Celtic legends collide with modern sensibilities and style in this contemporary gothic tale.
Sarah MacAlpin has always felt like an outsider. Raised by her Scottish grandmother deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sarah grew up with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. Her Childhood friends were the stuff of ancient Celtic legends.
But Sarah's seemingly idyllic past hides a horrifying secret. As a little girl she watched her mother's inexorable slide into madness. She hasn't let her past stop her from building a good life for herself. She is a graduate student with good friends, a boyfriend and a career preserving Appalachian culture all planned out.
Until she meets Dermot Sinclair. The handsome Scot seems to be dogging her every step. At best he's a colleague who can help her research. At worst, he may be stalking her.
All Sarah needs to finish her dissertation is one folk song that proves her thesis. Unfortunately, finding that song also means unlocking some painful childhood memories and a dangerous destiny set in motion generations ago. It's a destiny that might get her killed.
Mòrag MacAlpin died when she was six years old, although death can be a relative term. It’s sprinkled throughout our common parlance like cinnamon on the top of our morning coffee. When we’re excited we say ‘I could just die!’ We get ‘mortified’ when we’re embarrassed. When kids know they’re in trouble they say, ‘My parents are gonna kill me!’ and of course there is the ‘petit morte’ of sexual satisfaction. Our pop culture is full of sentient ghosts, vampires and zombies who interact with the world even after death.
Our most prevalent religions are based on what happens after we die. Hindus and Buddhists espouse reincarnation. Islam promises a heaven of gardens with rivers running through it. Mormons even allow you to convert relatives after they’ve died. Christianity is based on the idea that death is a temporary condition and like Jesus, believers will all be resurrected when the Rapture comes. We do our best to change death from a period or even an exclamation point at the end of life into a comma or a semicolon.
Whether little Morag’s heart actually stopped on that morning in the spring of 1976 is debatable. But there is no doubt that the girl who woke up gasping for breath, cradled in her grandmother’s arms that day was not the same girl who had been picking flowers in the woods just that morning or laughing with her mother moments before.
That was one of those moments when the ground shifts beneath a person’s feet and the very sky above them changes color. Nothing can ever be the same. And for a child as young as six the only solution is to become a different person. That was the day that Mòrag became Sarah, and Sarah put away childish things like fairy tales.
Sarah was still a bit breathless from dancing as she picked her way through the sea of tents and fallen revelers. The music from around the fire wafted over the campsite, and she caught herself wondering if Dermot was still dancing. She told herself that her concerns about him were irrational. In the short time she’d known him, he’d been charming, sardonic, and maybe a little arrogant, which proved nothing beyond the fact that he was Scottish. He’d given her no reason to suspect him of anything other than wanting to be her friend. By the time she reached the tent she and Amy shared, she had determined that she would have to be nicer to the man.
A breeze whisked through the campsite and stirred her hair. It brushed the back of her neck like icy fingers, cold even for the mountains. As Sarah bent down to unzip the tent, a flash of white near the tree line caught her eye. She straightened up and stared into the woods behind the tent, trying to catch a glimpse of the thing. “Hope it’s not a skunk,” she thought, bending down again and opening the tent. She had crawled halfway in when she was stopped by a sound behind her. It was an odd sound, not a gasp, but like air being sucked in quickly between teeth. Sarah turned her head to look over her shoulder just in time to see a woman turning away and walking toward the trees. From her position half in the tent, she only saw the woman’s legs and the trail of her white skirt. Sarah backed out of the tent and took a few steps toward the woods.
“Wait,” she thought…but before she uttered a word the woman turned to look back. Sarah’s breath caught in her throat as she found herself staring into her mother’s eyes. They stood frozen for a moment. Then Molly turned and walked deeper into the forest. Sarah trailed after her. They wound through the trees and around rocks. Molly always managed to stay a few steps out of Sarah’s reach. Even in the dark, she could see the crown of spring flowers ringing Molly’s head, just as they had done nineteen years before when Sarah had put the crown there. Molly was moving faster, almost running, and Sarah tried harder to keep up, afraid she might lose sight of her in the trees. She wanted to call out to her mother, asking the questions that had lingered in her mind for years, but she was nearly out of breath. Sarah threw herself forward, trying to catch Molly, but she disappeared around an ancient and sprawling tree. Sarah rounded the trunk and stopped dead.
Molly was standing in the center of a clearing. Her face was a blend of sadness, fear, and anger. She leaned from the waist toward Sarah and spoke a single word. At first there was no sound, like someone had hit the mute button. Then the word came to Sarah in a gust of frigid wind that hit her square in the face.
Sarah plunged into the clearing, but Molly vanished just as Sarah reached the center. Sarah spun around, looking for her, but there were only trees and stones and silence. On the ground at her feet was the crown of flowers. Sarah knelt to pick it up. When her hand touched it, there was a flash of white light. Sarah looked up and into the eyes of an old woman whose face was kind on the surface, but her eyes were hard. The woman reached down and took Sarah’s hands. She began singing as she pulled Sarah up to stand. The woman’s voice sounded old, older than the giant tree on the edge of the clearing, older than the stone, as Granny used to say. It was a song Granny had taught her about the king lost in the mist. The verse ended with the words that had rolled around in Sarah’s head for five years—her grandmother’s last words, in a language she couldn’t understand.
Another flash of light transformed the clearing into a cave and the old woman was gone. The air was cold and damp. She heard heavy breathing behind her and turned. In a silvery shaft of light, a couple was making love on top of a large square stone. The man’s back was to her, but Sarah could see that he was fit and young with dark hair. Over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of honey-colored curls. Sarah stepped closer and to the side until she could see more of the woman. She tried to be quiet. The vision seemed so real she was afraid to disturb them. With a gasp of pleasure, the woman raised her head and turned to her. Sarah felt a stab of pain deep in the pit of her stomach, and her breath caught in her throat. She stared aghast at herself there on the stone with this faceless man thrusting into her. Her other self started a second at seeing her, and then her face seemed calm, self-assured. She knew this would happen.
In another flash Sarah was in the upstairs hall of her grandmother’s house. She was standing in front of a door. She didn’t have to wonder what was on the other side. She knew. She started to turn away, but the door opened by itself and Sarah saw Molly fall limp to the blood-soaked bed. She ran to the bed as she had done on that day years before. Knowing she couldn’t stop it but desperate to ask why. Molly lay lifeless before her, unseeing eyes gazing at the wall above. Sarah lifted her head to see what her mother had been looking at. It was there on the wall, scrawled in Molly’s own blood, the only message that her mother had left: Ruith. (Run.)
Mòrag jumped when she heard the door to Mama's room upstairs open and close. She held her breath as her heart beat in time with her mother's footsteps through the hall and down the stairs. She reached a shaking hand out to gather her crayons that were scattered across the worn table. Maybe if she cleaned up her mess, Mama would feel better.
She put the crayons neatly in her box and closed it. She rose to go put the box in it's place on the little bookcase in the parlor, but Mama was blocking the doorway. She stared hard at Mòrag, like she was a problem that needed to be solved. It was the same way she looked at the puzzles they liked to work on to pass the time when they got snowed in. Mòrag stood there beside her chair, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot wondereding what to do. She never knew anymore how to behave around Mama, not since the bathtub.
Now, Mama lived like a ghost; there but not there. She didn't talk. She rarely ate though she sometimes came to supper, like now. Her skin hung from her bones. She almost never spoke. Some days Mòrag tried to make Mama feel better, but it never seemed to work. Just today, she had painted a picture for her at school. It was the prettiest picture that she had ever done. She ran all the way home from the school bus stop with the paper streaming behind her like wings. She was so excited, sure that something so lovely would cheer Mama up.
Mòrag had found Mama and Granny in the vegetable garden. They'd been digging up weeds and their hands were covered in dirt. Mòrag went straight to Mama who was on her knees between the rows. "I made this picture for you, Mama! Look! It's like a fairy tale."
Mama looked up from what she was doing. Her gaunt face was smudged with dirt and some of her hair had come down to drift around her face in little wisps. For a second, just a second her mama smiled at her. Looked her right in the eye and smiled at her like nothing was wrong, and Mòrag could almost see the old Mama. The one that used to play with her and love her.
Then Mama looked down at the picture and it all changed. Her eyes darted across the picture from one thing to another taking in the castle and the princess, flowers and sunshine and her face became a mask of rage. Mòrag watched as the old smiling Mama drained away and was replaced by something terrifying. Mama slowly lifted her hand to touch the painting. Mòrag thought about pulling it away because her hand was so dirty. The fingernails were green from the weeds and there was black soil every crevace. Before she could though, Mama grabbed the painting and tore it from Mòrag's hands crumpling it and causing the thick paint to flake off and scatter in the dirt. A raw pained sound came from Mama's throat like a wounded animal as she slammed the painting to the ground and began to stab it with the trowel that was in her other hand.
"A' mise, mo bheancachd."(Come with me, my blessing.) Granny said grabbing Mòrag gently by the shoulders and pulling her toward the house. Mòrag walked toward the house still watching Mama over her shoulder as she began to throw dirt on the painting that was now in tatters. "Tha Mami glè sgìth." (Mama's very tired.)
That's what Granny always said, Mòrag had heard it a thousand times in the last couple of months. She wanted to ask why Mama was so tired. Why didn't she eat? Why didn't she play anymore or talk above a whisper? Where was the mother that had loved her? She wanted to ask her Granny all these questions, but she couldn't seem to get them past the big lump in her throat.
So she just cried. She hated crying. It made her feel like such a baby. Big girls in first grade didn't cry. Babies cried. She hated Mama for making her cry. Granny tried to make her feel better with a biscuit with honey on it. Mòrag tried to take a couple of bites to show Granny that she was alright. She'd show Mama too. She'd get out her crayons and draw a picture just as pretty as that painting, but this time she would give it to Granny or Ol'Duff.
That's why her crayons were all over the place when Mama came downstairs for supper. Mama stood there staring as Mòrag until Granny stepped between them. She put a bar of soap in Mama's still filthy hand and gave a short nod toward the sink. "Nigh do làmhan." (Wash your hands.)
Mama didn't argue. She just turned to the sink and began scrubbing the dirt off her hands. Mòrag took the chance to step into the parlor and put her crayons away. She stayed in the parlor, but watched through the door as Mama stayed at the sink giving her hands a good hard scrub with hot water. She was still scrubbing when Ol' Duff came in through the back door. He usually only stayed around the farm in the winter, but Mòrag knew he was here still in the late spring on account of Mama. Duff was the only way that Granny could get a break from watching and caring for Mama.
He came in and took off his old and patched overshirt and hung it on a peg by the kitchen door. Mòrag liked Ol' Duff. Most people couldn't see past his often dirty wornout clothes and his long hair and beard. They just thought he was a drifter or a hippy, but he had kind eyes, and always a good word for a lonely little girl. Mòrag glanced over to her little shelf on the bookcase and the box of tiny wooden animals that Duff liked to carve for her.
Without a word, he stepped up to the sink where Mama was scrubbing her hands. Steam was rising from the sink. Duff whispered something to Mama that Mòrag couldn't hear as he reached over and turned off the tap. He grabbed a towel from the rack beside the sink and used it to gently dry Mama's hands. Mama let him dry her hands, but she never looked at him. She would shift her eyes everywhere, but Duff's like she was afraid to look at him.
"Tha biadh deas." (The food is ready) Granny said in her brisk manner as she set the serving dishes on the table. Mòrag went into the kitchen and straight to her chair which was next to Granny's. Mama and Duff sat on the other side of the table. As always in spring supper was made up of whatever they could get from the garden and the forest. Tonight it was fish that Duff had caught that morning along with spinach sautèed in bacon grease and mashed potatoes and some sliced radishes. There were also biscuits that Granny made every morning.
Since Duff started coming into the house for dinner, they had fallen into a routine of eating supper and talking about their days. Duff would talk about the wildlife he'd seen and what he would go hunting for the next day. Granny would talk about the still and how it was working and what plans she had for the garden or foraging. They both made a point of asking Mòrag about her school day, and the antics of the other kids in school.
They were almost like a normal family. Granny and Duff tried very hard not to act like there was a ghost sitting at the table, but they all knew she was there. She would pick at her food. Sometimes she even took a bite, but most of the time she just pushed it around her plate and stared down at the table. The rest of them tried to ignore her, and most of the time she made that easy to do.
"Did you have your spelling test today?" Granny asked. She always spoke English at the dinner table on account of Duff not having the Gaelic.
Sarah swallowed the bite of potatoes she had just taken and mumbled. "No, ma'am. That's tomorrow."
"Then we'll go over your words while we do the dishes." Granny nodded to her. Spelling and dishes was also becoming a routine.
"Sing any good songs in music, this week?" Duff asked her. He loved to hear Mòrag sing.
"There is this one funny song about a cat named Don Gato. He falls down and breaks a bunch bones. It sounds kinda sad, but the song is really funny."
"Well, sometimes you gotta laugh or else you'll just cry." Duff said with a wink. "Maybe you can sing it for me when you're done with..."
Suddenly Sarah felt eyes on her and looked up to find Mama watching her. Silent tears streamed down her face. The others noticed too and stopped talking. They all sat there for a frozen moment staring at Mama while she stared back at Mòrag. Mama looked so sad, but Mòrag didn't believe that look anymore. She'd seen little else but sadness from Mama in the last couple of months, and her sympathy had just about run out especially after Mama had destroyed her painting.
Feeling a little reckless, Mòrag did something she had never done before. She lifted her chin ever so slightly and looked her mama right in the eye. She waited to see if Mama was going to say anything; maybe explain why she had destroyed the painting, why she had turned herself into a living ghost, or tried to drown her baby a couple of months ago. Mama didn't say anything. She just sat there staring at Mòrag with fat tears rolling down her sunken cheeks.
When her mother didn't speak Mòrag just shrugged in indiference and went back to eating her dinner. She cut off a bite of fish with the side of her fork and was scooping it up when she heard Mama's fork clatter onto her plate and Mama's chair scrape across the wood floor. With an explosive energy that none of them had thought her capable of, Mama had sprung up from her chair and tried to reach across the table for Mòrag. Her fingers hooked like claws went straight for Mòrag's throat. Fortunately, Duff was quicker and stronger. In a flash he was on his feet. He wrapped his arms around Mama pinning her arms to her side. At the same time Granny jerked Mòrag's chair back from the table and put herself in front of it in case Mama got loose.
Mama and Duff struggled for a moment until the soothing rumble of his voice saying "Easy, Molly, easy now." found its way through the rage that had once again clouded Mama's brain. When he got her calmed down enough that he could get a better grip on her, Duff walked Mama outside into the yard. Granny went to the window to watch them. No doubt Mama would calm down a lot faster without the sight of her daughter. Little Mòrag pulled her chair back up to the table and picked up her fork again. She stared down at her plate for a few seconds, but couldn't bring herself to eat anymore. She pushed her plate away and stalked out of the kitchen and up to her room.
"This is Sarah MacAlpin interviewing Alex Budge, October 12th 1995 at his home in Macon County, North Carolina. Also present, Randy Budge and Dermot Sinclair." Sarah said into the microphone before setting it down on the little table facing Budge. They had returned to their original seats on the porch each with a jelly glass of Budge's best stump water to sip while they talked.
"Simon Budge was my granddaddy." Budge said with great significance looking directly at Sarah. "And he did teach me that song you're talking about. But I'm not much of a singer, so I'll tell ya the story he tolt with it."
"Alright." Sarah would keep her talking to a minimum as long as Budge kept going.
"My people come from Scotland back in the colonial times, and they been passing this story down all that time. I can't say how much it's changed, but here 'tis, as I learnt it." He leaned back took a deep breath as if he were getting ready to sing after all. When he spoke again his voice had a faraway dream like quality.
"Long ago when Scotland was just a wild place with different tribes running their own territories, this family came over from Ireland and made to take over the place. They wanted control of the land. Now, some say they were more civilized than the tribes that were there before, but I don't know that that's true. They say that these fellers tried to get the tribes to all work together, but the old folk, that's what my granddad called the old tribes, they weren't havin' it. They fought over everything and some of 'em made friends with the new tribe and some of 'em resisted. The new people maybe didn't mean any harm, they just thought their ways were better, and they couldn't get why some of the old folk didn't want to change.
So one day the king o' the new folk goes out wandering to think. He's trying to figure out how he can get everybody to come over to his side and get along. So he gets tired and he stops by a riverbank. While he's settin' there, up swims this girl. Now, she's about the prettiest thing the king's ever seen and she's wavin' to 'im, 'Come on in, the water's fine'." Budge gave a beckoning wave.
"So he goes in for a swim. Only this girl is so pretty he doesn't pay attention and they drift downstream to an island. Now, the king thinks they're lost, but she says it's her home and he should come and meet her family.
So, she takes the king to meet her father, but her pa is old and sickly and lame. The king starts to wondering who's gonna take care of this girl and her people when her pa dies. He thinks they've got to be pretty poor if they're just living on this island and he's never even heard of her tribe before. But then she takes him over to the hearth and shows him their cookpot. It's a big ole iron kettle and every time he sees someone go to the kettle and put in a bowl or a ladle, it comes up full of food. He keeps watching and thinking that kettle's got to be empty, but they still keep comin' up with food, and they're not even scraping the bottom.
Then she takes him and shows him a cave that's hidden under a hill and in that cave is a big stone. And she tells him, 'This is the heart of our people.' Only he's got a different heart in mind. Remember, she's the prettiest girl he's every laid eyes on. So, he kisses her right there in the cave and tells her that he loves her and wants to protect her when her father dies.
Now, just when that happens, a big storm like a harrican comes up and hits this island.
When the king wakes up he and the girl aren't in the cave anymore, but on shore. And the island is gone. But they find that big iron cookpot on the beach too. So he takes her back with him and makes her his queen. They work to bring the tribes together. The old folk see that she's with him and she's one of them. And they see that he's got this cookpot that never runs out, and they start coming over to his side.
It goes slow, but by the time their son becomes king, all the tribes have come together and since his mother taught him the old ways and his father taught him the new way, he was a good king."
It seemed important to Budge that she understand that the king was good. "In the recording, Simon Budge sings a couple of lines that I didn't quite understand."
Sarah sang the lines as she had heard them in the Budge recording. Her voice was clear with that breathy twang that was commonly referred to as the high lonesome sound. It was more the sound of Simon Budge than the sound of her Grandmother.
Arbirainn i finaidh banaon chann ur afoinn
Bha righ air seachran an cèo
Ach ur pham chann ur n fawur breanain
Bibh e aig èirich a'righist
"Do those words sound at all familiar to you?"
Budge took a thoughtful sip of his moonshine and stared at the liquid for a few seconds as he rolled it around in the bottom of the old jelly glass. Sarah couldn't tell if he was thinking about the words or about the contents of the glass. The old man lifted his head and glanced over at Dermot before meeting Sarah's eyes. "I reckon I've heard 'em before. They sound familiar but I can't tell you what they mean. I don't think my granddad knew either least not that he told me."
Sarah nodded. "Did your granddad ever tell you any names for this king or the queen?"
Budge took another sip of moonshine from his glass and shook his head. He blew out a breath so thick with fumes that Sarah had to blink fast to keep her eyes from watering. "No. He never said names. He did say that the queen's people were older than names. Old as the stone, he used to say."
There it was again, that old expression that she'd heard countless times from Granny and Bridget MacKenzie. "Do you know where in Scotland your people came from?"
"Can't say I do." Budge shifted in his chair and took another sip of moonshine. "That museum in Franklin says the Budges are Lowlanders. Way I figure it, we been here so long it doesn't much matter."
It mattered to Sarah though. It could help her trace the source of the song. She tried not to show her frustration. She glanced over her shoulder at Randy. He was leaning against the post gazing out at the mountain. Turning back to Budge, "Did you teach that story to your grandchildren?"
"Aw most of em don't have time for an old man and his old stories. ''Cept for Randy over there. He likes learning the old ways." He gave her a wink and a devilish grin, "And you have a lotta time for tellin' tales while you're mindin' a still."
She smiled back at him. That was a fact she knew all too well. She'd learned many a song by the ever present beat of a thumper tank. She was glad she had found Alex Budge. Even if he hadn't known the legend behind the song, she'd have been happy to know him. She laid her hand over his gnarled work-worn one where it rested by his glass on the table. "Thank you for talking with me. I appreciate your help."
He turned his hand over to grasp hers, his face serious. "I'm glad you could record it. You'll make sure people remember."
She gave his hand one last squeeze before switching off the recorder and beginning to gather her equipment. Dermot pushed himself up off of the top step to help her. Sarah looked over to where he'd been sitting and noticed that his jelly glass was empty. She hadn't taken more than a couple of polite sips. There hadn't been much in the glass but it was strong. Fortunately Dermot seemed pretty steady.
Sarah was just stepping down from the porch, Dermot by her side when a thought occurred to her. "Hey, Budge?"
"Mmm?" He had been looking into his jelly glass in deep concentration.
"You know a man they call Old Duff?" She realized that she missed the old man, and felt guilty for not having done more to keep track of him.
Budge let out a hearty belly laugh and slapped his knee. "Shoot, girl! Everybody in the hills knows Grant MacDuff! He comes round this way at least twice a year."
Sarah couldn't help smiling back at the man with his dirty worn clothes and missing teeth, and his jelly glass full of stump water. He and Duff and Granny were why she did what she did. Their beauty and their humanity hit her so hard sometimes it took the breath right out of her chest. They were people who lived and died in these hollers and without someone like her their culture would die in these hollers too. "Well, next time he passes this way, you tell him I was here." She felt tears pricking the backs of her eyes. and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. "Tell him I remember everything he taught me."
The old man gave her a solemn nod. He knew what it meant to her. Sarah started to turn away again, but his voice stopped her. "Wait! You never did tell me the secret to your Granny's peach brandy."
Sarah gave him a knowing smile before walking back up the porch steps. Slowly, She leaned over Budge's chair and planted a kiss on his weathered cheek before whispering Granny's secret in his ear.
Budge looked at her closely as if he could verify the truth of what she said in her eyes. After a couple of seconds he burst into gusty laughter accompanied by more knee slapping. "Ha! I knew it! I just knew it!"
Sarah and Dermot climbed into Randy's truck for a ride back down to their car. When they pulled away from the house they could still hear him laughing.