Friday, 20 December 2013

Advent Book Quiz Day 20

Day twenty of our festive quiz

Feeling generous we'll give you a few clues about today's extract; it's a short story, set in Shetland, by an Orkney writer. We would like the author and the title of the short story, with a bonus point for the title of the volume in which the story was published. Post your answer as a comment. Closing date is 1st January and comments will not be published until the answers and winner are revealed on 3rd January. 

Don't forget to go back and catch up with any days you might have missed!

On the night of December the twentieth, I was privileged to witness the ceremony for the protection of children. 
A very old woman - the grandmother - in the house of the many children, bent with a candle over the various cribs, chanting in a low solemn voice: 
                                  Mary Midder, haad de hand
                                  Ower aboot for sleeping-band,
                                  Haad da lass and haad da wife, 
                                  Haad da bairn a' its life.
                                  Mary Midder, haad de hand
                                  Roond da infants o' oor land. 
The next day was Thomasmas, December the twenty-first. It was I noticed, a calm luminous day on the sea, 'as good a day for fishing as we're like to see this winter,' Williamson said. 
But not one boat put out with lines and bait. I visited Betsy's father and two brothers who sat smoking their pipes on a bench at the end of their house. They said nothing. They turned away from me. I think they are a little put out that their lass is so familiar with the son of the Hall. There is something, they consider, not right about that, something clean contrary to the social order. Betsy ought to know better. 
At sunset on the shortest day Betsy spoke the rhyme that prohibits all work whatsoever on Thomasmas Day:
                                   The very babe unborn
                                   Cries 'O dule! dule!'
                                   For the breaking o' Tammasmas Night
                                   Five nights afore Yule.
Three nights later, on Christmas Eve, I saw the old fiddler beside his barn lifting the upper quernstone from the lower stone and, slowly and solemnly, taking it inside. 
Then, crofter by crofter, the same piece of ritual was enacted: the stone that turned and ground the bread lifted and removed to a safe place. 
'For why?' said Betsy. 'For tonight is the night that the trows come and turn the wheel against the sun. And if that happens, the stones will be barren, there'll be no meal and bread next harvest, the countryside'll starve. And your father won't get a penny in rent ...' 
That same night Betsy took me to the house of the scolding wife and the man who had sold the sheep for drink in Scalloway. He did not behave like a wastrel in the little lamp-splashed room; he seemed like a celebrant in some ancient mystery. 
The wife brought out a basin and filled it with water. The man lifted three live embers from the fire and dropped them one by one from the tongs into the water, with small hissings and wisps of steam. Then he washed his hands and face in the singed water. His wife went through the same lustration. The three children dipped hands and faces and lifted them, streaming...Across the bed were laid out the clean clothes that ever member of the family would wear on Christmas morning. 
'And now,' said Betsy, 'I must hurry home. The same thing's to be done there, and in every house in Shetland... Be sure to be here in the morning, before sunrise.' In the late lingering twilight of Yule morning I stood at a corner of the barn of Scad. Betsy's father came out of the cottage, guided by a flickering candle in a stark shadowy holder; and he went slowly into the byre where the cow and the ox were stalled. I came quietly and stood in the open door, watching. Old Ollie seemed unaware of my presence. I saw, startled, that the candle holder was a cow's skull. Ollie spoke familiarly to the beasts, but in the old tongue I could not understand him, and the beasts mixed their lowings with his chant. I think he must have been telling them that Christ was born - now they had nothing to fear - the powers of evil could not touch any living creature on such a marvellous morning. The light flowering out of the skull was an extraordinary symbol. I stood there, deeply moved. 

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