From By Sundown Shores by Fiona MacLeod

The Sea-Madness

I know a man who keeps a little store in a village by one of the lochs of Argyll. He is about fifty, is insignificant, commonplace, in his interests parochial, and on Sundays painful to see in his sleek respectability. He lives within sight of the green and grey waters, above which great mountains stand; across the kyle is a fair wilderness; but to my knowledge he never for pleasure goes upon the hills, nor stands by the shore, unless it be of a Saturday night to watch the herring-boats come in, or on a Sabbath afternoon when he has a word with a friend.

Yet this man is one of the strangest men I have ever met or am like to meet. From himself I have never heard word but the commonest, and that in a manner somewhat servile. I know his one intimate friend, however. At intervals (sometimes of two or three years, latterly each year for three years in succession) this village chandler forgets, and is suddenly become what he was, or what some ancestor was, in unremembered days.

For a day or two he is listless, in a still sadness; speaking when he has to speak, in a low voice; and often looking about him with sidelong eyes. Then one day he will leave his counter and go to the shed behind his shop, and stand for a time frowning and whispering, or perhaps staring idly, and then go bareheaded up the hillside, and along the tangled ways of bog and heather, and be seen no more for weeks.

He goes down through the wilderness locally called The Broken Rocks. When he is there, he is a strong man, leaping like a goat - swift and furtive. At times he strips himself bare, and sits on a rock staring at the sun. Oftenest he walks along the shore, or goes stumbling among weedy boulders, calling loudly upon the sea. His friend, of whom I have spoken, told me that he had again and again seen Anndra stoop and lift handfuls out of the running wave and throw the water above his head while he screamed or shouted strange Gaelic words, some incoherent, some old as the grey rocks. Once he was seen striding into the sea, batting it with his hands, smiting the tide-swell, and defying it and deriding it, with stifled laughters that gave way to cries and sobs of broken hate and love.

He sang songs to it. He threw bracken, and branches, and stones at it, cursing: then falling on his knees would pray, and lift the water to his lips, and put it on his head. He loved the sea as a man loves a woman. It was his light o' love: his love: his God. Than that desire of his I have not heard of any more terrible. To love the wind and the salt wave, and be for ever mocked of the one and baffled of the other; to lift a heart of flame, and have the bleak air quench it; to stoop, whispering, and kiss the wave, and have its saltiness sting the lips and blind the eyes: this indeed is to know that bitter thing of which so many have died after tears, broken hearts, and madness.

His friend, whom I will call Nell, once came upon him when he was in dread. Nell was in a boat, and had sailed close inshore on the flow. Anndra saw him and screamed.

'I know who you are! Keep away!' he cried. 'Fear faire na h'aon sula - I know you for the One-Eyed Watcher!'

Then, said Nell, 'the salt wave went out of his eyes and he knew me, and fell on his knees and wept, and said he was dying of an old broken love. And with that he ran down to the shore, and lifted a palmful of water to his lip, so that for a moment foam hung upon his tangled beard, and called out to his love, and was sore bitter upon her, and then up and laughed and scrambled out of sight, though I heard him crying among the rocks.'

I asked Nell who the One-Eyed Watcher was. He said he was a man who had never died and never lived. He had only one eye, but that could see through anything except grey granite, the grey crow's egg, and the grey wave that swims at the bottom. He could see the dead in the water, and watched for them: he could see those on the land who came down near the sea, if they had death on them. On these he had no pity. But he was unseen except at dusk and in the grey dawn. He came out of a grave. He was not a man, but he lived upon the deaths of men. It was worse to be alive, and see him, than to be dead at his feet.

When the man Anndra's madness went away from him - sometimes it in a week or two weeks, sometimes not for three weeks or more - he would come back across the hill. In the dark he would slip down through the bracken and bog-myrtle, and wait a while among the ragged fuschias at the dyke of his potato-patch. Then he would creep in at the window of his room, or perhaps lift the door-latch and go quietly to his bed. Once Nell was there when he returned. Nell was speaking to Anndra's sister, who kept house for the poor man. They heard a noise, and the sudden flurried clicking of hens.

'It's Anndra,' said the woman, with a catch in her throat; and they sat in silence till the door opened. He had been away five weeks, and hair and beard were matted, and his face was death-white; but he had already slipped into his habitual clothes, and looked the quiet respectable man he was. The two who were waiting for him did not speak.

'It's a fine night,' he said; 'it's a fine night, an' no wind. - Marget, it's time we had in mair o' thae round cheeses fra Inverary.'

Continue to "Earth, Fire, and Water"

Return to the table of contents

Return to the Celtic page