Across Running Water

Author: Fiona Macleod

At a running water, that comes out at a place called Srath-namara, near the sea-gates of Loch Suibhne, there is a pool called the Pool of the Changeling. None ever goes that way from choice, for only the crying of the curlew is heard there, or the querulous wailing lapwing.

It was here that one night, in a September of many storms, a woman stood staring at the sea. The screaming seamews [Footnote: Seamews: gulls.] wheeled and sank and circled overhead, and the solanders [Footnote: Solanders: a kind of wild geese.] rose with heavy wing and hoarse cries, and the black scarts screeched to the startled guillemots [Footnote: Guillemots: birds similar to the auks.] or to the foam-white terns [Footnote: Terns: a species of birds allied to the gulls.] blown before the wind like froth. The woman looked neither at the seafowl nor at the burning glens of scarlet flame which stretched dishevelled among the ruined lands of the sunset.

Between the black flurries of the wind, striking the sea like flails, came momentary pauses or long silences. In one of these the woman raised her arms, she the while unheeding the cold tide wash about her feet, where she stood insecurely on the wet slippery tangle.

Seven years ago this woman had taken the one child she had, that she did not believe to be her own but a changeling, and had put it on the shore at the extreme edge of the tide-reach, and had left it for the space of an hour. When she came back, the child she had left with a numbness on its face and with the curse of dumbness, was laughing wild, and when she came near, it put out its arms and gave the cry of the young of birds. She lifted the "leanav" in her arms and stared into its eyes, but there was no longer the weary blankness, and the little one yearned with the petulant laughing and idle whimpering of the children of other mothers. And that mother there gave a cry of joy, and with a singing heart went home.

It was in the seventh year after that finding by the sea, that one day, when a cold wind was blowing from the west, the child Morag came in by the peat-fire, where her mother was boiling the porridge, and looked at her without speaking. The mother turned at that, and looked at Morag. Her heart sank like a pool-lily at shadow, when she saw that Morag had woven a wreath of brown tangled seaweed into her hair. But that was nothing to the bite in her breast when the girl began singing a song that had not a word in it she had ever heard on her own or other lips, but was wild as the sound of the tide calling in dark nights of cloud and wind, or as the sudden coming of waves over a quiet sea in the silence of the black hours of sleep.

"What is it, Morag-mo-run?" she asked, her voice like a reed in the wind.

"It's time," says Morag, with a change in her eyes, and her face shining with a gleam on it.

"Time for what, Morag?"

"For me to be going back to the place I came from."

"And where will that be?"

"Where would it be but to the place you took me out of, and called across?"

The mother gave a cry and a sob. "Sure, now, Morag-a-ghraidh, you will be my own lass and no other?"

"Whist, woman," answered the girl; "don't you hear the laughing in the burn, [Footnote: Burn: a small stream.] and the hoarse voice out in the sea?"

"That I do not, O Morag-mo-chridh, and sure it's black sorrow to you and to me hearing that hoarse voice and that thin laughing."

"Well, sorrow or no sorrow, I'm off now, poor woman. [Footnote: Poor woman: a friendly term of address in Ireland.] And it's good-bye, and a good-bye to you I'll be saying to you, poor woman. Sure it's a sorrow to me to leave you in grief, but if you'll go down to the edge of the water, at the place you took me from, where the runnin' water falls into the sea-pool, you'll be having there against your breast in no time the child of your own that I never was and never could be."

"And why that, and why that, O Morag, lennavanmo?"

"Peace on your sorrow, woman, and good-bye to you now;" and with that the sea-changeling went laughing out at the door, singing a wave-song that was so wild and strange the mother's woe was turned to a fear that rose like chill water in her heart.

When she dared follow—and why she did not go at once she did not know—she saw at first no sight of Morag or any other on the lonely shore. In vain she called, with a great sorrowing cry. But as, later, she stood with her feet in the sea, she became silent of a sudden, and was still as a rock, with her ragged dress about her like draggled seaweed. She had heard a thin crying. It was the voice of a breast-child, and not of a grown lass like Morag.

When a gray heron toiled sullenly from a hollow among the rocks she went to the place. She was still now, with a frozen sorrow. She knew what she was going to find. But she did not guess till she lifted that little frail child she had left upon the shore seven years back, that the secret people of the sea or those who call across running water could have the hardness and coldness to give her again the unsmiling dumb thing she had mothered with so much bitterness of heart.

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