she wis gone.
I lifted Raibert’s heid,
“Whar is she?”
He pointed a shakkie finger, I saw a streak o motion in the distance – the streenger, carryin a bundle that musto been my wife, traivelin north. Raibert coughed coz the fume fae the pitfire wis risin. I bolted the doors and let him and his men smoke tae death. Then I follaed, slow as I wis, up the hill.
Seiventeen years I've sairched back and forrit the tract o land atween Tealin Hill and Kinnoull. The Sidla parishes have gien hope wi their tales o a roanin faimily wi an ootlin man, wha eat nothin but meat fae rarebirds. Fowk say the bairn wi them is a boy. I've follaed the smoke o fires, and pickins fae food left behind. And I've foond objects o rags and buttons, and things made. But the maist precious I foond wis Mary's locket, and I kent then I wis the right road.
River image by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay