The Sleep Rider

Helen was discovered at dawn. She was sat at the edge of the Feyness Cliffs. Cold all through, fingers bunched to fists within the deep folds of her mam’s taatit blanket which she refused to surrender. Stripes of slime marked her legs from the traivels of slugs and snails. Her lips remained closed. Nae takkin came. The blod dried on her face.

It had been early, afore the darkenin. Helen had stood on her toes by the sink and dipped her hand in the foamy scoom. It was as bonnie as gannet down. When she blew, the little mound toppled in her palm then tore itself apart, drifting across towards her mam who lay sleeping. She had taken to the lang-bed while washing the crock an ashet. Her skin burned. Helen knew by now the times to be quiet. She smiled at the peerie bubbles popping wan after other. Her mam slumbered so seldom. The new bairn was coming and she was ill wi’aa an had nae spare strength to brave a second trial of birth. The blanket lay discarded, the weight unbearable against her skin.

Helen slapped her hand onto the water, now chilled. The scoom burst apart as a stab of a breath paek’d at her cheek, casting up the foamy whits to the beams. Such soor air. At the utterance of a deep, crabbit gruint her een flicked towards the door which lay open. She turned to her mam. Helen’s stomach flipet. The thing sat, mounted, sinewed legs folded beneath his unshorn frame. Her mam’s look unchanged.

Mam waaken up… da Mara. Not spoken, a thought.

She heard a peerie click, as if somewhere inside her the thinnest shard of bone had snapped.

Helen whispered. ‘Mam… da Mara.’

Hadd de tongue infant bairn!’ He commanded her, then set back kinda wye. He rubbed at the nub of his nose, fingers croppened as a ratter’s tail, each one hanging wet with hair, claws flat an split. Affil ancient een, scorched and firey banded.

His legs tensed, pressing himself further into the woman’s body as she exhaled, her skin growing pale and bluish, but she didn’t stir further. Helen took a slow, restrained step which caused him to stand. Immediately straight, he was taller than his squatted form suggested. Like a man. But not. A graet hund more like. His long claws sinking deeper into the pit of her mam’s stomach. The rise and fall was a nothing now. The swelling in her collapsed. The shallow waters stilled.

Helen shrieked and the skin on her face stung as the window glass exploded. When she opened her een again he had gone. But these things don’t leave she thought. He’ll bide til I’m soond for. And I will sleep. He sat shrouded in darkness at the edge of the room. He’s startled by the glass schatter, she thought. Helen lifted the blanket from alongside her mam. The threadbare motif. The Mara canna win by. He can come but he canna tak me frae beneath the taatit she thought. He stepped from the dark, flinching as she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. She moved to the centre of the room. To sit would be to sleep. As the minutes passed Helen’s head began to dip. Her knees softened. Her een tingled. The Mara matched her calm and waited. He’ll nivver laev me. She felt her head drop. She toppled slightly. She rubbed at her face. How sweet my hands smell, like mam’s hands.

The heat from the fire forced Helen out into the pitch of night. She stepped across a bullet which had buried itself in the boards of the floor. A blade of bitter wind carved up the freezing air which surrounded her as she crossed the threshold. Helen pulled the blanket tighter. She heard him move. Long black tangles of hair lashed at her face and the gravel nipped her feet but she did not stop. She walked and he walked behind her. She stood and he stood with her. Eventually she lowered herself into the sodden grass, crossed her legs and watched the heavy water drop from her een as he sat down next to her.

He will bide.

But I will bide.

A shattered plume of grey ocean leapt and curled through the air beneath the cliffs. The stones clattered. A spray of tawny spume cast up. Broke apart. Dissolved into the darkness.


The incident occurred mid-December 1941. A local newspaper reported that a shot had passed through the window glass and killed the wife of the lighthouse keeper as she washed dishes in her kitchen. It said that the swell of the sea had obscured her view of the gunboat which was at intervals raised to such heights that had she lifted her head at the appropriate time, she would have caught sight of her assassins.

The official report stated that the bullet had punctured the heart, causing instant death.

Lottie Sigrid Macpherson was declared a fatality of war. The casket was closed to the public.


Caroline Grebbell

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