Read an Excerpt
From "Carried Away"
The common cormorant or shag,
Lay its eggs in a paper bag.
The reason you will see no doubt
Is to keep the lightning out.
But what those unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs!
On the last clear day in August, seven great black cormorants flew in a wedge out over the Atlantic and lit on a rock in a lazy cove on Arrant Island. Now that wasn't particularly unusual; cormorants were sea birds and sea birds landed on rocks all the time. Except those birds had done the same thing, at the same time of day, for the entire summer. Every morning they lit on that rock and just stood there with their wings spread-eagle, as if they were drying out their laundry. They didn't move, even when a tasty school of alewives swam by; all they did was stare, for hours, like they were waiting for something to happen.
If the birds had been crows, their antics could have been easily explained away. New Englanders knew that the number of crows seen at one time could foretell the future:
one for sorrow,
two for mirth,
three for a wedding,
and four for birth.
But these birds weren't crows. They were cormorants, ravens of the sea. The locals claimed them to be the most annoying birds to ever fly the Maine skies, because more often than not, they ruined both the fishermen's catch and the island trees. Had anyone ashore known about the birds perching on that rock, they'd have probably said it was only "like attracting like." The island, it seemed, had as bad a reputation as did those birds.
From the shoreline, on a clear day, when the seas were calm and blue-green, if you were to cast a quick glance at Arrant Island, it looked as if it were a proud medieval castle built upon a high crag. But when the weather changed, the island did too, for it appeared to be only a mysterious blue cloud floating on the horizon.
At times when the winds were southernly, the ledges around the isle broke hard and dangerously; seafoam sprayed over its rocky headlands. But always the island stood stiff and unyielding, oblivious to the moods of the wind and seas, like a stony face that must hide secrets.
It was only a scant seven leagues off the jagged Maine shoreline, where huge summer estates and elegant compounds were only down-the-coast-a-ways from fishermen's shanties and the sea-worn wharves that dotted the mouth of the Kennebec. The isle was just a short sail in fair weather for the sleek schooners built in the Bath shipyards and not far from where fishing boats chased cod, mackerel, and the huge schools of silver herring, which, when the moon was high, made the water shimmer as if the Milky Way had fallen right smack dab into the ocean.
Still, with the bustling coast only a whistle and a lick away, there was an aloneness to the island, a sense of isolation. Not just because of the water that surrounded it, but because it was almost as if Arrant Island were another world, hidden away, until the mist rose and you saw with a second look that it truly did exist.
The island had long been the stuff of idle talk. Children of the fishermen huddled around winter fires and told tales of the wild Scots who lived there, men who were not real, they claimed, but instead the ghosts of those who had died long ago on Culloden Moor, ghosts that fled clear across the Atlantic to a craggy, cold, and rugged plot of land that was like their beloved Highlands.
Others called the MacLachlans who owned the disappearing island those "mad Scots." And children grew up afraid of nights with a full moon, convinced that unless they placed a pale feather from the down of a puffin chick beneath their pillows, a mad MacLachlan might charge up on a white horse with its mane flowing and snatch them from their warm beds!
When the wind grew fierce and blew the shingles off the fishermen's shacks, it was said a MacLachlan was out riding that night, stirring up the wind. Some nights the willows would moan from that same wind, a sound exactly like someone crying. Mothers would tuck their children back under warm woolen blankets and assure them that no one was there. The noise was only a wind tunnel formed by the branches of the trees.
But the imaginations of children spun as wildly as the wind in those willows. They pressed their small heads together and wrapped their arms tightly around one another as they whispered that the sound was crying, crying from some poor soul who had seen a white MacLachlan horse come thundering out of the mist.
So that summer the odd behavior of those annoying black sea birds went unnoticed. There were already too many yarns to tell, the stuff of nightmares and dreams, dark and fierce tales about wild Scotsmen who would ride up on their white horses and carry you away.
Copyright © 1996 by Jill Barnett Stadler