One by one the Shetlands had emptied. Father said we had to make ourselves known or we were next. He was trying to get into the Scottish Stud Book and Elector was his answer. I didn’t care. I just wanted to ride Chicken.
Father said the ponies had lived among our ancestors for centuries, even before the birth of Christ. Our mares filled their stomachs on summer grass and grazed on seaweed in the ebb tides of winter. In spring, their foals were sold at auction. Everyone knew it was the stallion that determined a foal’s size and colour, but I didn’t know it, not until the summer Elector appeared above the waves with his groomed hooves on the prow of John MacKenzie’s boat, nostrils flared and blond mane curling down his shoulders like a magazine model.
It was before mobile phones and long before the Internet. Crofters on the outer Shetlands corresponded by letters shot from one island to the next by rockets. If there was an emergency it was rumoured that a woman owned a telephone on Noss, but nobody ever bothered her for the use of it to my memory. We lived without names on a crescent of heather and peat bogs. We had no name before any country tried to fix a flag on us, no name when the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden fought wars to claim us, and still unnamed when a land surveyor commissioned by Denmark allegedly gave up trying to find us and went home. Even under James III of Scotland, during the so-called reign of six hundred years of hereditary earls and lords, nobody bothered including us on a map.
Looking back, I think it was Father’s vanity that meant the end of our island. He ordered his neckties all the way from Aberdeen. Every morning, in his underpants and socks, his black hair shiny with grease, he ironed his trousers on the kitchen table. ‘I’ll show them á,’ he’d say, scowling at the mist. He wanted the island named and sent out announcements declaring us Mareland until the complaints came.
The first letter had six scorch marks across its plastic pouch, which meant it travelled from Inverness. Before that it originated in the State Department of the United States. The Americans said we had to ‘cease and desist’ using the name Mareland because we threatened the sovereignty of one of their states.
Father shot back a response. He was happy to share the name, he told the Americans, though he pointed out that our island was spelled differently and carried an unrelated meaning to their state’s, which had, after all, been dedicated to a dead British queen. The two words barely qualified as homonyms, he added. Father was always good with words. He and Uncle used to write poetry. After his reply, we heard nothing further from the United States.
The next letter originated in Edinburgh. It was sent by a Mr Edmund Griff, Secretary of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society. Mr Griff said there were well over a hundred Shetland Islands, if anyone ever bothered to count them, and most had mares on them. Any poor Glaswegian wanting to buy mares from somewhere else, he said, might get mistakenly directed to us. Father found reluctant agreement with Mr Griff’s logic. The nearest island to ours was Noss, so he called us Nossnearly.
On Nossnearly there were three crofts. One was ours, and the other two were down by the jetty. There was an elderly couple there, and also a man who used to farm mares with Father until they had a disagreement. The elderly couple were my grandparents. And the man who used to work with Father was Uncle. The only animals were Uncle’s ratter, our mares, and the puffins who nested in burrows and strolled among the gulls. For Christmas, Father roasted puffins as a treat.
The sea was always in front of you, no matter where you turned. For years I thought we lived on a boat. Even now, when I put my hands over my ears, I can hear the rhythm of the waves.
Our house stood on a field of heather above the sand and sea. We had two bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. In the sitting room there was a fireplace, and a desk where Father used to write poetry and rocket post. Mother sat by the fire in her armchair reading brochures on Greece, where Father promised to take her when we had money. Uncle had no wife, so he came to our house every night for supper and to tell me stories about the Shetlands.
One of the islands, he told me, had only a single tree – a poplar which had endured for hundreds of years on a cliff overlooking a breeding ground for razorbills. Another island was covered with bright yellow water lilies. During summer, when boat pilots passed its shores, they had to shield their eyes from the glare. Then there was the island of the cave hermits, a vertical black outcrop with cliffs as high as cathedrals. No creatures saw the hermits except the jack merlins and sea eagles that flew high over their caves and gained the hermits’ favour by keeping their location secret. Uncle said they were descended from the Norse god Ymir, the giant created from fire and ice, having sprung whole out of Ymir’s sweat. The hermits were eggless and seedless, self-creating.
As Uncle spoke I would fall asleep on the rug. I favoured the company of animals and dreamed of the glory of a hermit’s life, spent only in the company of birds. I would wake in the middle of the night to see Uncle and Father sitting together at the desk, smoking and working on their verses. Then Father spent all of the island’s money on Elector, and from that time on we had no jam or honey for bread, and Uncle did not come to our house any more.
Our mares told us Elector was coming the day before he arrived. I was in the kitchen with Father as he ironed his trousers in his underpants. Through the window we saw our ponies gathered at the shore.
‘It’s Elector’s scent,’ Father said, ‘travelling like a rocket o’er the tides.’
I sensed Chicken was in danger and cried. She was my pony because she was the smallest. After she was born, she couldn’t stand on her own, and her mum left her to die in the peat bogs. I carried her down to the sea and rubbed her legs in the water until she kicked and swam away. It was me who caught her by the mane and guided her back to shore. I called her Chicken because of her skinny legs.
Father ignored my tears. He stepped into his trousers, drank his tea at the window, and drew up figures on next year’s foals.
All that day, our mares clung to the shore. They whinnied at the sea and stamped their hooves. The older ones bit any daughters that tried to suck. After supper I lay in bed with my face to the window. The ponies draped their manes in the sea, and their breath made white castles in the sky.
Next morning, Mother made hardboiled eggs and placed them in a bowl on the kitchen table. She was wide in the shoulders and square-hipped in her skirt. As she peeled the shells with her thick fingers, I decided I would never be like her, a woman made of wood and stone and very little blood. I still don’t believe I came out of the womb of a human being who only thinks of potatoes and sweeteners for bread.
‘What do you think of the name Thorgerda?’ Father asked. He took an egg from the bowl and held it up. I checked the window. Down on the beach, the mares were still gathered at the shore.
‘The Scottish Stud Book Society,’ he said, ‘prefers Scandinavian names.’
‘But our ponies are from the Shetlands. You told me.’
Father rolled his egg across the plate of salt. ‘They might have a more ancient heritage.’
He nodded in the direction of the sea. ‘Iceland. It’s another island, not far away.’
‘I don’t like the name Thorgerda. And how do you know our ponies come from Iceland?’
‘It’s been proven scientifically.’ Father ate half his egg in one bite, wiped his mouth, and straightened his Aberdeen tie.
Mother glanced at me as she poured the tea. Whenever Father straightened his tie it was a warning that he was getting uncomfortable, and when he became uncomfortable it meant I had to be quiet.
‘Why would they leave Iceland, then? If that’s where they’re from?’
He shrugged. ‘How would anyone know the mind of a pony?’
‘How did they get across the sea? Did they swim?’
Father ate the other half of his egg slowly before he answered. ‘There was a bridge, lass. A bridge made of ice.’
‘Chicken doesn’t like ice.’
‘Just start calling her Thorgerda,’ Father snapped. ‘She’s a different pony after today.’
Mother’s wooden chair scraped across the stone floor. She went to the wall by the window and dusted off the photo of their wedding day on Noss.
‘Look,’ Father said, taking the Scottish Stud Book Society register out of his pocket. He opened it and tapped a family tree on the page, ‘The pedigree stallion Elector of Mousa combines four of the best bloodlines. He is begat of Haldor, out of Elenora. Haldor was by Odin of Marshwood, out of Mystic of Netherley – so you see, it is out of this noble line Elector comes. He will meet the pony formerly known as Chicken today. He will put his stamp on her soon enough. And the mare Thorgerda will produce a foal.’
‘She will. That is what mares are for. Right now the highest demand is for the small stock like her, and the foals these mares produce.’
It was then I realised the exact danger Chicken was in. Every spring our mares writhed on their sides in the peat bogs, groaning and kicking at the air. Some of them bled to death. Father carted them down to the rocks where the gulls pecked their bodies to bones and the waves washed them out to the sea.
‘Chicken doesn’t want anything to do with Elector,’ I said. ‘She just wants to eat grass and fetch potatoes.’
At the window, Mother nibbled angrily at her egg.
‘We’ll get a lot of money for that pony’s foals,’ Father said. He looked me up and down in my dungarees. ‘Enough to buy you proper clothes. Soon you’ll be choosing a name so we can add you to the dance list on Noss –’
I shook my head. In Noss, there were dances inside a church. The vicar sang a psalm, and then a boy’s hand fell on your shoulder and he asked you by name to dance. Our custom was that girls had to say yes. Not long after the dance was over, a wedding took place.
‘I am not interested in Noss,’ I said.
Father’s voice became like the broken blades of grass we used to blow air through. ‘Be that as it may, Chicken is going to foal. We might have protected her from last year’s stallion, but not with Elector.’
‘Because she’s been weaned. And he’s a different kind of beast.’
‘What if she runs away?’
‘He’ll catch her. He won’t take nae for an answer.’ Father tucked the Stud Book in his coat pocket. ‘If she proves difficult, I’ll put her on a tether.’
I stood up from the table and ran for the door. I didn’t even eat my egg.
‘Potatoes,’ Mother called after me.
I took the path to the heather where the yearlings grazed with the young. Chicken saw me coming and trotted to the gate. She wasn’t much bigger than the foals. She was a short-legged chestnut with seaweed hanging from her mane. I opened the gate and brought her out, and I noticed her shoes had been pried off.
I took the salt out of my pocket and she licked it in my hand. I put a pad of wadmal on her and a rivakeshie basket on her back. In the basket I put my spade and the last slice of Mother’s shortbread. I didn’t want her beneath that stallion, gasping in pain. She might die in the peat bogs and for what? Soon the men from Glasgow would be sitting around our auction enclosure in their dirty dripping coats, jabbing at the air with their cigarettes. Each summer they loaded our foals onto their boats, then stood around our kitchen table getting drunk on Father’s whisky until morning. Our mares, crying out to their foals anchored offshore, always kept me up at night.
Nossnearly’s potatoes grew in Uncle’s croft. His was a tiny house with windows black with soot. I had only been inside once, when Uncle fell ill and Mother sent over soup. He had been stretched out on a bed against the wall, books stacked around him and unfinished poems strewn across the stone floor. As I spooned soup into his mouth, I tried to read them but it was too dark.
When we reached the croft I dropped Chicken’s bridle and dug for potatoes. I’d almost filled the rivakeshie to the rush handles when Uncle came out with his ratter. He walked over slowly, taking care not to crush any flowers that might have blown over from another island.
Uncle was taller than Father. He had a limp because he’d been shot in North Africa during the Second World War. His hair was the colour of straw and his eyeglasses had cracks in both lenses. He wore a grey suit and a tie burned with ember holes from his pipe, but he hadn’t been able to buy tobacco since Nossnearly ran out of money. The old ratter had fankled hair tangled with pebbles and moss. It was going blind and stayed close to Uncle’s side.
I put the shortbread on a flat stone and kept digging. When I looked up, the shortbread was gone and the crumbs were trailing down Uncle’s face.
‘Why did Father take away her shoes?’
‘To protect the stallion when she kicks back.’
I glanced up the beach. Father didn’t like me talking to Uncle. ‘She wants to be left alone. She should be allowed to protect herself.’
‘Well, and what about us? The foals pay for your mother’s sugar and tea. For my tobacco. For your father’s rose-scented notepaper.’ He spat into the potato patch. ‘We’ve always done without any stud book. Never needed names for what we are.’ Uncle looked at me then. ‘Maybe you dinna need to be in a hurry either.’
I rode Chicken home past the gulls and puffins on the rocks. She splashed in the tide pools and even stopped to peer at the molluscs – she was like them, I decided, she was born whole. I trotted her over to the peat bogs, where in the narrow fissures she could cleave out the grass the other mares couldn’t reach on account of their thicker hooves.
You see, Shelties are not really horses. They are part rat and part human and eat anything and live. In America, Shelties carry children in the morning and pull merry-go-rounds at night. They have paraded English royalty through Windsor Park in chariots five times their size. Our mares are the toughest creatures in the world, Father always said. They could survive on seaweed and gulls’ eggs. Scientists claim Sheltie bones have been found in human dwellings three thousand years old – but how, I wanted to know, how do they know that the humans weren’t living in Sheltie dwellings? During the last war, our men went to fight in Italy and Africa, and our women worked in Glasgow at the munitions factory. Nobody landed on our island, not once, for over three years. When Father and Uncle returned, they found Shelties waiting at the shore. If the final war means all the humans are killed, our ponies will survive. They will be the last creatures to watch the waves.
The rumble of John MacKenzie’s outboard brought all the residents of Nossnearly out of doors. Sheets of white mist had wrapped our island in disguise. To greet the landing party from Mousa, we were obliged to come down to the rocks in the stinging wind – me, Father and Mother, and an arm’s length away, Uncle and his ratter. Further down the beach, Grandfather and Grandmother sat outside their croft on folding chairs, drinking tea from a thermos with blankets across their laps. Theirs was the smallest house on the island, just a room with a roof and walls of stone.
As the outboard grew louder, the mares edged into the surf. We had twenty-seven that June, including Chicken. She kept rising on her hind legs and jumping on the backs of the other mares to see.
‘Maybe they can’t land,’ I said, but nobody heard me because the ponies started to whinny. Elector appeared above the waves, front hooves fixed to the prow, wind parting his blond mane. His nostrils were bigger than his eyes.
‘Look a’ that foal-getter,’ Father said. ‘He’ll have his first filly before she knows what’s happened to her.’
John MacKenzie bobbed over the choppy waves. It wasn’t easy for pilots to approach Nossnearly. Elector stood fast to the prow, his tail flicking across his hind legs. Behind him the owner held the bridle tight. He was a squat man in a leather jacket, and he’d brought along his boy.
As he reached the jetty John MacKenzie leaped out to tie off. He wore his beard short and his eyes streamed in the wind. Down on the sand, our mares began kicking and biting each other. Elector was straining to get at them. He almost dragged the owner out of the boat. His hooves skittered as he found his land legs, then the owner released the bridle, and Elector trotted straight for the sand. He was a quick beast, low to the ground and strong.
The mares circled him. The older ones nipped at his flanks and galloped up to the scrub. They waited there with their hind legs twitching, and when they raised their tails the hot dung fell. Chicken stayed by the sea among the foals. She’d lost interest in Elector and studied John MacKenzie’s boat as if plotting an escape.
Elector paraded the sand, shaking the mist from his coat. He ignored the youngest mares and trotted for the scrub with his mane flying. He stopped at a pile of dung and sniffed. Then he squatted and his willy dropped, a thick and gruesome thing that covered the dung with steaming piss. He bared his teeth in a high-pitched whinny that made all the ponies scatter. Then he ran at his first mare with his head down.
She was a piebald with years of foaling behind her, and she resisted being nuzzled. She kicked at Elector with her rear hooves, but she’d been unshod so the stallion wasn’t harmed. He ran her back and forth and he didn’t let her once stop for breath. Soon he’d chased her into a pant, and he nipped at her shoulders and charged again and again until she’d no strength to walk. Then he mounted her. He had his forelegs pinned to her sides and his hind legs twitched.
Over at his croft, Grandfather was watching with binoculars. Father held up his thumb, and Grandfather waved back.
The poor piebald squirmed and kicked and her eyes rolled. Elector bit into her spine until she endured the full length of him. When he was finished he withdrew his dripping willy and left her for the others. He ran our mares in circles until they moved as one into the peat bogs.
The owner walked down the sand toward us, along with his boy. He lit a cigarette and ran his eyes over Mother and me. ‘I told ye it would’nae take long,’ he said. Father was already making notations in his Stud Book.
‘Spring takes her time to arrive on this island,’ Uncle said, ‘if she comes at all.’ He turned back to his croft with his ratter.
I stayed in sight of Chicken. She kept to the tide pools among the yearlings. Father walked John MacKenzie, the owner and his boy to our croft for supper. It was an eleven-hour journey from Mousa, and tradition said the stallion’s party ate first.
That night the storm came. Stones tumbled from the tops of walls. Waves pitched over the jetty and turned the sand into foam. The puffins left their burrows and took shelter in the higher rocks. They carried their frightened chicks in their beaks, like cats with kittens. The weather prevented John MacKenzie from taking the owner back to Mousa. For five nights, as the wind roared down our chimney and shook our windows, the men took my bed and left me on the rug by the fire. The boy slept in Mother’s armchair, under the canvas rigging for our boat.
In the mornings Mother put out hard-boiled eggs and bread and apologised for the lack of honey. Our butter ran out after the fourth day, but she didn’t apologise for this because the owner had eaten double portions while everyone else watched.
After breakfast, Father and the owner would set out for the peat bogs. Each day they returned with flushed faces and spoke over each other with detailed reports of Elector’s progress. I listened to the waves and prayed to any gods that might have been listening that Chicken would not be needed. Elector was working his way through the older mares. So far he’d left the yearlings alone.
On the fifth afternoon, they returned from the peat bogs grinning. ‘He’s served his twentieth,’ Father announced. Mother let her cup fall into the sink.
‘I didn’t think it possible,’ Father said.
‘Elector nae quits until he’s put his stamp on your entire herd,’ the owner said. ‘Move him to the heather next if I were ye.’ Father glanced in my direction but I pretended not to notice.
At supper John MacKenzie declared the weather turned. He brought out his fiddle and played it and Father presented the last of his whisky. Mother took her Greek brochures to bed when the men started to sing. Then the bottle emptied, Father’s chin fell to his chest, and a silence crept across the room.
‘You know what Elector did before we came ‘ere?’ the owner whispered.
‘What?’ John MacKenzie said.
‘He was a fluffer in Ireland.’
‘I’m sure you’ll tell me what that is, then?’
‘A teaser, like. Gettin’ thoroughbreds primed for the racing stallions. You should a’ seen him, leapin’ on top o’ those great big mares and goin’ in for the kill. He’d have broken their backs if I hadn’t pulled him off!’ He pointed his cigarette in my direction. ‘That one, beside the fire.’
John MacKenzie turned. I looked back at the both of them, and I didn’t blink.
‘She have a name yet?’ the owner said. John MacKenzie shook his head.
‘Someone might take her to the dances on Noss.’
Father sat up in his chair. ‘The sooner the better,’ he muttered.
‘And what does the one beside the fire have to say about that?’
‘I will not soon endure it,’ I told them. ‘A name my reward for a hand on my shoulder?’
Father adjusted his Aberdeen tie. The owner’s boy kept his eyes closed, but I knew he wasn’t asleep.
Late that night, after the men went to bed, I snuck outside with a torch. The wind screamed and I wondered if John MacKenzie had been right about the weather’s turn. I took the path to the heather and found Chicken waiting at the gate in the slanting rain. It was as if she knew I’d come to take her away. She nuzzled my pocket, and I gave her the last of the salt. Then I slipped on her bridle and led her to the jetty.
The waves knocked Nossnearly’s boat against the mooring. It was smaller than John MacKenzie’s with a round hull like a bowl. I climbed in and pulled the outboard until it caught. Along the shore, the crofts stayed dark. If Chicken hadn’t jumped in after me and planted her hooves to the prow, I might not have been brave enough.
Uncle said the hermit outcrop stood on the lee side of our island. He said I would know it by the jagged black cliffs rising to the clouds like cathedral spires. As I left the jetty that night, I pictured the hermits deep in their caves. Surely there would be room for two more.
I used the tiller to guide the rudder like Uncle taught me. The sea showed no sign of calming. I went up the waves instead of across them, and when we came crashing down Chicken kept her hooves fast to the prow as Elector had done. Inside each wave, I saw the faces of dead mares.
Soon an outcrop appeared in the distance. The black rock rose in vertical columns, an impenetrable series of cliffs with a narrow sliver of a beach for anyone who wanted to come ashore and disappear. A place like that could never be bridged. It would be there, I told myself, that Chicken and I would survive.
It took a number of passes to get near enough. The waves almost pitched us into the sea. Chicken strained at her bridle, anxious for land. I didn’t have a chance to cut the motor before she jumped out and swam.
I stood up in the boat and called her name. I bobbed in the sea in the last of the storm. Then I saw her, scampering to the sand and shaking out her coat. She turned and looked back, waiting for me to follow. As the waves pushed me further away, I lost my nerve. I thought of what it would be like to slowly starve. I thought of the cold nights without fire. I turned the boat round, and when I looked back I saw her head lowered and her mane draped in the sand. I don’t know how I steered home through my tears.
The next morning the weather cleared as John MacKenzie predicted. After breakfast, he prepared his boat. Father ate his egg quickly and did not look at me on his way to the heather. He and the owner were going to put Elector on a halter and lead him to the yearlings.
I stayed at the kitchen table with Mother and the boy. ‘What’s it like on Mousa?’ I asked him.
The boy’s fingers tightened around his teacup. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘We just farm stallions.’
A moment later Father threw open the door. His face was white. ‘Where is she? Where’s Thorgerda?’
Outside, the owner had Elector on a halter. The stallion stamped his hooves inside our garden, nostrils flaring. He’d served over twenty mares and looked as impatient as the day he arrived. Chicken will never know that particular beast, I told myself. I will be like the jack merlins and sea eagles and gain favour by silence.
‘Tell me,’ Father said.
Mother’s chair scraped across the floor. She reached across the table for my wrists, and she held me down.
The owner brought Elector closer. ‘A stallion likes his yearlings, so. It’s nae good to keep him waiting.’
‘Where is she?’ Father barked.
‘Gone,’ I said. ‘I won’t tell you where, not ever.’
Mother let go of my wrists. She slapped me, hard in the face, and only the stallion had the decency to look at the ground.
That day, John MacKenzie took the owner and his boy back to Mousa. Elector stayed with our mares through summer, but Father would always blame me for the blight that came in spring, when not a single foal was born. Uncle said our island had been stricken. He’d seen one of the older mares licking something dead out in the peat bogs, but the gulls had stripped it to bones by the time he’d reached the remains.
All I know is that Elector ran unbridled. He herded our mares from one side of Nossnearly and back again. The vet from the mainland had no answers. I told him a new species of Sheltie will appear one day, a breed of ponies sprung from the sweat of giants.
The next few months without money were difficult. We ate potatoes without butter, eggs without salt. By winter, all of Nossnearly’s residents were obliged to board John MacKenzie’s boat for Glasgow, so that we might accept the government’s offer of a council flat.
It was fifty-six years before I returned to our island. It was Uncle Bill’s poems I was after. Before he died, he told me he’d left them all behind, scattered on the stone floor. I came back by fishing boat in a rain I hadn’t seen the likes of since Nossnearly, squeezed into the pilot’s cabin among the life jackets, accompanied by men with thick hands and hot breath. I wasn’t worried by them. All my life I had managed to avoid the tether.
The outer Shetlands had long been cleared, the ponies placed behind fences. But that afternoon, as we passed the hermit outcrop off Nossnearly, there was a shape on the sand, barely visible through the rain. The ghosts of our memories are sometimes our only sustenance. I’ll always believe I saw my Sheltie standing on the shore, her hooves planted in the seaweed, staring out at the waves.
'The Elector of Nossnearly' by Rob Magnuson Smith won the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.