Picture by Rachelandrew: Cutty Sark Figurehead
It’s hot work, witchcraft: the whirling dances, the steaming cauldrons, the flames of hellfire. Nannie’s covenwear is carefully layered, so that she can undress as the night goes on; first her dress comes off, then her petticoats, until finally she’s wearing nothing but her cutty sark. It doesn’t cover much; she’s reluctant to give it up, as the fabric is so cool and soft, but she’s grown in the last six months, one final burst of height and hips and breasts to tip her into adulthood.
The church roars with music and movement and light. A witch, mid-coven, can hear and see and smell so much, and a few of the participants notice a man outside, looking in through the windows; but staring men, like heat, are an occupational hazard of witchcraft, and besides, surely he must be watching in alarm rather than arousal? Coffins slam open and shut, the witches and warlocks spin; blood and bones clatter in the centre of the room; the devil himself takes momentary form and dissolves again, swirling on the edge of existence and playing his bagpipes in time to the witches’ dance. Outside the man’s horse bolts, the man himself draws closer, thirty feet, twenty, and Nannie can smell his drunkenness, even through smoke and sweat; but surely his approach is steeped in terror?
No; the witches spin and spin and suddenly the man’s right at the window. “Nice tits in the cutty sark!” he calls out. The music stops as he speaks; the church falls dark.
“That would be you he’s talking to, Nannie,” says Abigail into the silence.
Nannie’s the forgiving kind, but there are limits. She sighs, and walks to the window. “What was that?” she says. Her eyes are glowing. The man stares, then steps back and ducks behind a tree. “Did you want something?” she adds.
“I,” a voice comes from behind the tree. “No.”
“Then you shouldn’t,” and she swings herself over the windowsill, “pry at other people’s windows.” The horse hasn’t gone far; she summons it over, strokes it, and pats it on the rump, sending it running towards the man.
He grabs at the bridle, trembling, as it passes; at the same time, Nannie catches hold of the end of the horse’s tail. For a moment, nobody moves. “Go on,” she says, and snaps the tail free from the horse and throws it into the air. It twists and hangs in place. The man backs away, dragging his horse with him, breathing heavy panic, and is gone.
And that, Nannie thinks, is that.
But the man stops at another public house, and gets talking to Robert Burns, and in 1791, Tam O’Shanter is published.
“Nan,” Abigail says one afternoon, tossing a copy of the Edinburgh Magazine on the table. “You’re in the papers.”
Nannie picks it up and frowns. She can read, a little, but this? She turns a few pages, and looks at one of the pictures. “What do you mean?”
Abigail takes the magazine back and opens it, points at the page. “It’s a poem,” she says. “All about you. Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn, that while a lassie she had worn, in longitude tho’ sorely scanty, it was her best, and she was vauntie, it says.”
Nannie takes the magazine, and runs her finger along the lines. It’s slower than letting Abigail read it aloud, but yes: that’s what it says.
Maybe she should have chased after him, scared him till he fell over on the forest floor and wept. “But he was terrified.”
“He’s not the one that wrote it,” Abigail says. “He must have got drunk again and started talking. This is by little Robbie Burness, do you remember him? The ugly one down in Alloway? No, of course you wouldn’t, you’re too young.”
Nannie keeps reading. “He says,” she says, “we chased Tam O’Shanter off with an eldritch skreich and hollow.”
“Poets,” Abigail says, and shrugs.
Nannie shuts the magazine. It’s a busy time of year for witching, but she feels like she ought to do something; so she goes up to Edinburgh and finds Robert Burns and comes in through his window at night, and gives him a stern talking-to. (He makes a full and swift recovery.)
And that, she thinks again, is that.
For a while, it is. Then, in 1869, a Dumbarton shipmaker produces a neat little clipper ship, and on a whim he calls her the Cutty Sark.
Witches sleep a lot, once they reach a hundred or a hundred and twenty years old, so for a while nothing happens to the ship; but in 1872 Nannie wakes to news that the Cutty Sark is racing back from Shanghai with the year’s first shipment of tea. Victory will send her name ringing across England.
Nannie tuts, and flies out to to meet the ship. There’s a figurehead perched at its front, a grimacing figure with bare breasts, its arm outstretched, its hand clutching a horse’s tail: Nannie’s pretty sure it’s supposed to be her. She therefore gets a certain satisfaction from snapping off the ship’s rudder. By now, however, she knows better than to think that everything’s sorted out for good.
Sure enough, in 1944, Ivan Yefremov publishes a story about the Cutty Sark, and she has to give him the same sort of talking-to she gave Robert Burns. And fifty years later, she finds out that the ship itself has been refurbished and set up as a museum.
It’s not that she’s particularly angry. She was never the vindictive type, and nowadays she spends eight years out of every ten asleep, dedicating the other two to cream teas and flying really fast. But legends are like mice — duty compells you to keep them under control, even though you can’t get rid of them for good. So Nannie starts a fire, and falls asleep before the refurbishments can begin, with a petrol can tucked under her bed for the next time she wakes up.