The Waters of Ulhava

Linda Henderson (Creative Writing: University of Glasgow)

The glen is a gloomy tunnel, lit only in the highest and most auspicious summer months by a sun as weak as baby custard. The rocks formed from the flowing lavas of some archaean disruption, cooled and compressed lie waiting to be turned for use as building blocks or memorials. Here, they cling together to form low, flaring walls beneath a roof of wrinkled tin that is the colour of a freshly flayed goatskin; two dreary grey buildings, a cottage for the shepherd and his wife, and a smaller byre.

The centrally placed wooden door of the cottage, frayed at its base and showing the last flecks of a matt green that used to be the colour of all estate woodwork, stands ajar. A slim black cat sits on the threshold. Her legs are splayed and she works her rasping tongue from the bare pink brim of her fertile pipkin to the dirt of the dried blood beneath her pin sharp claws.

The door of the byre, set across a mud yard littered with the turds of scrawny hens and blotted with stains of pig slaughter, retains its skin of green and is bolted top and bottom by iron bars set in hefty clasps. These have been set dutifully back in their place by the shepherd when he left his three daughters at dawn to go to his sheep on the mountain.

Now, in the early afternoon of a November day as the barely light sky darkens to a tone that is not yet black it starts to rain and soon the fast, heavy drops pound the roofs and sound from within as though giant's children are hurling fistfuls of pebbles from the tops of the shrouding peaks. Inside the house the shepherd's wife is stirring oats into pig's blood to make puddings. She is tall, slender at the waist and a tightly tucked, green tweed waistcoat emphasises her bold, high set breasts. She has hair the colour of spun gold, tied full and round at the back of her head and finished with a red ornament in its centre in such a way as to a provide her husband with a permanent reminder of what lies tucked beneath her waistcoat. She likes it best when he draws the pin with his teeth, letting her hair stream over his face as his rough hands lift her skirts to find the heat of her inner thighs.

Her body belies the birthings of three daughters all as ugly in the face as gnarled wolves and as squat as ill-bred ponies. For three times nine months she carried; three times twenty-eight hours she laboured, cursing and ripping herself in two, to give her man a son. For three times she brought forth daughters she could not look at, still less let them take the beauty from her foaming nipples. Caring only that his wife was alive and would grow strong again, the father carried each newborn to the byre and raised her on sheep's milk fed through a lamb's teat. As the girls grew he took them porridge at dawn and left bread and curds wrapped in cloth for the day. He replenished a half-barrel of water, set to one side of the door, from the spring above the house, using the old water to sluice down the gutter at the far back of their cell, where he had trained them to defaecate. At night, when he returned from the hill, he would visit them with plates of steaming stew and sit awhile telling them what he had seen on the mountain and how the sheep fared.

The grotesque daughters had not always been locked in. When the eldest daughter was three she had managed to lift the simple latch on the byre door and carry her baby sister across the yard and into the kitchen. They set themselves down under the scrubbed wooden table and drew pictures in the dust. Their mother, bending to make up the fire, had not heard them enter but as she turned from her chore she saw the smile slashed faces looking hopefully toward her. She screamed and ran from the house tearing at her throat, scraping long wheals across her ivory neck. She kept on running until she met her husband on his way home. The next day he had gone down the glen to the blacksmiths and returned with the bars and hasps, which he fitted that night.

The shepherd's wife is mixing her puddings and dreaming. The cat has come in to curl before the fire. There is a sharp rap-a-rap on the door followed by the creak of worn hinges. A silhouetted figure, undoubtedly female in form, steps into the pool of light thrown towards the outer recesses of the room by an oil lamp on the scrubbed wooden table. The shepherd's wife does no more than acknowledge the visitor with a slight dip of her head.

'My dear', the woman's voice is as light as a fresh spider's web. 'I hear you have children now. I should like to see them.'

The wife continues turning and folding the spoon deep into the bowl. The blood is darkening with each slow pass.

'Mother, you know what happened with them. That is why you have not come sooner.'

'And you knew that when you married a man from the world above you would produce only monsters.' There lingers the trail of disappointment, the advice of a mother too readily rejected by insistent youth.

The shepherd's wife is wary. She hisses, 'What is your true reason for coming? Is it only to remind me that I refused the hand of immortality? You wanted me wed to a man with an unageing mask, whose soul is unguessable; a being who transforms with each daybreak. And I chose instead to lay out my own bed for a mortal whose face might change with the wind but who gives me unbending love.'

She sets down the spoon and moves round the table casting her tall shadow across her mother's face, trying to diminish the power, a force field, palpable in the miasma of blood and peat smoke. The old one is unshrinking, as resilient as a gale bent thorn-bush whose strength comes from the fight. She ignores her daughter's invective.

'I come now because a wise sitheach has told me of the waters of Ulhava which can bring beauty to the ugly and help the insane. The water filters through a high herb-filled pasture and falls fresh to a pool that lies to the east of here in a rocky bowl on Beinn an Faol. Each child must drink a cup every day for one full cycle of the moon. At the end of this time the shepherd will have the three most beautiful daughters in the land.' She tells no more, she is through the door and gone into the rain.

When the shepherd returns his wife tells him of the pool and of its magic powers. He is reluctant at first. The place lies on a neighbouring estate and he must move stealthily, avoiding the watch of a hostile gamekeeper. What if he is caught? His wife laughs for she knows her husband can stalk the most skittish of stags to within a breath, working his way through heather gullies with the speed and agility of a stoat. So, off he goes the next day with two large goatskin carriers. That night he refills the barrel with water that is as thick and shimmering as quicksilver. Bidding the girls drink a cup each he locks them in as usual.

A full moon lights the surface of the water, now stilled in its vessel, with a cold steely light. The girls stand around the barrel and join hands. As they lean forward their reflections emerge from the staved sides, three heads conjoining. Each sees and knows herself and sees her sisters as she has always known them. They roll their heads, still with their crowns touching, first left then right. The reflections move right then left. The girls smile, nod and touch their lips to the meniscus. Each pushes her tongue forward to taste the magical tisane. The eldest tastes salt, the middle one tastes sour but the youngest tastes sweet. They sip a little and as the moon slips from their window they drift back to their sleeping palettes to await their morning porridge.

For twenty-seven days the girls look at each other and their father looks at each of them and they see no change. For twenty-seven days they have watched the moon and they know that tonight it will rise at the cleaved rocks at the head of the glen and its full body will draw slowly up the slopes of A Glas Bheinn where the ground will take on the rough silver-grey of a wolf's pelt.

The shepherd slides beneath the blankets next to his amaranthine wife and wraps her to him, cupping her firm breasts in his palms and gently stroking her nipples to the fullness of ripe figs. As the moon edges towards the centre of the window and paints the panes not with opalescence but with sickly yellow he feels the firmness in his hands collapse like an emptied bladder. As he turns her body to his, a flabby stomach falls onto his hardness and he looks into a face ravaged by the wind, with deep set, bag hidden eyes, broken veined cheeks, and cracked lips. His fingers that, a moment before, were wrapped in finest spun gold feel only rough hemp fibre. His beautiful maiden's feet have turned to ice. He grasps at a breath and howls as the ache in his balls recedes. His erection past, he withdraws his arms, sits up and howls again. The moon moves on, silent in its eternal trace. In the first-born seconds of the twenty-ninth day he hears the sound of singing and laughter from the byre. Now he howls a different note.

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Linda Henderson 2002. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.