She glides slowly under the water, laughing as the seal pups spin their playful circles around her. Her body is fluid, and she feels the heady mixture of joy and relief that accompanies a long-awaited homecoming. The warmth of the North Atlantic drift heats the seas around the Shetland Islands and in this moment, she can hear all the voices of the sea. However, even in this languished state she can feel the beginnings of that familiar tug that she knows will take her far from home and all that is familiar. Suddenly she is pulled to the water’s surface thrashing and screaming as she has been every night for as long as she can remember.
Slowly Hilda becomes aware of the gentle ticking of a clock and the sound of the rain on a window. At the same time, she feels the stiffness and pain enter her joints and the weariness that comes from living in an 87-year-old human body. She is lying in a single bed in the bedroom of a small crofting house in Burra, one of the Shetland Islands. She has lived here as a child with her parents, then later with her own husband and children and now finally alone as an old woman. Every part of this house contains a thousand memories which are a source of both immense comfort and at times overwhelming loss. Hilda’s day follows the same rhythm, a cup of tea followed by a short walk (which takes much longer than it used to) to the Sands of Minn. Here she will swim as she does every day of the year. Entering the water brings with it a sense of peace that has helped her to survive the losses of those she has most loved. These last few years the weightlessness of the sea has also provided a welcome balm from the constant aching in Hilda’s bones.
Although Hilda’s life now may seem quite unremarkable, it has not always been so. When I said she had lived in this house forever that is not strictly true. She was found on 21st June 1900 as a baby on a beach in the uninhabited Shetland Island of Hildasey (hence her namesake). A young couple, who had sneaked ashore for a romantic day trip, were the ones who found her and later went on to raise her as their own. The couple had followed the eerie sound of seals barking until they came across a nearly hidden alcove where they were met with the sight of a new-born baby lying naked on a bed of seaweed. The beach was otherwise abandoned, apart from close to one hundred seals in the bay who gave the appearance of standing guarding over the baby. With nobody else on the island and no boats moored in the jetty how and when the baby had arrived there was a source of much speculation in the Islands. It is still not unusual to hear the conversations stop and the whispering begin when Hilda goes into a shop or the post office even now after 87 years.
People are unsettled by things they can’t explain and readily chose to believe that the baby had been abandoned by a young unmarried mother desperate to avoid the shame and the subsequent chains of her mistake. Hilda, however, always knew she had not been abandoned but rather given to the Islands as a gift from the sea herself.
There is an agreement between the land and the sea that has been in existence since the dawn of time. This agreement has long been forgotten by those on land (who prefer that which can be understood and controlled) but remains honoured by the sea. The agreement decrees that on the first summer solstice of each new millennium the sea will offer up one of their own in exchange for the lives that have been taken by the sea. A precious life in exchange for those lives lost, a peace offering between realms if you like. This life given by the sea will take a human form and Hilda was a beautiful child with long dark hair and eyes that reflected the colour of the sea on any given day. She spent most of her days alone at the beach collecting shells and playing with the crabs and seals. The locals considered the child to be ‘old for her years’, ‘sullen’ and ‘strange’. Of course, Hilda was as old as creation itself and carried with her the souls of all those the sea had taken from them.
While Hilda struggled to understand human words the voices of the sea were as clear as her own. She heard the Orcas on their migration paths, the seals tangled in fisherman nets and the porpoises dancing on the waves. The waxing and waning of the tides ran through her blood and she could not bear to be far from shore. Luckily on Shetland no point on land is ever far from the shore, making it easier for the sea to keep watch over one of their own. However, very few creatures can live in both the sea and the land. As Hilda grew more familiar in the human ways she heard less and less of the sea voices.
In time, the local people had come to accept her and sought out her advice and blessing before crossing the treacherous seas around the island. Hilda did what she could to protect them, but the ancient rules of the agreement cannot easily be unwritten. She had lived a good life here and at times could almost believe Shetland was her home. Having experienced the great joys of love and motherhood herself, she now felt more keenly the sorrow for those souls who were lost to the sea in this cruel exchange. It was clear to Hilda that no offering, not even another life, can ever replace those taken and the sea’s millennial peace offerings were futile.
With her husband now passed and her children long since flown the islands her pull to the sea grows stronger. Hilda spends more and more time in the sea, listening for the voices that remain just out of her reach. Increasingly a part of her never leaves the sea even as her body returns to the land and her croft. Her other respite is in her dreams where she longs to remain under the water unshackled by her human body. Each day the seals are there to greet her as she enters the sea and Hilda knows they are waiting, as she is, for her return. She wonders how she can explain this to her children and grandchildren who have only ever known the ways of the land.
Hilda wakes on 21st June 1987 with the whisperings of the sea carried on the wind. Once again, she can hear the orcas, seals, porpoises, and a myriad of other sea creatures. In the simmer dim tonight, she will take her boat over to her ‘birth island’ – Hildasey – as she has done each solstice since getting her first boat aged nineteen. She will return to that same alcove where she was found 87 years ago today where she will find the seals once again offering their protection. As she enters the sea this time, she will shed her human body as she knows there will be no return to the surface. As she experiences the joy and relief that accompanies a homecoming, she will mourn the loss of a life for those that knew her as Hilda.
The islanders will find Hilda’s boat on Hildasey but not her body which will have once again merged with the seas. People, unable to accept the unexplainable, will no doubt draw their predictable conclusions. She just hopes that her children will understand that the fairy tales were always true and so much of what matters most cannot be put into human words.
© Homecoming, 2022, Nina Patterson
Homecoming is the first story Nina has written, and she is delighted that it has been included in the magazine as ‘Tartan Noir’ is one of her very favourite genres. Nina has always been an avid reader and loves stories that are unpredictable, psychologically compelling, mystical and a little off kilter! She was born in Aberdeen but spent her childhood overseas (mainly Asia) before returning to Scotland aged 17 to attend Edinburgh University where she studied Psychology. At this time Nina’s parents returned to live permanently in the Shetland Islands. She has visited Shetland every summer holidays since childhood and worked for Shetland Health Board for several years in the late 90s. She currently lives in Chester with her husband and two teenage children and is a Lecturer in Public Health, Mental Health and Wellbeing at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales. Shetland is the place that most encapsulates ‘home’ for Nina and the places in the story hold many special memories for her (Hildasay was owned by her late Uncle). The dramatic landscape and weather of the Islands created the perfect canvas for a story centred on the give and take between the land and the sea.