by Linda Henderson
Linda Henderson is the winner of the first BooksfromScotland.com short story competition.
If I do not tell you of this, I think that there will be nought but the winds to say it for me.
I married Gudrid in the year of our Lord twelve-sixty. She was the daughter and grand-daughter of ship-builders and a sister to ship-builders. When she spoke of her brothers she described them with her hands, gesturing with movements as though she herself were a fine boat moving through the water. Of Arni she would speak with a fluid, sinuous wave; of Toli with a firm forearm outstretched like a keel, and of Bjarni, the youngest, she would speak with her whole body, as though a light breeze had filled her sail and lifted her to skim above the waves.
The brothers brought their skills, together with their sister to look after them, here to Steornabhagh in Leodus, five years past, and it is from them that I have been learning all that I could of the craft of building our small ships. They call the vessels ‘byringr’ but our local word for them is ‘birling’. They have shown me the timber to choose, to which purpose it is put, and its careful handling and storage. They have given me eyes to see deep into a spar to read its grain; taught me to pretend that I am a tiny burrowing beetle working my way along and finding the points of weakness, the hidden scars where a fracture could split the keel apart causing the boat to sink and its men to be lost. They have given me hands so strong that I feared that if I had taken Gudrid too fiercely she would have been crushed by my grip.
Toli organises the shipment of our wood from Bergen, not far from their home village in Norway. His father sends spars of good pine and planks already cut for the overlapping strakes. From these, Arni will select each piece precisely, looking with those deep-seeing eyes along its length for the particularity of its cut. He will mark each strake with a notch pattern at one edge to indicate where in the sequence it will come. He rarely changes his mind as the ship grows. And Bjarni is the oak specialist. They tell that their grandfather used oak for the keel but that it has become too expensive and more difficult to find. There is none at all in these western isles, and none in Bergen that we can afford, so Bjarni spent six months in Ireland finding new supplies. He did not spend all of his time staring up at trees. He is handy with an axe in other ways, and brought a good wage back to the household from his ship-service fighting for King Hakon.
Arni, Toli and Bjarni were generous in their teaching, but they are building twenty-four-oared vessels, mostly for the carrying of men to fight, it seems. They gave me the confidence to try to make an eight-oared birling, that is four thwarts, which would be fleet and manoeuvrable between the islands. It would be perfect for the carrying of cattle and wool bales, for carrying food stores and for running the occasional raid. It could be beached high and, if necessary, carried overland between lochs. I did not see these islands’ future in continuous feuding. My eye was for the movement of goods in fair trade; a trader would pay well for safe, fast delivery. Three good years had passed since our marriage contract, and I determined that the time for me to lay down the keel of my own birling was approaching. This would set us on our way in the letting of vessels for hire, for the trade at Steornabhagh remained profitable, with Spain, France and Ireland exchanging all manner of goods with Gudrid’s homeland to the north.
It was a strange evening when I laid out the keel, setting it firmly in the sand at the head of the beach below the farm. I measured and re-measured it with my stick to be eighteen ells and calculated its other proportions thereby. I stared at it until darkness overtook me and I started, suddenly cold, and remembering that I had not yet tended to the cattle. I ran back to Gudrid full of apologies, trusting that she would again forgive my enthusiasms.
Gudrid was all skittish and minded not my lateness, only in so far as she was keen to speak with me. She had sent her brothers on an errand and we had the house to ourselves. She bade me sit on the bench and perched herself on my knee, then she lifted my arms and placed them about her with my hands laid upon her stomach. I knew what she was about to tell. After many sorrowful months she was sure that she was with child and thought she was some four months past. I folded her tightly to me and told her that I would have our first boat finished for the birth of her son. As she filled out so would the belly of the boat. I did not tell her then but I had already decided to name the birling, Gudrid.
My wife laboured strongly on the farm, which much relieved me to work on the birling, for it was proving a greatly more difficult task alone than I had bargained. The brothers had all been called to ship-service for the king, whose support to the south seemed increasingly uncertain. As I layered strake upon strake I could not seem to keep the sides symmetrical. I would hammer in a line of clinch nails, only to have to pull them all out again and re-align the plank.
From dawn ‘til dusk I worked at the beach not noticing my Gudrid’s pain; not seeing her hands reaching to her back, her swollen legs or the grey hairs appearing amongst the gold. Now, I see them clearly in my memory. I would come into the house only in the dark to find her already lain down, fitfully moving among her skins trying to find a position comfortable enough for sleep. Each night I did go to her and lift her fingers to my mouth and wish her a better night. The light from the door awoke me early each day and I was up and out, taking barley cakes and a skin of milk left out by my good wife. So we saw little of each other. Gudrid bade me move away to Bjarni’s shelf. She said I would find no rest beside her and it would not be for much longer. At first, it smelled a little strange there, a different scent to our own space, and then I thought, perhaps, some of Bjarni’s sweat still lay on his skins, and that it, along with his inspiration, might rub off on me. He had told me that as he works he holds a vision of how he wants the ship to move through the water. It is this vision that guides his hands. Perhaps because I am a farmer and not a mariner I have not seemed able to do this. After a night or two of this wide-eyed dreaming, exhaustion would overcome me and I would be asleep in an instant, falling deaf as well as blind to Gudrid’s discomfort.
My wife visited the beach only once in that time, toiling down the steep grass, her hands beneath her belly as though it would roll away without her if she let go. It had not been a good moment to arrive. I was working on the line of the endpost, concentrating hard to achieve the perfect curvature. The boat would then breast the water aside, making sweet curls before the upward sweeping prow. As I looked up to see Gudrid descending towards me I chipped with my adze, not watching its blade, and took out a great notch. I flung the tool aside, cursing, and I think Gudrid caught my voice on the wind. Perhaps she took it as directed at her.
She tried to take an interest, asking me for the names of the various parts, running her hand along the topboard, but now I can see that I did not want her there so close with my other Gudrid. The boat was my secret, and my secret could be revealed only when she was ready and perfect; when it was her time.
I cut the oar ports and completed the devil of an awkward task of fitting the rudder. I was cutting the stepping for the mast and wondering who would help me lift it into the boat, when I became aware of shouts, excited calls coming from out on the water. Raising my hand to shield my eyes I could see Arni, Toli and Bjarni already out of their boat and wading to dry land. In no time we had the boat beached, and were dancing and singing in the shallows, throwing water at each other, and trying to push one another over. They clapped me on the back, and I took them to see the boat I had called Gudrid. A little adjustment here and there; Bjarni stroked his beard. She is good! And our sister? This was Toli. She is near her time? Come, come. I rounded them up and we ran up the slope towards the house.
We heard the screams long before we reached the door. Our neighbour, Margaret, pushed the ox-skin aside and stepped out, her head bowed, her hands red with blood. She found the pail, then looked up at our faces flushed with joyful celebration. She looked again at her hands.
‘Go back to the shore. She will be hours yet.’
‘No!’ I yelled. ‘Not yet! Gudrid is not finished.’ Margaret looked at me questioningly. ‘The boat,’ I explained, ‘the boat – I have to go to her,’ and I set off back down the slope. The brothers, knowing they could be of no use to the women, followed.
We set blazing torches in the sand and worked on through the night. By dawn the mast was set and Arni had the four thwarts cut and placed for the oarsmen to sit upon. There were still the oars to have made and the weaver had not yet finished the sail but my Gudrid’s body was there – fair, full and ready to be water-tested.
At dawn we strode up the hill, the boys chafing me for hardly being ready to be a father. There was no sound from the house, not a woman’s cry or a baby’s yell. We each of us threw water from the pail on to our faces to liven us, and I called to Margaret.
The faithful woman emerged, hollow-eyed.
‘It is over.’
‘Aye, but dead.’
‘Oh! Let me to her. My poor Gudrid! How she has suffered. But I have such a gift for her. She does not know but I have named the boat for her.’
‘Aye, well she will be your only Gudrid for your wife is dead, too. We couldn’t get him to come right. She rent herself apart in the trying.’
For the length of a day and a further night we four men gathered about her in vigil. I was dumbed. I uttered not a single word to any man. I know my friends and neighbours came and went, but I could not hear their words or feel their touch at my shoulder. On the third day I sewed Gudrid and her bundle in a skin and carried her to the burying place.
This morning, I lifted Bjarni’s axe from its place above his sleeping shelf, the place where I slumbered exhausted these past months. I stand now to tell you this. I stand now by Gudrid’s side, on the shore, and the highest tide of the year is lapping at my feet.
Linda Henderson lives at Struan on the west coast of Skye with her husband, two mad spaniels and one of the best views in the world.
Following a Masters degree in creative writing at Glasgow, she has fallen into the island pattern of summer earning, winter yearning. Determined that winter last year wouldn’t be fallow, she completed a second novel with the support of the Scottish Book Trust’s Mentoring Scheme. She is currently researching a third.
The inspiration for Gudrid came from a visit to Leakeys Secondhand Bookshop in Inverness. Denis Rixson’s book, The West Highland Galley, somehow came to hand. At around the same time her writers group in Lochcarron nominated the theme of ‘obsession’ for its next meeting. The osmosis of Norse culture into the northern and western islands from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries has long fascinated her and so the story melded.
With far-ranging interests from the natural world through Scottish history to rugby union Linda is continually awe-struck by the dynamics of life on this small blue planet.
Linda’s short fiction can be found in Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland, New Writing Scotland 21: Milking the Haggis, The Eildon Tree, NorthWords and Skye Views.
Her poetry is published in Skye Views, Poetry Scotland, Football Haiku and Island.