Mother Cary’s Butterknife


So, no pictures in this and almost no conversations so Alice wouldn’t like it. But given that it won’t get an airing with an ISBN number on it, I thought I’d put it here. Part of my ongoing love affair with selchies and mermaids and my sneaking suspicion that I might be one or the other. The core of this is a ‘trad’ story I read in a wonderful book called ‘The People Of the Sea.’ I havent read the original story for a while so I’ve sort of forgotten which bits I made up and which I didn’t. Anway, hope you like it…


A hundred things can go wrong at sea, there are so many ways to drown. And when there’s a storm running with waves as high as your mast top, that hundred becomes a thousand. A boat is a fragile refuge, little more than a veil of thought, against the cold and anger of the ocean.

So fishing is job for heros; or fools; or dreamers and there was a little bit of all three in young Keenan Mowat

He was the youngest of three brothers. The youngest by a long, long mile. His elder siblings were big men with chests as broad as doors and arms like plaited ropes. Useful, that’s what folk called them. Useless is what they called Keenan. But his brothers knew better. Keenan might be too weedy to take the wheel or haul a line, but he had a special talent: he loved the sea. Not the way most fisherman love it, like a difficult girlfriend who they don’t understand but can’t resist, or a nagging wife who pushes their nose against the grindstone. No, Keenan loved the sea as if he and it were two halves of the same creature, and the sea loved him right back. His brothers knew that, with Keenan aboard, somehow they would always come home safe, with fish in their hold.

On the night our story starts, Keenan was sitting on the harbour wall where their family’s boat, ‘The Goose’, was moored slowly riding up on the tide. His brothers were in old Mother Cary’s pub, getting a hot dinner and few pints inside them before the cold night’s fishing. But Keenan preferred to be outside in the smell of salt water, with the sigh of the swell washing up the quayside.

The first stars were out and the sea was so calm that they showed on its surface like jewels against a silk gown. All along the harbourside, the lights came on, yellow in the blue of the night.

It was almost time. Keenan was about the step into the pub and give his father the nod, when a car drove up along the quayside. Not a fisherman’s car, some old banger with half the body work rusted away, or a clapped out sports job that only started every third Saturday night. No, this was a swanky car, with paint as pale and neat as foam. A convertible too, with its top down and all the chrome gleaming. It was wide and stately, like a whale and it came to a stop right where Keenan sat, with his legs dangling over the water.

A great, tall man with a tower of tangled white hair got out. Well, not so much got out, as unfolded, and stood upright, looking down on Keenan. His face was as wrinkled as a map of the western isles and his eyes, blue-green, like a wave with the first low light of morning shining through it.

It wasn’t comfortable to be sitting looking up at such a great height of a man. So Keenan stood up, though his small stature made little difference to the situation.

The man stared, stern as a church steeple, into Keenan’s face while he spoke. His voice was strange, like storm waves rumbling in over a rocky shore. It was the sort of voice that made you listen.
“The sea looks fair tonight,” the man said, “ does it not?”
Keenan nodded. He wasn’t sure where his voice might be, but for sure it wasn’t in his throat at that particular moment. The man rumbled on
“It looks fair for a reason.” he said, “ It’s full of wanting. Many men will go to the bottom tonight, you and your brothers with them, unless you heed me well.”
The man’s eyes burned blue and his voice rolled so deep Keenan felt it coming up his legs through the stone of the quayside.
“Take with you a hook, an axe and a silver sword, and be ready. “
Keenan nodded again, but that didn’t seem to be enough,
“Tell me boy,” the man demanded, “what must you take?’
Somewhere down in his belly Keenan found a shrivelled shred of voice and stuttered out,
“A hook, an axe and a silver sword.”
The man tipped his head, grimly. Then he folded himself back into his car and drove over the quay and into the water without splash.

Keenan’s knees went to jelly and he sat down fast. He looked out at the ocean sighing under the starlight. The man was right, it was full of wanting. Its surface seemed velvety like skin that wanted to be touched. Keenan could feel the lonely heartbreak of it, pulling at him. For the first time in his life, he was afraid of the sea.

At that moment Keenan’s brothers burst out of the pub, scolding Keenan for not having called them earlier, eager to cast off on such a fine, calm night.

No use, Keenan knew, to try and tell them about the man in big car, and the warning he’d given. No use trying to stop them going fishing when the weather seemed set fair and the tide was right. All he could to was take the man’s advice and be ready.

But there was so little time. Already the two men were onboard, clearing gear, starting the engine. In a moment Keenan would be expected to cast off and jump down onto the deck .

In his mind Keenan raced through the man’s list trying to match it up with things he knew were already on the boat
A Hook : plenty of those: hooks for catching fish, hooks for gaffing them, two or three boat hooks.
An Axe: two of those, one lashed to the wheelhouse door to cut fishing gear free in a hurry if it caught in the propellor, another at the bottom of the rear locker.
But a silver sword? Keenan was pretty sure a rusty penknife wouldn’t do. His brain rushed through an inventory of every object he knew to be on board. Nothing, nothing, nothing, was in the least bit like a sword made of silver.

And then: Mother Cary’s butter knife popped into Keenan’s head and hung there, gleaming. It had a blade with two sides, just like a sword, and a handle inlaid with twining patterns. And it was real silver, Mother Cary always said so. It hung in a glass case lined with velvet over the bar, all that remained of Mother Cary’s life as a servant in a grand, grand house when she was a girl.

It wasn’t the size of a sword, but it would have to do. Keenan gave the mooring line another turn around the stancion, yelled to his brothers to wait, and raced into the pub.

There was no time for any sort of explanation, Keenan ran through the astonished drinkers and snatched the glass case from over the bar. He smashed it on the floor. Before Mother Cary could even begin to scream, he was out of the door, down the quay and leaping for the deck with the mooring rope coiled in his hand, and the silver butter knife, safe, next to his heart.

Keenan’s brothers set a course straight out over the silk smooth sea.
Further and further from land it took them. The calmness of the sea seemed to have put the two big men into a trance. When Keenan asked where they were going, and when they were going to set their nets, they just smiled and smiled, and kept the boat chugging on.

Keenan stood in the bow, watching the Goose’s white breast push the water aside, and hearing it sigh in return. Out and out they went until land wasn’t even a vague smudge on the horizon. And every time they went to set their nets, the fish moved on, luring the boat further and further from the shore.

Then, when they were too far out for there to be any hope of running for a safe harbour, the change came as sudden as the spring of a trap. A wind howled down from the starry sky and the sea leapt up like dragon’s teeth. In moments, the Goose was surrounded by waves bigger than any Keenan had ever seen before. They punched the little boat like the fists of a giant, swamping her decks, threatening to break her apart.

And the worst of it was that Keenan’s big, brawny brothers stood idle while the Goose floundered in deadly peril, as if the sudden storm had struck them still and stupid. So it was Keenan, little Keenan, too weak to take the wheel or haul a line, who found the strength to lash his brothers to the mast, so they could not be washed over board and to wedge a boat hook through the wheel to give him leverage enough to steer. He fought the storm alone, keeping the Goose from being broadside to the waves, steering her straight up and down their towering sides. Each time the Goose was swamped with water heavy and cold as ice, Keenan wiped the salt water from his face and clamped his shivering body to the wheel again.

The little Goose would not go down. One giant wave after another tried to clip her wings and still she flew. And then, as if the sea was tired of playing and wanted now to finish this long game, a wave came, twice the size of any that had come before. Keenan saw that there was nothing left to do, but hope the end would be quick.

“Take with you a hook, an axe and a silver sword, and be ready. “
The old man’s voice rumbled up in Keenan’s heart, and with it a great foam of fury. What good were hooks and axes, a sword of silver against the sea? He pulled the boat hook from the spokes of the wheel and with a roar of anger, threw it into the dark face of the approaching wave.

Like a popped balloon or a puppet whose strings are cut, the wave collapsed into a splashy calm, no more deadly than a paddling pool. The Goose bobbed, light as a toy on a boating lake. But Keenan had no time to stare in wonder for another wave was coming, a moving cliff of water, approaching fast and purposeful.

Keenan wrenched the axe from behind the wheel house door and held its long handle in his two hands. Round and round he spun on the Gooses deck, building speed and force. Faster! Faster! Faster; then, let go! The axe flew arching through the spray and salt, showing its bright steel-shine like a tiny spark against the dark face of the wave. It vanished with a splash too small to see and instantly the wave was gone: fallen, soggy as a failed cake. Keenan laughed aloud and danced screaming and half mad upon the slippery deck but the sea was not quite done.

The third wave was something out of all imagination. As if all the water of the deep below the Goose’s keel had gathered up and up, to push her down at last.
It rose and rose, blotting out the pattern of the stars, until there was nothing left in all the world but one small boat and the wave-mountain, black as rock, bearing down upon her.

Keenan stood amazed, and looked at the deadly wave: It was beautiful! Smooth and lovely like dark-blown glass. He felt an aching to be engulfed by it: utterly taken and consumed. But his brothers’ stunned idleness had gone and they screamed in terror at the sight of this third and greatest danger. Keenan woke from his trance and pulled the silver-sword-butter-knife from where it lay, warm by his heart, drew back his arm and flung it towards the wave.

It flew like an arrow small and true, impossibly high, and pierced the wave just below its foaming crest. The solid wall of water shivered, sighed and turned to rain, which fell soft as a kiss on Keenan’s upturned face.

The sea did not calm entirely but waves and wind grew smaller, more familiar and manageable. There was water in the engine and the propellor had sheered clean off. Keenan’s brothers, brisk and burly once again, fashioned a sail from an old tarpaulin, and nailed a plank to the broken rudder. They steered the little Goose through the night, but as the lights on some unfamiliar shore showed land was near, she began to take on water. They left her drowning on a sandbank and swam for their lives.

The three brothers crawled up the beach as the sun crept pearly grey over the horizon. To right and left along the tideline were bits of boats, boats Keenan had known all his life. And bodies, men and boys, from his village and every other village along the coast. A harvest of ships and manhood taken by the sea. More dead than alive themselves Keenan and his brothers lay in the marram and closed their eyes.

It was night again. Headlights blazed. Somehow a car was driving over the sand and pebbles, the driftwood and the wreckage. Closer and closer it came until Keenan was caught full in its beams. Half blinded he stood there and found his brothers standing right beside him.

A voice came from behind the wheel of the car. The voice of the tall man with the white hair.
“Get in lad, you and your brothers both.”
They got into the car, Keenan in the front seat and his two brothers crammed in the back, their knees up to their noses.

Keenan couldn’t tell how long they drove, what they passed on the way, or even, when they got there, what town it was. It was like every town he’d ever been to and yet not like any one of them at all. Men and boys he’d just seen washed up, dead as cod, on the beach, walked the streets. Their faces were pale under the streetlights but with each one was a woman – some dusky dark, some fair as Spring, some flaming red. And all of them beauties, women who you’d turn your head to see and not care who saw you looking.

The car drew up before a hotel, lit up from top to bottom like a Christmas tree.
“Out now boys, “ said the old man, “ Time to pay your bills for this night’s work.”
Inside in the bar, they sat round a table the four of them. Keenan had a drink of whisky before him just like his brothers.
The tall man turned to the eldest brother.
“Up the stairs with you lad. Into the room to the right. And do what you’re told when you get there.”
and to the next brother he said
“Up the stairs with you lad. Into the room to the right. And do what you are told when you get there.”
and then he turned to Keenan.
“And you my fine lad, go up ‘til you can go no further. Then, through the door with you.”

Up the stairs they went, with all the hullabaloo of the hotel bar falling away below them. The first brother to the right, the second to the left leaving Keenan alone on a long, long dark staircase. Up and up he went as if he were climbing to the top of the world from the deepest ocean depths. And there at last was a door, a sea-blue door, with flaking paint, and woodwork faded by salty winds. Keenan turned the handle and stepped through.

It was beach hut! Flooded with Summer light and the sound of a soft surf whispering. At the end of the room another door opened onto the sunlit beach and a girl of about Keenan’s age sat looking out at the sea. She was dressed in shorts and an old T shirt that Keenan thought might once have been his own. Her bare legs were tanned and her bare feet pushed into the sand.
Keenan had the strangest feeling that somehow he knew her.He sat down beside her in the doorway and as she turned towards him he knew he’d known her all his life.

She smiled at him and lifted up her chin. There stuck in her chest, just at the top of her breast bone was Mother Cary’s butterknife. Keenan knew at once he’d put the knife in the girl’s body. He was appalled but when he started to say that he was sorry, she only smiled sadly and said
“It’s not your fault Keenan Mowat. You only did what my father told you. The old rogue wants to keep his daughters forever. But you could take it out for me.”
The knife was buried up to its little patterned hilt. A wound that should surely be fatal. Keenan had heard of people surviving stabbing only to die when the weapon was pulled out. His hand hesitated and pulled back.
“You won’t hurt me, “ the girl told him gently, and laid her long fingers on his bare arm. ”Just take it out.”
Keenan took hold of the knife’s hilt and the girl looked into his eyes, as slowly he pulled the knife free.
“Put your hand on the wound, “ she told him and as Keenan touched her cool skin, the wound closed beneath his fingers.

The hut began to fade. Keenan could feel that the girl was slipping away, as if the whole world was tilting so as to slide her from him. He wiped the butterknife on his trousers and reached out to hand it to her
“ It’s all I have to give you.” he said, “ Keep it so I’ll know you, again when we meet.”
The girl looked at him, slow and solomn, her look as dark as a great wave,
“Are you sure?” she said
“Quick,” said Keenan, “take it before I lose you.”
Her fingers wrapped around the butterknife, and green salt water closed over over her smile.

Keenan found himself falling down the long staircase with the old man’s voice booming around his head
“Keenan Mowat, you and your brothers must never go to sea again. Do you heed me lad?”

Gulls and crows calling over the corpses brought Keenan back to the world. The sun was up and beside him his brothers lay sleeping. The oldest held a boat hook and the other an axe, their arms cradling the tools tenderly, like lovers. When at last they woke, there didn’t seem much need for talking.
“Fishing never did make much of living.” said the oldest brother
“A shop” said the other, “there’s money in retail I reckon.”
“Keenan can go to cousin Andrew in Wisconsin. “ said the oldest,
“That’s a good long way from any sea!” said the other.

Keenan made a fine doctor. Emergencies were his field. Taking prompt action under pressure. Staying calm with a storm raging all around him. His work engulfed him, saving lives and sometimes losing them was all his world. From where he lived his life, in the middle of a continent the fishing life he grown up with seemed as distant as the ocean. Only in in his dreams did the sea come close, green and cool, whispering clear up the long shore of his soul.

And then his brother’s died. Together all their lives they passed within a day of each other. Keenan took a plane to go to their funeral but when he reached the little airport for the hop over the sound to the island, the flight had gone.
“If you hurry, “ the lady at the tourist booth told him, “you’ll get the ferry.”

It was a calm night. So calm the frosty stars reflected in the silky sea. Keenan breathed in the cold salt smell of the sea, and felt his heart turn in his chest. He wondered if it might be time for him to retire from being a doctor of emergencies.
By the time the call ‘Abandon Ship!’ went through the ferry there was water almost lapping into Keenan’s bunk. He climbed out on deck in his bare feet.
It was chaos. Lifeboats launching, people shouting and wild sea like dragons teeth leaping all around in the howling wind. The ferry was going down it was clear.

Keenan ignored it all. Out in the bow, leaning on the rail as if taking the air on a sweet summer night, was a woman. Her back was to him, yet there was something in her silhouette he knew, and when she turned to him as he approached, she said his name,
“Keenan Mowat, I thought my father told you never to go back to sea?”
She laid her long fingers on his arm and he saw, gleaming in the neckline of her coat, Mother Cary’s Butter knife held on a silver chain. Keenan smiled and took her hand.
“I’ve always loved you.” he told her,
“And I’ve always loved you right back.” she replied.

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