I will begin with the end, for everything in here, as you will see, arrives at an inevitable consequence: death.
I have emerged from the dark and I cannot return without him. He looks at my canine form silhouetted against the moonlit backdrop of the harbour and says, “I’ll see you away, you stupid mutt.” He reaches into his car and pulls out a heavy looking spanner. This man understands his frailty, the possibility of attack, but not from the likes of me.
I slope closer to him and expel a deep growl. “Jesus, you are a big fucking pooch.” It has dawned on him I am no ordinary ‘pooch’. In the dim light I see his face drain of blood, his eyes widen as he takes in my deathly shape, my eyes of fiery embers. He girds himself and takes a swipe with the spanner. It strikes my snout but it makes no difference, I feel no pain. He kicks out at me, crashing into my middle: same thing, it only defers the inevitable. I leap and batter him, knocking him to the ground next to the car.
He reaches for the frame of the door to pull himself up. A normal hound would set about him, tear at his limbs, rip at his flesh. Me, I have one destination. I wrap my jaws around his head and, with the power of a hydraulic arm, I squeeze. I hear two things together, the crushing sound as his skull gives way under the weight of my teeth and his moan, now increasing in volume to a scream. I have no wish to prolong his agony as my final embrace cracks the skull and his brain sprays out through the gaps in my teeth. It tastes good. I have not had physical matter for such a long time and I enjoy the taste. I give a hefty twist and take his head from his body, spitting it out to within a foot of it. His eyes remain wide open, as if observing me in this task.
It is now time for me to deliver the duty for which I am destined. I reach into his chest and remove his soul. It comes easily as if it is pleased to be removed from a lifeless body. In removing his head, however, I have exceeded the mandate I was given lives ago. I have become a taker of life rather than the conveyor of souls. It is clear I can no longer be what I was destined to be.
First, though, I will take you to Lochdarrach School, the day after the Samhuinn, exactly three months before. It is the midday break when we run together, the children and I. The playground is small and we cover its length with the lightness of youth and the freedom from age or concern. I meander between them, for they do not all see me, nor are they to know I am here for one of them.
I can tell you it is not John McLeod, this lad of ten winters, who will live to take over the croft as a young man; who, like his father Iain the croft, he will be seventeen years when I come for him.
And it is not Mary McNeil, the girl of eight years of the fair skin Viking folk who settled on these shores. She is slow to cover the ground due to a fall from the cliffs at Stoer when she was six, but ma-tha, she will survive into adulthood and become teacher of this school.
It is not John Sinclair, the fastest of foot, out of reach of the rest. I will take him on his twenty-second year when he is washed ashore, his boat sinking off Callaness point.
It is not Angus Stuart, from the Islands. A bold lad of nine, he will see his life out to be one hundred and three years and he will chronicle the events to occur here. An inquisitive boy, he is not concerned in using his energy in the playground. He is a taibshears and sees those who have left their worldly form to come with me, the taibhs. He has an da shealladh and can predict a passing. He is aware of me in his midst, though avoids me, like all taibshears do.
Nor is it Andrew Dewar, a boy of nine winters, who lives down Bótha Dubh. I took his alcoholic father last year, when he overturned his tractor while on the drams. Andrew will come to me in six years when he takes his own life.
The lad trailing Mary McNeil is a dark, swarthy child from the lowlands. He is new to these parts, but not to me. He will be mine soon. It is for him, I am here.
The teacher, Eileen McIsaac, claps her hands to herald the end of playtime and a return to the classroom. “Am ri teachd ann,” she calls out, for the ancient words are enjoyed here in this school.
The children filter in one by one as they march up the ramp and through the door of the schoolhouse. Each saying, “Feasger mhath, Mrs McIsaac,” as they pass the teacher. It takes seconds for them to go inside. I hesitate, taking in the scene. You will appreciate I do not follow, but there is a fine visage for me in a highland school, a place to foresee the inevitable from the very earliest days.
It is time for the balach, Calum Rooney.
It is four beyond the noon and he waits for the mother to collect him from the school. She is late. He paces the entrance hall and peers out of the door checking if she has arrived to take him home. Fumbling with his backpack, tight on his back, heavy and uncomfortable, it nips the skin on his shoulders. Full of jotters and textbooks, it is his homework for the next day. With an empty lunchbox, he is anxious to get home for his tea.
The day is Tuesday, the first day of the eleventh month, sixteen years from the millennium, and three days to his eighth year. The days have turned, giving less daylight from an already darkening sky; the dark days, when the cold and mist combine in the glens and the waves crash against the rocks making foam on the beaches. Nothing fazes me. I do not feel the cold or the rain, nor fear the dark nor the task or the burdens or consequences before me. Nothing will defy my purpose: to take them away.
Befitting my presence and Samhuinn, the school is bedecked in spectres, witches, ghouls. Ghostly figures, these worldly emblems will be removed when the cleaners arrive later this evening. The souls have returned to whence they came; not, you will understand, that I have had respite; for once emerged I cannot return alone. As proper for the Cù-Sith, I give three howls to herald my arrival.
The balach is the one to be collected this day.