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His mother gave him a new pair of socks, a puffin to eat on the voyage and a kiss on the cheek. “God will keep you safe, Quilliam, but he’ll not keep you clean. You must do that for yourself.” Happily, she did not try to hug him close.
He shook hands with his father, who remarked, quite amicably, “The floor needs digging out. You can give me a hand when you get back.” Then Quill walked down to the boat. His parents followed on behind, of course, but the goodbyes were done and out of the way. Besides, he would be back in a week or three. They were only going out to one of the stacs to harvest the summer plenty: bird-meat, eggs, feathers, oil …
It was a blade-sharp August day, the sea burned black by the sun’s brightness. And no, there were no omens hinting at trouble ahead. Hirta people notice such things. The clouds did not split open and let fall drops of blood: someone would have remembered that. No sinister bird settled on anyone’s roof. A gull flew over and dropped its mess on Mr. Cane—but that was nothing out of the ordinary. (Who wouldn’t, if they could?) But no signs, no dread omens.
All the men and women of Hirta helped carry the boat down the beach. Three men and nine boys climbed aboard it, and a few people on shore raised their hands: not to wave, exactly, but to check that the wind had not swerved unkindly off course. Quill did not know if the maiden from the mainland was there, among the crowd—didn’t look to see. To be seen looking would have had every other boy on the boat mocking him. So he didn’t look. Well, maybe out of the corner of his eye. Once or twice.
The fathers and uncles, wives and aunts, shoved them off. And no, the pebbles did not claw at the boat’s keel. No lugworms squirmed out of their holes to lug it back ashore. Nothing out of the ordinary shouted in their faces, Don’t go! Stay home! It was a good launch.
Or maybe, if there were bad omens, Quilliam missed them, trying to glimpse Murdina one last time.
* * *
A journey out to the big stacs can take an age, even with a sail. Warrior Stac is so big that it looks close to, but there are four miles of open water to cross before you get there—water that folds itself into hills and valleys and doubles the distance. It was little Davie’s first time out, and Quill could see the seasickness rising in him, as well as the fear. One day, if the years made him cruel, Quill might feel inclined to make fun of a first-timer and elbow him in the chest, as the bully Kenneth was doing now. But Quill remembered all too well his own first voyage—how he had expected every upward lurch of the bow to tumble the boat over, every trough between the waves to take them to the bottom. He remembered waves higher than a boat’s gunwales, the spray soaking him to the skin. He remembered fretting about getting ashore without making a fool of himself, and then having to prove, day after day, that he could catch fowl as well as the rest; and having no bed to sleep on, and never a mother about for comfort at night … Poor little Davie: not the biggest birdie in the nest. And bless him, look, thought Quill, he has on his socks already, in place of his boots. All ready to climb.
Davie looked too green—in every sense of the word—to stand up to Kenneth and his bullying. But when he puked, he chose to do it in Kenneth’s lap—an inspired revenge, thought Quill appreciatively.
They passed Stac Lee and got their first unhindered view of the place where they would be living for the next few weeks. John began to drum on the boards with his feet and the rest joined in, until Mr. Cane (a reliable killjoy) told them to stop their noise or they would “wake every dead sailor from his resting place.” The clatter died away, and Quill saw the youngest boys cast little superstitious glances over the side, in case dead sailors were a serious possibility.
Warrior Stac grows bigger the closer you get. You would swear it was pushing its way upward—a rock whale pitching its whole bulk into the sky, covered in barnacles, aiming to swallow the moon. Nearby Boreray has big patches of green grass on it, but Warrior Stac is so big and so dark that all the fowl of the air since Creation haven’t been able to stain it. It looms there, as black and fearful as one horn of the Devil Himself. And it teems with birds.
To reach the landing place, the skipper had to round the base of the sea stac, passing right underneath the bulging shelf called the Overhang where a never-ending sleet of bird droppings pours down. The boat fell silent as each man and boy (except Kenneth) shut his mouth tight. “Look, look up there, Davie!” said Kenneth, pointing urgently upward, but Davie had the wit not to fall for that one. No one looks up while he is under the Overhang. So only Kenneth caught a faceful.
For Quilliam, though, the Overhang was not the worst part of the voyage. That was the landing stage. The sea-swell slops up and over a bumpy jut of tilting rock. Getting ashore is a game you don’t even try unless the wind is square-on from the northeast.
The old men back home talked about the stacs as if they were just larders crammed with fowl put there by God expressly to feed the people on Hirta. But had they not been afraid? In their young days? When they went fowling on the Warrior? Had they never feared the jump from boat to cliff? The bow rises and falls so fast that the rock face seems to rush up and down in front of your eyes, the spray flies fit to blind you, and there’s maybe a piece of kelp you’ll land on, slippery as soap, and you’ll lose your footing and go down between the boat and the rocks. There again, maybe Quill, like Davie, was just a scaredy-mouse.
Mr. Don, barefoot and with a rope tied round his body (to fetch him back aboard if he fell) and the boat’s mooring rope wrapped around his wrist, balanced precariously on the bow and steeled himself for the jump. The Stac rose sheer in front of them, looking like the impregnable wall of a castle keep. And yet Domhnall Don made stepping ashore look easy. The fowling party formed a line in the boat: Mr. Farriss and Mr. Cane at the front, then Murdo, then Quilliam, then Kenneth, and so on in order of height: Calum, Lachlan, John, Euan, Niall and Davie. They had not only themselves to get ashore, but sacks, nets, coils of rope and wicks, baskets, clubs and a battered saddle …
A small, cold hand took a grip on Quill’s wrist.
“Get back in line,” he hissed, but Davie clung on, saying nothing, just looking from Quill to the cliff, Quill to the heaving waves, shaking his head. Quill threw his half-eaten puffin over the side, looped a coil of rope across his body, and when it came his turn, took a hold on the little lad’s arm—so tight that Davie squealed—and jumped ashore with him. A great shining wave washed over the landing place a moment later, but Quill had hopped out of its reach by then. “Easy, see?… Only pick your feet up quicker next time!” he called, as Davie scrambled away up the rock face, new socks all wet and flapping like a duck’s flippers. It made Quill laugh to see them.
Looking back down at the boat, he could see the row of boys still aboard, left hands clenched white round their bundles, right hands just clenched, jaws set, all hoping to get ashore with their pride intact and without breaking any bones. (So maybe there was a touch of the scaredy-mouse in them all.)
Lachlan came past Quill, clambering ashore, nimble despite an armful of sacks and a bulky rope round his body. He was shabby as a molting sheep, and twice as cheerful as he ever looked back home on Hirta. You would have thought he preferred the Stac to home. Why, thought Quill, when one wrong step, and the place will kill you?
But having thought it, he felt a sudden superstitious need not to think ill of the Stac. It did not mean anyone any harm. It was not a living thing, only a slab of rock in a big, cold ocean at the edge of the world.
* * *
Once the fowling party reached Lower Bothy, they stood about, drying in the wind, like cormorants, and watched the boat tacking away into the wind: homeward. Calum waved: the boatman was his father. Lachlan uttered a yelp of joy. Davie bit his lip. No going back now, till Calum’s father returned to get them.
“Back soon,” Quill told Davie, remembering that first time the sea had separated him from his mother.
No one wanted to be first inside the cave. Who knew what might be dead in there or—worse still—living? This close to the water, crabs and dying birds found their way in. Calling it “Bothy” made the place sound homely, like a hut or a cottage, when it was only really a dark, dank chink in the great wall of rock. Just twelve people, a heap of fowling nets, a cooking pot, six long ropes, an old saddle, egg baskets, bundles and boots. Cozy. In a few days they would move higher up the Stac, but in the meantime it was somewhere to dump the gear, and a good base for plundering the Overhang of its numberless gannets. So what if this was a stinky wet cave? Most of the time they would be outside, plucking riches from the kingdom of birds.
And every time a lad came fowling on the stacs, he went home less of a boy and more of a man.
(If he went home at all, that is.)
“Who wants to kill the King?” asked Mr. Farriss.
It marked the beginning of their labors. No more housekeeping, clearing pebbles and bones and weed from their sleeping place. Today they were fowlers on a quest for gannets. “Who wants to be King?”
Every boy but Davie had his hand raised. The honor was huge.
“Quilliam, you have the years on you to be wise,” said Mr. Farriss.
Quill’s heart expanded inside his chest … shrinking back down as Murdo pointed out: “I’m older!”
Mr. Farriss looked at the two friends. After the Reverend Buchan had brought a library to Hirta, Farriss had been the first to use it. Now, he was the closest thing Hirta had to a schoolmaster, and fed the girls and boys of Hirta crumbs of book-knowledge whenever they were not needed to dig the rigs or climb the rocks. He probably had favorites, but if he did, he never let it show. A scrupulously fair man. “Whichever is the smaller of you,” he said.
Since there was no room to stand up straight in the Bothy, the two friends went outside to compare heights. It was no easier outside there, perched on a buckled cliff ledge. The two stood nose to nose. Both noses were running in the keen wind.
“I’m no’ much fashed for it,” said Murdo with a shrug. “You take it.”
But, glancing down, Quill could see that Murdo’s knees were bent in an attempt to make himself shorter.
“Me neither. You take it.”
But having honored their friendship, nothing seemed to have been solved. So Murdo picked up a pebble and, palming it behind his back, held out both fists: “Nicky-nicky-nack, which hand will ye tak?”
And Quill chose the fist with the pebble in it.
Twin jets of joy and fear went through him: joy because now he might be able to tell his parents (casually, after a day or two at home), Did I say? On the Stac, I was King Gannet. Fear, in case he failed.
* * *
A colony of gannets is a noisy, heaving mass of feathers, eggshells, bird lime and birds. For choice, it occupies the narrow ledges of sheer cliffs. But near the base of Warrior Stac, the Overhang bulges out like a fat man’s belly. The slope of its surface is shallow—a perfect shelf for birds. The canny old ones walk over the backs of their neighbors, pairs sit contentedly side by side staring out to sea, the airborne home-comers crash-land on their fellow birds, crops full of fish.
A good place to start harvesting.
But high above any such colony perches a lookout bird: King Gannet. The crag he sits on is his watchtower; he is guarding the colony below. At the first sign of danger—blackbacks, eagles, fowlers—King Gannet sounds the alarm, and into the sky rises a blizzard of birds, shrieking and wheeling. Take out King Gannet and the way is open to wade in among the beaks and beating wings and reap a harvest of bird-meat.
And whoever kills the first lookout bird lays hands on its title, and becomes King Gannet for the duration of the trip.
The whole party crept as close as they dared without disturbing the flock. Mr. Don was first to spot the lookout bird on the steep, black cliff that rose up sheer, behind the Overhang. King Gannet’s throne was a finger of rock jutting upward from a broad ledge. Quill changed his boots for climbing socks, warm and scratchy and thick-soled, but not so thick that he could not feel footholds in the cliff. He took off his father’s over-large jacket—its sleeves came past his fingertips and it might flap in the wind—and entrusted it to Murdo. Then, from a point farther round the Stac, he started up the cliff face.
At first he climbed to impress the boys below with his skill. But there comes a point on any cliff when one mistake stops meaning a tumble and getting laughed at; it starts to mean broken bones, a broken skull, a bed in the graveyard. So, soon Quill was planning every move, holding still when the wind blustered, resting when cramp flickered in his calves. He took a diagonal route. To catch King Gannet unawares, he would have to creep across and up the cliff without being seen.
At one point, groping upward for a handhold, he laid his palm down on an abandoned gull’s egg, and the stale contents exploded, splattering down on his hair and trickling up his sleeve.
“I shall have you. I shall have you, Your Majesty,” he whispered and, to throw off the humiliation of his eggy hair, imagined himself Odysseus climbing out of the wooden horse to capture the city of Troy.
Murdina had told him that story—a story from a different, faraway time and place. He had barely understood her talk of city walls and sandals and Greeks and Trojans: those were part of her mainland, educated world. But he had liked the story precisely because, like Murdina, it was strange and exciting. Murdina, for all she had only come to visit, had been genuinely interested to learn about Hirta, its people and customs and way of life. She had admired the courage of the fowlers—had quickly understood the dangers—had said how brave someone must be to go in among the slashing beaks and vast, bony wings … Suppose he could go home and tell her that he had conquered Birdy Troy? What would she say? What would be the expression on her face?
But when Quill was only halfway up the rock face, King Gannet gave a shriek and rose to his full height, wings wide and flapping—orchestrating chaos. Five thousand birds took off. Surely Quill had not…? Surely he had done nothing to…? Droppings rained down on him out of a thundercloud of rising birds. He held perfectly still, though the damage seemed done. The lookout bird teetered, hopped and took off, shrieking, Intruder!
Close by Quill’s head, a clutch of puffins burst from a crevice in the cliff face, like little fireballs being lobbed at him. But Quilliam did not recoil. He did not flex a muscle, just clung steadfastly to the cliff—chiefly because he could not think of what else to do. He turned his face downward to shield it from puffin beaks … and so saw what had roused King Gannet.
A giant black bird with a white breast was wading through the colony. Even amid the big-winged gannets, it was immense. The great weight of its hooked beak seemed to unbalance it, because it set the tips of its stumpy little wings down, on rock or nest or gannet, to steady itself. When it looked up at him—and it did seem to look directly toward him—the big white circles round each eye were like a mask.
A garefowl. It must have mistakenly swum ashore below the wrong colony, and strayed into gannet territory while looking for its own kind. Being flightless, it could not extricate itself quickly, only clear a path with its massive beak and bulk. Delightedly, Quilliam watched the comical, tottering majesty of the “sea-witch,” one minute standing waist-deep in gannets, the next standing solitary and bewildered, as every last gannet took off. (Garefowl like to live shoulder to shoulder on land: they do not understand aloneness. There is no word, in their language, for “one garefowl.”)
It alone had triggered the panic. It could take the blame, not Quill. And as soon as it had plodded its way onward, on its big webbed feet, the gannets would finish circling, and settle back down.
Quilliam took the opportunity, while the sentinel bird was away from his perch, to clamber as far as the ledge that ran along behind the finger of rock. He inched along the ledge—even began to climb the pinnacle—but hearing the flapping of huge wings above him, froze to the stillness of a stone statue. Patiently, patiently, he waited, though his fingers lost their feeling and the summer flies droned around his eggy hands and hair. The gannets circled, then sank down, a hundred at a time. King Gannet stood at full stretch, flapping his wings—all fussy self-importance. Then he settled back onto his throne, shoulders hunched, and peered down at the host returning to their roosts.
The climb—all that fingertip clinging-on—had set Quill’s hands shaking. He flexed his fingers until the spasms stopped. Then he felt about for a foothold wide enough, and launched himself upward, onto a level with the King. In the same movement, he took hold of its wings and pinioned them behind its back, then freed one hand to wring its neck. A quick twist. A silent death. The gannets below noticed nothing.
* * *
“Fair. Fair,” said Calum laconically afterward.
Davie wanted to shake Quill’s hand. All the other boys knew they could have done just as well, given the chance.
Mr. Farriss said, with his little crooked smile, “The King is dead: long live the King,” and awarded Quill the title of King Gannet for the duration of their stay on the Stac.
Mr. Cane said sourly, “The Lord smiteth the proud and bringeth down the mighty. Think on that, laddie.”
Then they turned back to the task at hand—killing gannets, doing battle with beaks and battering wings. But when Quill looked for Murdo, to get back his jacket, his friend had been sent on a separate expedition to catch fulmars. So he was obliged to go in among the gannets with only the thinness of his shirt. He barely cared. He felt invulnerable, clad in warm sunshine and the knowledge that he was a king.
* * *
They lit the evening fire using a pile of Murdo’s fulmars. Fulmars burn better than wood, being an oily breed of bird. Then boys and men alike spent the evening cutting the stomachs out of dead gannets to serve as bottles for all the fulmar oil they were planning to take home. The Stac was full of riches—things the Owner would sell to city people who (unimaginably) had no birds of their own to feed and warm them, and must buy their feathers, oil and meat with real money.
Bedding down in the soft, welcome bigness of his father’s jacket, Quilliam could not sleep, despite his weariness. He seemed to feel the whole weight of the Stac bearing down on their little cave. A single drop of water fell from the lip of the cave mouth, and he found himself waiting for the next to fall and the next and the next … Determined not to succumb to homesickness, he steered his thoughts, like a boat, toward pleasanter things. Murdina.
He fell asleep thinking of her, but his dreams were as chaotic as a colony of gannets. Through them blundered the great garefowl, white-masked like some holy highwayman. In his dream, her glossy black back was not soft with feathers at all, but a fall of young woman’s hair, and from the ridged and hefty beak came songs Murdina had sung, about trees and lochs and love.
Copyright © 2017 by Geraldine McCaughrean