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Blackbird, blackbird. Blackbird, blackbird.
Water is always moving, even when it is still. Sunlight dances in wavelets. Wind dances in whirling sprees. Holy, sacred, cleansing, healing. I remembered the rippling stillness when I was put to a chair, feet strapped apart, hands strapped down. Ishbal came to the pond in the grove to be alone with the songs. I came to the water to be alone with my wee one, to think through the questions.
While I looked in the black lapping I found Hugh’s black eyes, roving over me – the eyes I found roving over other girls till I stopped caring. Fie. They have done enough wrong that can’t be made right. That is what my mother told me. I do not question that. But I should have questioned her when she put me in the black carriage to visit the home of my Auntie Doilag on the Black Isle. The carriage that took me from my home did not bring me to my auntie’s croft.
I saw the grey mass rising up from the hill cleft from a long way off, looming even over the stany crags and braes. I felt the spires long before I saw them needling into sky. Craig Dunain is a heavy spectre. It allows no questions.
I tried to take my mind off my needs, to stop the vomit gurgling in the depths of my belly, by imagining inside the heavy brick walls. I saw high painted walls, high banisters smooth, chestnut, polished like the inside of a lady’s house. I saw tapestries in my mind. I walked up the stone steps into the cathedral in Inverness once. I couldn’t take the stone height into my eyes – it was that large, reverent. It made me feel in my heart that the world is larger than I ever thought before. I had hopes that the ceiling inside Craig Dunain would sweep to the sky like the ceiling of a cathedral.
As I stepped out of the carriage, carrying myself like a rucksack, a man dressed in a rough white jacket and white trousers took my arms. He hustled me through the heavy oak door. I thought, “I have never been inside a castle before.” But for all the grand entrance and the greatness, it made me feel the size of a rag doll in a world no bigger than a black house.
A gentleman took my hand and at the same time shooed the men away. He was decked out in a white coat same as a butcher’s apron. His full blond moustache quivered under little wire spectacles. He did not look like a man used to working with his hands. “Jeannie, welcome to Craig Dunain,” he said, holding my hand in one of his and stroking it with the other. “Thank you for coming to us to cure your disease.”
“I don’t have a disease,” I told him bravely. “I have a wee one.”
His face curdled in disgust. “Lewdness is a disease,” he said firmly. “It is caused when the hysterogenic zones take control of the mind and the body. The female mind is particularly prone.”
He patted my lower stomach and then held his hand still. “It all begins in reproductive tract,” he said. His hand pressed until it hurt and I felt the vomit gushing up. Not the way that Hugh had pressed me. “When you are rid of your disease, Jeannie, then you may go home.”
I breathed in sharply; he looked pleased. “There, there, Jeannie. Ach, look around you! You’re a lucky lass. A century past, you would have been cast out of a village like your own.”
He looked at me squarely and sighed, looking me up and down. I thought of my father with his hard black eyes. I thought of the Bible and I thought of Hugh. Let him who is without fault throw the first stone, I thought. Let him come to Craig Dunain.
“But we have hope for you, lass,” he said. “That is why you are here. I’ll see you Friday morning.” He opened the door and raised his hand. “Orderly?”
A man appeared. He took my arm and squeezed it too tight. His face was covered with a crop of pink warts. He brought me to the door of the female ward and a woman with drooping cheeks and drooping eyes met me. She shut the hall door and shoved a rough grey jumper to me. I took off my yellow pinafore and handed it to her. “Naw,” she said. She looked me over. “Strip.” She looked me right round like a sheep.
“Ya can call me Nurse,” she said. “Ah don’t like a get too cozy with the loonies.”
Once I put the grey rag on, feeling like I was wearing nothing but sackcloth and ashes, Nurse led me up, up, up the stairs – so many stone steps, I was panting. I’d had nothing in my stomach since the porridge that morning, but I felt the sickness welling up my throat. My tongue was too thick to talk. She pointed to the loo and I hustled in. It smelled worse than the fish blood on the wharf of the Firth. I pitched everything inside of me and more. A gaggle of heads poked in the door tittering and giggling. Some did nothing but stare.
One girl approached me when I stood up and tottered to the bucket of water in the corner. She was taller than me, with green eyes and dark hair that stood out and up in places. “Let me help you love,” she said, all hoarse. “I’m Ishbal.”
Ishbal led me to the ward, to the bed next to hers. I felt too tired to care why or how it was empty in the tightly packed room and in I climbed. She smoothed my hair and sang to me, a song half in the Gaelic, half in English. I stayed there till the next morning, when my stomach made me get up with the others, even though I didn’t know if I could keep the watery porridge down.
After breakfast the grey lot grouped into three lines, disheveled rows of lolling heads and wandering eyes. Ishbal told me to stay with her, so I faded in behind her. One line cleaned the halls. Heaven knows what that line ran into. One line gardened. Our line washed. We saw a world of sick there right enough.
Ishbal’s broad face lit up as she scrubbed the soiled sheets. Under her breath she sang an old melody, about a lady in a creek washing shrouds. I asked her where it came from. “My granny taught me,” she said. “The washerwoman comes before death,” she said, looking at me. “I seen her before. And I seen her here at the Duck Pond.”
I thought of the tale, the lady in white who appears washing shrouds in a creek before a death. My mother came upon her once in the darking pool at twilight. Her father, laird of Rosehall, died the next morning.
“There, there, scrub your fears away,” Ishbal said to the view, her eyes were caught behind me. She launched into a singsong chat echoing the birdcalls until the sheets hung snapping about in the wind. I followed Ishbal’s humming, singing grey body, wind grasping hair, through the grounds in the last bit of sunshine to the Duck Pond. She stared at her reflection, swaying and singing. I sat on the bank, worn through, clinging to her song in my fog of shock.
As I stared I saw the depths of the pool where I used to sit and I broke through the clamour of exhaustion, looking beyond and not hearing the wails and grunts of the other poor souls who made this home. Old Janet told me that a drink of the healing water from St. Maelrhuba’s Well on the crannog in Loch Shin will find a lost mind. You bind the body with ropes, starve the body, walk the body round the well three times, and plunge it in the water three times. Take the poor soul away from the sight of the loch by the first glint of sun, leaving only one bright shiny penny in the well. I have my mind right here. It’s only my home that was lost.
In the ward we were never alone. Bed after bed after bed stretched in a row like herring at the monger’s. Each one flush with a woman pocked by the ghosts of the past, the ghouls of the present. Nurse sat at the end of the room, eyes on all of us.
I rathered her eyes than the eyes of the doctor. I received the honour of the penetration of his eyes once a week, every Friday morning, and every other time he sent the orderly for me. They said it was for the sake of the wee one. I was behind brick walls; I was not sixteen; but I remembered the ways of the world. He looked for more than the wee one.
The first morning he took my hand and brought me to a skeleton in the corner of the room. He pointed with his finger up between the bony legs and then patted the part below the belly. “The reproductive tract is the base of the female mind.” He said. His finger moved slowly up the skeleton. “It entirely controls some women. These women do not consider themselves to be under the constrictions of society. They find themselves with child, propagating a generation of humans who are controlled by similar impulses.” He looked at me sternly, as if I myself was the curse of the Highlands.
“Yes, sir,” I told him. I hoped the appointment would end there but he patted the large leather seat for me to climb in. As he buckled the rough leather straps around my ankles, my wrists, my waist, and cranked the wheel until my feet were as high as my head, he talked. “It is fortunate for you, Jeannie, that we can find, feel, touch, cure your disease by appeasing the hysterogenic zones. You should see it as a blessing that I do not believe in restraint. These straps are merely for the sake of precaution.”
While he felt and prodded to appease the disease, I remembered, remembered, put my entire mind in other places – with the faerie that old Janet would go on about while her kettle boiled. It is the spirit of the water that stays in the black depth of Ravensbrooke pool in between the spurs where the oak roots grow deep. It dances in the full moon to make the water sacred, holy. I would like to be the spirit of water dancing even behind roots even when I am still like the black burn running through the forest by Rosehall, where my people stay.
It’s a village of shepherds and crofters nestled deep in hills on the road beyond the Firth. The old ones and young ones twist in and out of each other’s lives, but they also peer into your home like spinsters knitting, eager to find the hole in the weave. My father is Bull MacLeod, brawny, hard-set like a bull calf, laird after his wife’s father, too tight for the holes where the questions leak through. He grows roots and sheep, rents to other crofters who do the same. There’s me with my belly in the middle of the blether and my father in the middle of the village and aye, it’s a hard place I think. It’s a tweed stretched so tight it will rip if a question makes a hole that’s even so small. I’ve been sent here to stop the questions. Dr MacPhearson only provokes them all the more.
The doctor’s voice cracks through my weave of thought. “Jeannie, Jeannie,” he says, almost tenderly. “Always remember that the brain is the palace of your soul.” The saying repeats itself in my head like one of Ishbal’s rhymes while my belly grows like the full moon, a palace-like home for my wee one.
When my water splashes with its muck and mire I cry, wishing my wee one to stay behind the roots of my pool. She’s born still. Stillborn. An orderly put the wee body in the bin but Ishbal found it to nest the wee one in the soft ground by the pond before sunrise, before she dove into the Duck Pond in the dawn singing and never came out. She heard the doctor speak about taking the songs out of her head with a knife.
My belly flattened like something caught under wheels, like something trampled. Then the black carriage wheeled me away through the hills back to Rosehall but I never felt it home again. I flew away across the great water on a ship. As I sit in this train car in Ontario I hear the metal grind on metal, but it is Ishbal’s song that hums in my mind.
Blackbird, blackbird, fly away home. Blackbird, blackbird, fly away home.