This is a story washed up by the tide and written in shells and seaweed…
The lord came to the garret precisely one week later. He sat down on a slice of tree trunk and patted the wall beside him.
‘Good stone,’ he said, ‘I could pull this down and sell it.’
The pilgrim woman leant against the ladder to the loft. The bells on her dress tinkled.
‘You will have your first peppercorn story – we made a deal.’
She settled herself and began:
‘A girl lived by the sea with her father, a fisherman and crofter. It was not a placid sea like this one, but the deep and tempestuous edge of a wide ocean. Everyone feared it – rightly.
Its rages were so wild, the fishermen rarely dared to go out. They spoke of a malicious sea demon chasing their fragile boats back to shore. A vast beast in the distorted shape of a horse.
The land too was hard and yielded up more thistles than crops. The people were lean and hungry. The croft work was harsh and demanding. Yet whenever her chores were done, the girl went down to the shore and played her tin whistle.
The fierce waves had made clean, bright sand from the rocks and the bays were wide and beautiful. She would find a dell amongst the dunes and play. The marram grass and the calling birds joined in with her music.
One day towards sunset, she heard a snatch of tune in a curlew’s cry and played it back. Over and over she practised till she had made a little song of it. So lost in her music was she, that she did not see the waves change.
The curls at their tips became froth. The froth became clots of white foam. The foam became blizzards of spume. And out of the spume came a beast – a wild white horse of the waves, full of spirit and freedom. Its hooves flashed in the sunset and she looked up from her playing.
Her tune stopped and the wave-beast reared up. It snorted and whinnied up a storm. Seawater surged up the sand to the hems of her skirts. Fear and delight fought inside her. She put the tin whistle to her lips and began again. Her breath trembled and her notes were ragged, yet the sea-stallion calmed down.
There was magic in the song the birds had taught her. With courage and the music she loved, she had tamed the wild sea.
It was not long before the fishermen noticed. Every time she played, the tumult of the waters was stilled.
‘The waves are calm,’, they cried, ‘our time has come to fish.’
And they took out their boats and filled their nets with the silver darlings. Day after day they made her play and day after day they went out. They had so much fish, the women could send tins and tins of it away and the trade grew. All the villagers grew sleek and fat as seals – except one.
The playing girl had so little rest. Her father was the richest of all – but he grew harsh and demanding. She had to play – did she not see her people depended on her?
One night – for now the villagers sailed with lamps and hauled everything out of the depths at all hours – the wave-beast crawled onto the sand. No-one heard or saw it. They were too busy canning and loading and counting the riches to come.
It left a wet trail all the way to the dunes to where the girl played her tin whistle. It was a feeble old nag now, bony and dull.
‘The bay is all but empty of my people,’ it said in a hoarse whisper,’ for pity’s sake stop.’
She looked into its pebble-grey eyes and took the tin-whistle from her lips.
The moment her music stopped, huge rollers slowly poured into the bay. They surged up the trail left by the wave-beast and set the boats to yawing and pitching.
‘Play your tune, wretched child,’ the fishermen called, ‘or it will be the worse for you.’
‘Oh I shall play,’ she cried to them, ‘I shall play such a tune for you.’ Then she turned to the wave-beast.
‘Take me with you,’ she said, and began to play a new tune. The notes of it leapt and danced like wave against tide, like terns fighting a gusty wind, like a mackerel escaping a porpoise.
Vigour came back to the wave-beast. Moonlight flew in glittering sparks from its mane and teeth. With a great roar, the wave-beast swept away the sand she sat on. It paused. Her legs clasped its gleaming back and she was borne out to sea, still playing.
Her father wept – whether for her or the lost fishing I cannot say.
Sometimes her tunes are heard far out to sea, which runs as wild as ever it did. The sand whistles whenever the wind blows her songs inland, hoping she might come back. Which is why they call that bay Whistling Sands.’
‘Did the fish come back to the bay?’ the lord asked. ‘Was she ever seen again?’
The pilgrim woman shook her head.
‘My tale is done,’ she said. ‘Come back to the garret next week for more.’