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Authors: Margaret Elphinstone

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The Gathering Night

BOOK: The Gathering Night
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Gathering Night

Also by Margaret Elphinstone
Available from McArthur & Company

The Sea Road
Hy Brasil


a novel

Margaret Elphinstone

McArthur & Company

For Caroline

First published in Canada in 2009 by
McArthur & Company
322 King Street West, Suite 402
Toronto, Ontario
M5V 1J2

Copyright © 2009 Margaret Elphinstone

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, without the expressed written consent of the publisher, is an infringement of the copyright law.

The writer acknowledges support from the Scottish Arts Council towards the writing of this title.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Elphinstone, Margaret
The gathering night / Margaret Elphinstone.

ISBN 978-1-55278-880-6

I. Title.

PR6055.L63G38 2010 823'.914 C2010-903951-3

eISBN 978-1-77087-116-8

Cover image: Mark Owen / Arcangel Images


The People

First Night: River Mouth Camp

Second Night: White Beach Camp

Third Night: Gathering Camp

Fourth Night: Salmon Camp

Fifth Night: Loch Island Camp

Sixth Night: Gathering Camp

Seventh Night: Gathering Camp

Eighth Night: River Mouth Camp

Author's Afterword


Bakar's family





Esti and Alazne

Hilargi and Sorné

Sendoa, Itsaso and Ortzi

mother of Bakar

sister of Bakar

sister of Bakar

husband of Alaia

daughters of Alaia and Amets

aunts of Bakar

cousins of Bakar

Other members of the Auk People

Aitor, Hodei, Zigor

Edur, Zeru




mother of Osané, Oroitz, Koldo and Itzal

Members of the Lynx People





Kemen's brother

Kemen's cousin

: R

Haizea said:

Bakar's disappearance was my first loss. It's also where this story begins. If my brother Bakar hadn't gone, we wouldn't all be sitting here now. And you two boys – listen to me, both of you! If Bakar hadn't been lost, you two would never have become brothers. You might never even have known each other. And the lives of all us – of all the Auk People – would have unfolded differently. But I can't even begin to think about that. No one can undo the threads of a story once they're tied together. Not even the spirits can do that.

I was still a child. But I remember very well that terrible winter my family spent alone at River Mouth Camp.

There were only six of us at River Mouth Camp before Bakar went away in Yellow Leaf Moon. We became six again when my sister Alaia gave birth to Esti. After Esti was born we stayed on at River Mouth Camp, even though we'd been hunting there all winter. We were walking further every day to get enough dead wood for our fire. Alaia and I always managed to fill our baskets, but we couldn't get enough meat. Only Amets could hunt, now that my brother was gone. Amets has never failed us, but you all know it takes more than one man to feed a family well all winter. Once we'd finished the hazelnuts and acorns and lily-seeds, we had to dig for roots more often. We got reed-root from the marshes. Alaia and I pulled lily-roots out of the freezing mud at the bottom of the hill-loch: it's worst when you have to break the ice before you can wade in.

My mother kept going away. She didn't seem to want to be with us any more. She wouldn't tell us where she'd been.

In the Moon of Rushes the rest of us wanted to move on. Winter no longer held us; the wind from the High Sun Sky smelt of the coming spring. But now we were afraid my mother wouldn't go with us. We still didn't know what had happened to Bakar. That was the worst winter I ever spent. In the end we stayed at River Mouth Camp until just before Auk Moon. It seemed so long! I thought about running away. I knew how to find my cousins' Camp. I'd only been there by boat, but I thought if I walked down the shores of the Long Strait I couldn't possibly get lost. It would only have taken me two or three days . . . If Esti hadn't come I think I
have run away. But that winter Esti gave us something to be happy about, in spite of everything.

I think I was angry with my mother for not being there – I don't know. I certainly never thought of her going Go-Between.

I thought Go-Betweens were terrifying, distant men who spoke to the Animals about the Hunt. How could Go-Betweens be anything to do with my mother? I couldn't understand what was happening. None of us did. At least – maybe Alaia and Amets guessed, but I never heard them speak about it. My father – I think my father . . . My father was the wisest man I ever knew. He understood everything. But he knew how to be silent too. He never spoke to me about it.

Alaia said:

And so my mother became Go-Between.

I realise now that it started when Bakar was lost. I didn't understand at first what was happening. It was only when Esti was born that Nekané really began to change. When my daughter was born I lost my mother – that's what Nekané becoming Go-Between did to me.

Esti was born in Thaw Moon. We had hardly any meat. Haizea told you how we chopped and ground lily-roots every day, and baked them in the ashes. We were getting mussels and crabs and limpets, wading into the cold sea at slack tide to pick them off the rocks underwater. Two nights before Esti was born the traps were full of lobsters. We roasted them in ashes of oakwood until the blue shells turned red. It was a good enough feast for Thaw Moon, and maybe it gave Esti the strength to come into the world. She took all night to come. Amets and my father – as you know, his name isn't in the world now – had gone hunting upriver. We were alone in the winter house – just me and my mother and Haizea, and the sound of the River. The River sings many songs at River Mouth Camp, sometimes loud and angry, and sometimes in the gentlest of whispers. On the night of Esti's birth the River sang with its whole throat. It told of snow melting in the hills, of water under the earth stirring deep roots, of white water filling empty streambeds, of overflowing banks and flooded marshes. In Thaw Moon the River sings of its own strength, and it's death for People or Animals to meddle with it.

When Esti arrived no one recognised her. I knew who my mother hoped it would be, though she hadn't said anything about it. My mother didn't hide her disappointment when she saw that my baby was a girl. Haizea cut the cord with her own knife. It's good when the youngest does that. It makes a bond, and it's right for a child to have someone younger than her own mother bonded to her. There were barely ten Years between Haizea and Esti, and see what came of it: they've never let anyone part them. Haizea never thought that Esti should be anyone other than who she is.

My little girl lay across my stomach whimpering, taking her first breaths into her new body. I wanted to reach for her, but I knew what had to happen first. Haizea and I waited, and the little one twitched and breathed against my skin. At last my mother took the baby in her hands and turned her over. I watched my mother's face in the firelight. She looked into my baby's eyes. A pine log flared in the hearth. Outside the rain fell softly. I could see Nekané didn't recognise my daughter. All she said was, ‘The child says, “I am not him. I am not him.”' And so my Esti brought grief with her, because she wasn't the one my mother had hoped for.

My daughter had no name for two days. You mothers, you'll know what those two days were like for me. If she hadn't been recognised on the third day we'd have had to cast her out. Amets and my father had not returned. The wind howled and gusts of sleet blew in from the sea. Between the showers the Sun came out, but it was pale and filled with water. I couldn't go beyond the threshold because I had my baby in a sling. I dared not take her under the open sky when she had no name. My mother didn't look into her eyes again.

And then, just before sunset, the men returned. I heard voices outside: my mother's, Amets', my father's, Amets' again. Then Amets came into the winter house. He handed his wet cloak to Haizea, and looked across at me. I'd been sewing a foxfur into the back of my tunic to make a carrying pouch for the baby against my skin. I'd laid the fur down to feed the child, and when Amets came in I was holding her naked against my shoulder. I thought Amets might be angry that I was making preparations for my baby even though she had no name. Amets met my eyes.

He took his daughter from my arms. She lay still between his hands. He looked into her eyes. She felt safe. Amets said to his little daughter, ‘I didn't recognise you at first, grandmother. I last saw you long ago, far away under the Sunless Sky. You are Esti. You've come again to bring sweetness into our lives.'

Because Amets recognised his daughter she was able to live. As the days grew longer she grew with them. She'd always be a newcomer among the Auk People because she had a name that was new to us. But she was welcome, just as Amets was welcome when he came to Gathering Camp looking for a wife. And now Esti is a name belonging to our family as well.

But all the while my mother was becoming Go-Between and I was losing her.

I hated it. But if she hadn't, I don't think you Auk People would be sitting round this fire listening to us now. That's why this story we're telling you is so important. Listen, and you'll hear how fiercely the spirits tested the Auk People. You'll see how close we came to being broken apart for ever.

But when my mother went Go-Between it was hard. Usually women who live to be grandmothers want to help with a new baby. Itsaso, you're always complaining that your mother wants to help too much! I think you're lucky. Even a woman who doesn't like her daughter often wants to love her grandchild. My mother became more distant than ever. Even if she was present in body she was often far away from us. And sometimes even in the body she had to travel, so we saw little of her.

Haizea said:

I think Amets should speak next.

Everyone knows Amets, of course! But perhaps some of you younger ones don't know how Amets came into our family. Amets came to us from the Seal People under the Sunless Sky. He met my sister Alaia at Gathering Camp. Amets could have found a place in any family among the Auk People where there was a daughter looking for a man! Lots of Auk men wanted my sister too, but it was Amets, the stranger, who finally got her.

BOOK: The Gathering Night
13.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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