Northern Lights – Episode 45

“I killed my mother.”

Maggie’s words made Lilias reel. She remembered this room as it was six years ago after her daughter’s funeral. Vividly she saw a twelve-year-old girl crouched against a wall in the shadows, horror in the staring eyes.

“Your pa shielded ye?”

Maggie nodded.

“He made me promise no’ to tell anyone what I’d done.”

Lilias gasped. She had never forgiven her son-in-law for his wife’s death.

“But he never denied it! He turned me oot and warned me never to return. Now I see – he wanted ye to have peace o’ mind and my presence would be a constant reminder!”

It seemed Walter Cargill had denied her access to her grandchildren for love of his troubled wee lass.

Lilias hirpled across the floor and sank on to the fireside chair, holding cold hands to the heat. Gusts of wind moaned through the cracks in the storm door.

“When Papa died and you came here I could not look ye in the eye.”

“There was bad blood between us,” Lilias agreed. “But your pa’s gone, God rest him. I need tae ken the truth now.”

Maggie sat down on the rug at her grandmother’s feet, staring into the fire.

“Do ye remember there was a glut o’ herring the winter Mama died?”

“Every fishwife remembers that!” Lilias’s eyes gleamed. “Huge shoals abandoned the northern waters for the south. Fisher fleets were oot in force all along the east coast.”

Maggie nodded.

“Papa was out day and night in his five-man yawl. Then word came that caller herring were fetching higher prices in Aberdeen.

“We needed the money so Mama urged Papa tae cast his nets further up the coast. He was sweer tae leave because there was illness doing the rounds that winter and Mama had a cough. She just said she was fine, so off he went.”

A log caught and flared, making Maggie jump.

“Soon after Papa left, a storm brought blizzards and gales. He reached Aberdeen and sold his catch, but the ship was stormbound.”

Lilias nodded.

“Arbroath aye suffers when strong winds bring freezing air from the far north where the whalers go. Mama and I brought in a large supply o’ fuel from the shed,” Maggie went on. “We tended the fires day and night to keep the house warm. Then snow piled up in drifts, blocking the door, and we couldna get out.”

She shivered.

“Mama’s illness grew worse. Her chest hurt and soon she could hardly breathe. I gave her a hot drink wi’ honey and she kissed me and seemed better. That evening I fed the young ones and sent them off to bed early, for I knew I must tend the fires.”

Maggie breathed deep.

“Mama called out. I went through to the bedroom and found her feverish. I didn’t know how to help so I sat holding her hand. It soothed her and after a while her breathing eased.

“She drifted into a peaceful sleep. I’d only meant to sit a few minutes and get on wi’ the work, but I fell asleep. It was the freezing cold that roused me, hours later.”

Maggie turned to Lilias, stricken.

“Grandma, I hadn’t stoked the fires! I ran through the house and found cold ash in every grate and the air like ice. I tried to relight the stove but it wouldna burn for me.

“I ran back to ask Mama what to do, but she lay cold and lifeless. And then I knew I’d killed my mother.”

Maggie buried her face in her hands.

Lilias leaned forward.

“Lassie, listen tae me now! You hardly knew your grandpa Spink. When our lass fell in love wi’ your pa there were arguments and bitter rows till she ran away and married him. We never forgave your pa for stealing her awa’. Now I ken, too late, that he would hae been a true son tae us.”

She wiped her tears away.

“One rainy day your grandpa came home soaking wet after fishing. At first I thought he’d caught the cauld, but the illness grew worse and followed the same course ye just described.

“I, too, sat by my man’s bedside and held his hand tae soothe his struggle. I watched as he settled to sleep wi’ a peaceful sigh. Syne I kissed his dear lips as he drifted gently awa’ to the land o’ the leal.”

Lilias fell silent for a few minutes.

“There’s a nurse in Auchmithie wha’ put a name tae his illness, Maggie. She said it was an ill humour o’ the lungs that surgeons call pneumonia. I’m sure your mama also succumbed tae it.”

Maggie lifted her head.

“It wasna my fault?”

“No. The illness already had the upper hand and nothing could save her. But you sat by your mama’s side wi’ a warm, loving hand clasped in hers. She was not alone as she slipped peacefully awa’ tae join her pa in the land o’ the leal. This should bring peace o’ mind tae both o’ us, Maggie.”

After a tearful silence, Maggie nodded.

“Aye, it does, Grandma.”

They hugged, sat in the firelight’s friendly warmth.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!