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The Mermaid of Mull

By Heather Dundas


fall2008_dundasThe Isle of Mull rises like a green shoulder out of a raw gray sea. I stand in the milky light of a June morning, smelling seaweed and sheep in the damp breeze. Just ahead of me, my sixteen-year-old daughter, Adena, scrambles over dark boulders. Her hair twists in snaky tendrils, a wild red flare in this landscape of gray and green. The ocean is everywhere, the whoosh and gargle of the waves, the pulse of the surf throbbing under my feet. Ankles aching, I pick my way toward her along a rugged rocky median between cliff and water.

Mull is the second-largest island in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It took us two days to get here. We flew from Los Angeles to Glasgow, rode a train up the Scottish coast and then a ferry out to the island, and ended our journey with a hair-raising sprint in a Range Rover along a single-track road in the pouring rain. We’ve come to this remote place for a family reunion with my father and stepmother, and my two brothers and their families. My brother the banker has rented a manor house straight out of central casting: a huge, stone pile on a rise overlooking the sea. It’s the sort of place that I, a recently divorced freelance writer, could never afford by myself. However, thanks to my brother, my kids and I have spent a week in period drama, all creaking stairs and windy towers, vast bathrooms with iron tubs and carpets, and feasts around the baronial dining table, with my father stabbing the “reeking haggis” with a silver knife.

I don’t see my family very often; as soon as I could, I ran from my New York state home to California. I’ve built a life on the West Coast, and it’s the only home my children have ever known. Still, since the meltdown of my marriage, my family is now asking me why I don’t move back home. Certainly this would make financial sense. In California, the kids and I have already moved from our house in a fancy neighborhood to a more affordable rental in a suburb. And as I watch Adena and her brother get to know and delight in their extended family in this absurd movie set of a house, it seems like cruelty to pull them away again. But I don’t know if I want to make the big move back home; I don’t know if I can.

It’s a lot to think about. And, even with everyone on his best reunion behavior, and despite the Brigadoon setting, three generations in one house will inevitably lead to petty irritations (who drank all the bottled water? whose turn is it to cook? why did they get the bedroom with the view?). So Adena and I decide to take a walk by ourselves. We fix on a trek along the Mull coast to reach the Nuns’ Cave, where Catholic women are reported to have hidden during the Reformation. According to our guidebook, in the cave we will find crosses of various designs carved on the walls, some dating to the sixth century, as well as images of ships in full sail. The guidebook says it’s an easy four-kilometer walk to the cave from Carsaig Pier, just down the rise from our house. We’ve packed a lunch, and plan to picnic with the ghosts of the nuns.

Scotland is full of ghosts, beginning at the wrecked stone pier. During the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, farmers emigrated from that pier; we’ve seen the ruins of their stone cottages, entire villages of them. Tenant farmers were forced off the land to make room for sheep; wool was a profitable commodity in the new textile mills of the industrializing Empire. Where once there were ten thousand residents scraping out a living from the rocky land and the sea, modern Mull is essentially empty except for tourists and the people who cater to them. The depopulation of Mull was just a small part of the great Scottish diaspora, I think, a movement that also sent my ancestors to America. I think of my sandy-haired brothers and my father, whose red beard has turned white, back at the house. We are all descendants of redheaded James Dundas, my great-grandfather, who emigrated from Forfarshire at age sixteen. I stand on Carsaig Pier and imagine stepping onto a boat and sailing away. Instead, Adena and I head down the black sand beach on our way to our picnic.

The beach curves in a half moon toward a hulking mass of basalt cliffs up ahead. To our right, fat sheep hug stone walls. The island’s sheep are ubiquitous companions of any outdoor activity, adding rustic charm to every landscape and snapshot. But they also crop every plant in their reach straight down to the ground and leave their droppings like stinky landmines in every path and swarm across the single-lane roads, blocking the forward flow of traffic with their idiot sideways ambling. When I arrived in Mull I had seen pictures of the sheep—they are a visual cliché in the travel books—but nothing could have prepared me for the visceral, physical experience of their oily smell, their startling gassy baas, the depth and springiness of their oily wool coats. I want to hate the sheep, but instead I find myself overcome by an intense, uncontrollable love for them.

A few days earlier Adena and I went to a craft market at a local church hall and saw handwoven blankets made with the rough wool of these island sheep. I wanted one, but my politics got in the way. The people were pushed out to make room for the raw materials of an industrial revolution, I thought … and now the island is depopulated and the revolution is obsolete and these same raw materials are being offered to descendants of the emigrants as souvenirs of the very culture that they destroyed. I grabbed Adena’s arm and tried to explain the conflict to her sotto voce: Surely today’s Scots don’t use these rough blankets; surely they buy their blankets from Marks and Spencer like everyone else in Britain. But without tourism, this island would die, so perhaps we should buy one after all … Adena cut me off.

“Mom,” she said, “the question is, do you like that blanket or not? If you like it, buy it; if you don’t, don’t.” And she drifted away to the tables of silver jewelry, and today has new little Celtic knots dangling from her ears.

Her impatience with me is new. I’m told that it is to be expected, that all teenagers find their mothers to be exasperating. I wouldn’t know. When I was sixteen, I was locked into a wary dance with my stepmother, my birth mother having died a few years earlier. My father’s wife meant well, but I never accepted her enough to be exasperated with her. Her overtures always felt a step removed, like a representation of motherhood instead of its primal reality. Rather like the difference between a photograph of the placid Scottish landscape and its windy, salty, sheep-stink reality, I think. Once my mother died and my father remarried, I could never accept the fiction that my family was whole. That’s why I ran and never came back. By now I’ve known my stepmother for twice as long as I knew my mother, and the painful teenage scenes we had are distant memories. I respect her, and I think she respects me. But even here in Scotland we are awkward with each other, as though we speak different languages, and my father’s voice becomes unnaturally loud and hearty as he tries to translate between us.

Adena and I reach the end of the half-moon beach, and the path becomes pebbly, then rocky, and then it’s no longer a walk but a scramble over the boulders. We take this slowly at first; each of us is nursing a bad ankle. Two years earlier I tripped on a pebble in a city street and snapped my fibula. A year after that Adena fell in a high school badminton tournament and snapped her fibula in the same place. I was able to pass on my crutches and ankle brace to her, and we argue who had the least glory in her accident: her, wiping out in a gymnasium full of her peers, or me, crumpled on a sidewalk surrounded by smashed groceries.

Despite my hiking boots, my ankle twinges as I try to find footing on the rough path. I can imagine one of the rocks shifting unexpectedly as I step on it, my ankle rolling and the bone snapping again; I realize that I’m favoring my right foot, my good one. I catch up with Adena, who is balancing on a rock the size of her backpack. The boulder field stretches in front of us until it vanishes around the elbow of the cliff ahead. Adena’s injury is much more recent than mine.

“What do you think?” I ask her, “How is your ankle?”

“I can feel it, but I’m fine,” she replies. “Let’s see what’s up ahead.” And she jumps from that rock to another, to another, on toward the cliff.

I’m still getting used to Adena’s being the same size as me, being as strong as me. For so long I have been used to designing outings to accommodate the limited energy and abilities of small children. Now there she is, our lunch on her back, leaping from rock to rock as I plod cautiously behind her.

We round the corner, and I’m relieved to see the path head up from the rocks. We climb up into a muddy field, water to our left, cliffs to the right, and sheep obviously somewhere close by. The ground is easier to negotiate than the rocks, but I still need to concentrate on my footing: The path is narrow, and stones hide under the mud. We use stepping-stones to cross a small stream. I tell Adena the Gaelic word for stream is sruth, proud to display some of my guidebook reading. We’ve heard Gaelic spoken on the train from Glasgow to Oban and on the ferry across to Mull. It’s a language full of sibilance and open vowels, like whispering, and wholly appropriate for this land of wind and water. “Sruth” we say, watching the stream meander down to the ocean. “The actual name of this place probably has half a dozen more syllables,” says Adena, as she bounds on ahead. She’s right, I think; it  probably also has a specific historical referent to place it exactly, like “stream-where-the-nuns-found-water.” So many of the names here are ghosts themselves, imprecise glimpses into the story of that particular spot.

But most names tell stories. My parents gave me as Scottish a name as could be: Heather, for the shrub; Dundas, the clan name, which translates roughly to “south fort.” But this is my father’s first visit to Scotland; my mother never made it here, so what story exactly does my name contain? Not nostalgia for a real place, certainly, but perhaps a romantic longing for an idea of a homeland. Adena’s name also bears a meaning her father and I never intended. Adena was named after my Swedish grandmother, and only after she was born did I find out that the word meant sweet or gentle in Hebrew. Her surname, Rivera, is “of the river” in Spanish. So, to judge by names, Adena and I occupy different environments: I am solidly of the land while my daughter is a sweet creature of the water.

Adena climbs a stile on a rise ahead. She yells, “Mom! It’s amazing!” as her red head disappears over the far side. Hot and panting, for the sun has unexpectedly come out, I trudge up the path after her. Over the stile I see a wonderland: On this, the sunny side of the slope, there are no sheep and the path is dry and firm. Overhead and to the right, a fine waterfall sparkles in the sun. Up ahead Adena has thrown off her pack and lies splayed in knee-high wildflowers.

I sit down next to her. In her bed of flowers she could be Titania, queen of the fairies. Or perhaps, I think, looking over to the ocean, Calypso on her island. I don’t remember Calypso having a mother, but nonetheless I imagine us alone on our very own island, our footsteps circling and circling the shore. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of fleeing to an island with my children, a thought that’s grown more intense as I’ve watched them struggle to maintain a relationship with their own father, who has recently given them a stepmother of their own. I haven’t known what to say to Adena when she’s asked me how to cope: Pretend? Run? How can I advise her on a situation that I have yet to resolve in my own life?

I lie down next to her, trying not to grunt with relief as I stretch out in the flowers. Lying on my back, I can feel blood throb in the soles of my feet and in the joint of my bad ankle. My back relaxes into the ground, and I am aware of the bang of the surf in my bones, a different rhythm. I wait, closing my eyes as the pulsing in my feet and my back move into phase and back out again. The manor house, my family, California, all seem very far away, less real than this island that pulses under my back. Maybe this is home. Maybe we could just stay here forever, just Adena and me. It’s so nice to be together, to have this almost-adult female companion who is mine by blood. I remind myself that the difference between her experience and mine is that I’m not dead. I get to be the mother I never had, however imperfectly, to both of us.

“Water?” offers Adena. She sounds far away. “Uisge,” I whisper without opening my eyes, thinking of the Gaelic word for water. She’s silent—either she didn’t hear what I said or she thinks “ishker” is just some nonsense word. Or maybe she understands it perfectly, I think, and she’s really a muir-gheilt, a Scottish mermaid. All she needs to breathe underwater is a special red hat, and once she finds it she’ll disappear forever into the sea. Or perhaps she’s a selkie and just needs to find her sealskin. The sun is warm on my face, and I drift in my imagination. Why, I wonder, do the mythical creatures always want to run away? If I could keep Adena with me by hiding her hat or her skin, would I?

Then, suddenly, it’s cold. I open my eyes; clouds cover the sky, and the breeze has picked up a chilly edge. Adena is gone. I start up, looking along the coastline, squinting for her bright hair along the path ahead of us.

“Mom!” The voice comes from behind me. I twist up and back, searching through the flowers, up the field to the wet craggy cliffs. “Mom!” I look again, and this time I see her, waving at me from the other side of the waterfall. She’s ghostly behind the water, an apparition. I lurch up onto sore feet and limp up the hill. I want to get to her before she disappears. It’s time to go home.

Author’s Note: Adena is now a college student in New York, and is spending the summer interning at a literary agency in New York City. Mostly, it sounds like, she reads manuscripts. (It’s true, by the way: Submissions are evaluated by interns.) We haven’t seen each other in months, though we talk by phone or e-mail several times a week. I sent her this essay for her approval, and I got back two single-spaced pages of notes, most of which I used in rewriting, as well as her blessing.

Brain, Child (Fall 2008)

About the Author: After a career in theater, Heather Dundas is now studying at the University of Southern California for a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing.  Her story, “Trivial But Numerous,” was published last year in PMS: PoemMemoirStory 11.  Her website is

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