A wind came up strong off the scale-grey sea. Salt stung Gort’s cheeks.
“Got me here just in time,” she said.
The man who’d boated her across the firth strode up-slope, silent. Gort followed. This island: not a rock bare-but-for-birds, not a name she’d ever heard in her years of midwifing. Ahead was a whole village, almost empty, roofs sagging, doors open like sockets in a skull. Not a single story about it.
At a house still standing whole, the man stopped, slammed open the door. Gort walked in after him and saw a woman sitting by a peat fire with a belly like a boulder.
“Teeth in the wind!” the man shouted. Slammed a fist into the wall. “Too many!”
Gort stood just inside the one-roomed house, thinking of the sea between her and any other island, thinking of the storm. Thinking of her oath-wife on Hoy. Thinking of the woman right here who needed her skills.
The woman gestured her to the fire, offered her a stool. The man paced.
“I’m Beill,” the woman said quietly.
“Gort. And him? Didn’t ever give me a name.”
Wind tore across the chimney-top.
“Glad I got here before that storm did,” Gort said.
“It’ll take days to build,” Ruis said. “Not a storm.”
“There’s food,” Beill said, and started putting it into bowls: fish stew, simple. Hot and good. Gort murmured her thanks. Ruis took a bowl and ate it and didn’t mention teeth all that night, though the wind never died.
Gort went out for air: salt-stinging and strong, the storm still hanging a long way off the shore. Clouds sat on the heather-hills at the back of the village, beyond an old church. She set off among the ruined houses, looking for a distraction, for a way not to think about the storm, about teeth. What story was that? Shivering, shaking it out of her, she walked on. She poked her head through doorways. Bare earth and stone, damp, cold. Sometimes birds had used a house for nesting in. Sometimes there were one or two things left by the long-gone islanders: a broken cup, a broken comb, a little stone block that might have been a carving of a woman.
A house had something flapping in its doorway. Colours. But—Gort saw when she got closer—faded and dirty, their pattern indistinguishable. A tapestry. Gort lifted it aside.
More tapestries covered the floor of the one room.
Nothing else remained: no furniture, no pot in the hearth, nothing broken and discarded but the tapestries, damp, mossy by the door and the chimney. Other tapestries preserved their designs. Gort carefully stepped on only the ruined ones and crouched, saw a strong woman holding her seal-skin, sea-greys swirling under a plain grey sky, saw a smudge of what might have been hair or gold or the rare sun, saw dark eyes in staring faces.
Beill lay on the blankets, screaming. Gort crouched between her legs and told her when to push. Blood on her hands. Not too much.
“Babies all born with teeth! Fox-sharp!” Ruis shouted. The wind tore over the chimney. Not the storm. Not yet. “Knives in their mouths!”
Beill tried to reach for one of Gort’s hands, cried, “Please! Please!”
“What’s that house?” Gort asked Ruis, thinking of distractions. “With the tapestries?”
He threw a scythe at her head.
It missed. Clattered on the floor, loud as Gort’s heartbeat, loud as Beill’s scream. He shouted louder: “She tore them all to pieces and tipped them all in the sea! The sand is bones! Ground by her teeth, her teeth, too many teeth!”
Too many teeth.
He didn’t throw anything else. Gort got her hands still, got her voice steady, told Beill, “Push.” Gripped Beill’s knees tight in what she hoped felt like comfort. Watched Ruis.
Too many teeth, too many teeth!
Stey will tear off your flesh!
It had been over ten years since Gort last heard that, chanted by children. Scare-song. Shiver at night: Stey who stripped a whole island of its flesh, Stey who wore it all and danced and finally tore off her own skin, Stey who was ripped to shreds, Stey who still stalked the islands. Teeth in the wind!
Ruis paced and shouted and Gort told Beill to push again, again, until there was a baby boy in the blankets: crying loud, open-mouthed enough for Gort to see the smooth gums. Beill was saying nothing: breathing in gasps, in pain. Alive. Watching her husband. Gort listened to his steps, his words, knew where he stood even when he was behind her. Cleaned the baby. Knew how she’d get to her longer knife.
“Here,” Gort said to Beill. Gave her the baby, wrapped in lint-cloth. “He’s small enough you’re not hurt from the birth, but not too small.”
“Look!” Beill said, holding him up in weary arms. “It’s a boy, a healthy boy. Look.”
He cried, showed his gums.
Ruis didn’t stop pacing.
Stey who tore off her skin and turned into a fox, a creature all teeth, a creature no one knew until she tore them right open.
The storm screamed outside: on the island at last, three days after Beill’s labour. Three days of shouting, of fear, of things thrown. Of Gort thinking whether she dared going up against a man as big as Ruis with her knife. Thinking of Beill, thinking of the best ways to help her.
“Teeth!” Ruis shouted, over and over, like the wind banging against the door.
Thinking of Stey.
Too many stories.
“Too many teeth!”
Too many stories and none of them sure: all teeth and tearing skin, all fear. All teller, not tale. Not Stey’s story.
“Tell me,” Gort whispered to Beill—the two women sitting by the fire, watching Ruis – “who was Stey? What did she really do?”
“Teeth!” Ruis shouted.
“Anger,” Beill whispered.
Gort flinched as Ruis banged open the door and went out into the storm.
“She was so angry.”
Ruis’ shouts receded. Though she wanted to hear more of Beill’s words, Gort said, “We need to leave this house. Now.”
Beill said nothing. Bound the baby more securely to her chest – he’d latched well, a small relief in these three days—then draped blankets over her shoulders and over him. Took two small stone figures from the notch in the wall. Joined Gort, who held her working bag with her longer knife ready to be pulled out.
They stopped just outside the door, smacked by the rain, the wind, near-blinded in it. Nothing of Ruis’ shouts reached them. But he stood there, down the path, shouting, his back to them, blocking the way to the few other houses still lived in.
“We can’t get past,” Beill said.
“No. This way.”
When Beill realised Gort’s direction, she cried out, pulled back.
“This way!” Gort shouted through the loud rain, the wind. Ruis was already lost in the storm. “He won’t dare look here!”
When Gort pushed aside the soaked, stinking tapestry, lightning flashed and Beill ran inside with eyes wide like a hooked fish’s mouth. The baby cried, muffled under the layers of blankets. Dry, Gort hoped.
“You were going to tell me something,” Gort said. “About anger.”
“Here!” Beill laughed nervously, paced the filthy tapestries, then huddled in the corner furthest from the door and the rain-pattered ashy fireplace. There were only rain-noises. Gort saw in dark outlines: the shape of Beill in the corner, like the figurine she’d found on a lighter-skied day. The door, limned in vague light. Until the lightning flashed, lighting the room, lending brightness to the tapestries under her feet. She saw women’s faces: mussel-ovals but light, cut through with lines. Women at her feet, staring up, as if unwillingly put there. “Anger,” Beill said. “The stories were all about her anger. All wrong. Anger without a cause. Anger for fun!” Beill laughed again: harsh, sharp. “Who’s ever angry for fun?”
“Why was she angry?”
Beill shouted over the thunder, the rain beating the house: “No one ever told me!”
The tapestry at the door was torn away. For a heartbeat, loud as the thunder, Gort thought it was Ruis.
Only the storm.
The women didn’t speak. Gort was still shivering but didn’t dare look outside for Ruis, so she went to Beill’s side and huddled with her. Lightning flashed again. It cracked open the air like a skull, like anger. Lit up the faces on the floor. Gort shut her eyes, but the faces stayed there.
“Do you know stories?” Beill asked, after the thunder. Her teeth chattered in her words. “Good ones.”
But Gort was thinking of other stories, heard over the years, that talked about Stey. That gave her a face. Pale-faced, like a bone. Long hair in wrack-knots, shaved off, fur, braided, tangled with teeth, soaked in blood. Scars on her cheeks. Teeth wedged in her ears. Teeth-marks cut into her forehead. Too many teeth. Lightning. The faces were all Stey’s, all wrong, all caught—
“Let’s get out of here,” Gort said. Stumbled to her feet, looked out the door into walls of rain. No Ruis. She could barely see a boat’s length. “Come on. I think we can do it.”
They ran into crofts, away from Beill’s house, just in case. Nettles stung their ankles. Rain sliced their faces. Too many teeth. In the next lightning flash, Beill’s face was pale, un-marked, running only with rain. They reached the shore, where the village’s paltry boats were dragged high, clear of the foam and fist-heavy waves, and Beill led them to a still-standing house. Salt stung their eyes. It took rhythmic knocking, Gort remembering a fishing-round as Beill huddled beside her on shaking legs shielding the baby, before someone inside recognised a person amidst the storm’s sounds. Surprised cries. They were hustled in, stripped of their soaked clothes and given blankets, food, places by the peat-warmth of the fire. The children gaped, until their father started up a story: a good one, of ambitious sailors and mounds of fish.
“Is—-” The mother, Onna, glanced from Gort to Beill, who was staring pale-faced into the fire without words. “Where is—”
“In the storm,” Gort said.
No one else knocked. The storm battered the house, and the father, Tinne, lightened the air inside with his words, more dawn light than lightning, laughter-light. The children enjoyed the tales.
Gort thought of the tapestries, the women’s angry trapped faces.
Dawn light crept under the door. The storm was done. Beill’s baby cried: a healthy cry, hungry, not sick. A lot of luck, that. Beill still looked pale, so Onna put a pot over the fire and Gort helped and they managed a stew of dried fish and nettle, neeps, garlic, with stale soaked bannocks.
Tinne went up to Beill’s house and came back with a story: of the house empty, of no sign of Ruis in the streets, in the crofts, in the empty houses—even, he said with a lowered voice, even in that house, where the tapestries were soaked and dark, as if with blood.
Beill didn’t say a thing, only spooned more stew into her mouth and held the baby close. It was hard, raising a baby alone, but there was worse.
“Do you want to stay here?” Tinne asked Beill, looking from her to Onna.
Onna nodded, added, “You’d be very welcome to stay in our house.”
Beill stared at her stew, then looked up at Gort. “What work is there where you’re from?”
“It’s been a long while since I’ve been from one place,” Gort said, “but if I can be taken back to South Atsay, I know people there. I can get from there to the other islands.” How she wanted her oath-wife’s farm-calloused hand. Soon. “There’s good work to be had. Wool-work, fish-work, farm-work.”
“Then I want to come with you. I don’t want to live here anymore, I want— I want better.”
“I can take you both,” Tinne said. “Soon. See how the weather goes after this storm.” The way he and Onna looked at each other, they’d be following Beill before long. They and the other last villagers.
Gort slipped away, in slanting sunlight. The first sun in two weeks. It wouldn’t last long.
It slanted just right to light the floor of the tapestry house.
The faces were stained all kinds of dark, still wet from the storm. Filth-dark, grime, accumulated over years, not the fresh soaking of blood. Gort knew that colour well. Yet it didn’t slip from her mind. The women on the tapestries with their filth-cut faces glared up at her, hair tangled and stained, clothes dark, eyes narrowed, staring. It was as if they each had only her look, her cutting look. Sharp as teeth. Had the tapestries always been like this? Had the woman who made them—Stey, it could only be Stey—had Stey made the women, each with her look? Or had time done it?
Who had they been? Who had Stey been?
No one would tell her Stey’s story. No one knew it, they said. Only bits of it remained: the tapestries, the walls, the fear, the pain. Unwanted. Untold.
Return to Issue #208