We are delighted to share with you an exclusive extract from Catriona Ward’s brand new thriller Little Eve. Published by our sister imprint W&N, Little Eve is a stunning thriller that Joanne Harris calls: ‘Magnificant … shades of Shirley Jackson and The Loney‘.
Chilling and terrifying, the electric new novel from Catriona Ward, whose debut Rawblood won the Best Horror novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2016 has arrived.
Eve and Dinah are everything to one another, never parted day or night. They are raised among the Children, a community of strays and orphans ruled by a mysterious figure they call Uncle. All they know is the grey Isle of Altnaharra which sits in the black sea off the wildest coast of Scotland.
Eve loves the free, savage life of the Isle and longs to inherit Uncle’s power. She is untroubled save by her dreams; of soft arms and a woman singing. Dinah longs for something other. But the world is at war and cannot be kept at bay. As the solitude of Altnaharra is broken, Eve’s faith and sanity fracture. In a great storm, in the depths of winter, as the old year dies, the locals discover a devastating scene on the Isle.
Eve and Dinah’s accounts of that night contradict and intertwine. As past and present converge, only one woman can be telling the truth. Who is guilty, who innocent?
My heart is a dark passage, lined with ranks of gleaming jars. In each one something floats. The past, preserved as if in spirit. Here is the scent of grass and the sea, here the creak of wheels on a rough path, here a bright yellow gull’s beak. The sensation of blood drying on my cheek in the wind. Abel crying for his mother, Uncle’s hand on me. Silver on a white collarbone. The knowledge of loss, which comes like a blow to the heart or the stomach. It does not reach your mind until later.
She is there, too, of course. Evelyn. Somewhere along the rows, behind glass, she floats in the dim air. I do not seek her out. My survival depends on that.
After everything, and against all odds, I have been given a chance. A life. Never mind what kind. I have people who depend on me and I on them. Never mind who they are.
I am filled with memory. I must make room in the dark passage. So I cast it forth, this day. I give it to you. This is the day I became what I am.
On the morning of 2 January 1921, James MacRaith was roused by silence. The storm that had raged across the coast for three days had passed. Thrushes and waxwings sang in the silver birch trees that lined Loyal’s narrow cobbled street. It was half past six, and there would be no dawn in these northern reaches for some hours.
Jamie was twenty-eight years of age, in good health, and had never married. He dressed by the light of a candle in front of the small square of glass that hung on the wall above the chest of drawers. A vest, thick woollen socks with gaiters, the collar of his cotton shirt tied together with a bright red kerchief, a sheep- skin waistcoat smelling strongly of lanolin. He painstakingly worked up lather from a sliver of shaving soap and stropped his razor. He put in his dental plate, filling the dark gap on the left side of his upper jaw with a white incisor and canine. The teeth had been lost in a blast in France. Last of all he put on with care the cufflinks his father had left to him. These were battered silver, inlaid with yellowing ivory, and Jamie MacRaith had always loved them. When he held them in his hand he felt the sway of a long trunk, the gentle tread of a great foot on dusty earth; he caught the scent of flowering hibiscus. The cufflinks also made him recall his father’s death.
The upstairs of the cottage comprised two bedrooms, one occupied by Jamie. The other had been his father’s and now lay empty. Sometimes he still heard his father moving about in there.
Jamie ate some preserved apricots from a jar. He smoked Woodbine cigarettes while drinking strong tea. He buttered two slabs of white bread and sprinkled them with sugar before wrapping them carefully in wax paper and slipping them into his jacket pocket for later. He read a few pages of Tarzan and the Ant-Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In this story, Tarzan was taken prisoner and enslaved by a race of tiny people who put him to work in the mines. Jamie MacRaith was fond of reading, particularly stories of adventure and murder. The other books he had out on loan from the trav- elling library on that January day were The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and an instruction manual for building a carburettor engine.
Jamie locked the cottage and stowed the keys in a pile of slates by the back door. Locked doors had been unknown in Loyal until three years earlier, when Jamie MacRaith’s father was murdered. He fetched Bill the pony from the paddock behind the henhouse. Bill’s shaggy mane was filled with ice crystals.
The village of Loyal is one street lined with whitewashed houses that sits on the northernmost edge of Britain. Settled in the nineteenth century by Highlanders fleeing the fire and blood of the Clearances, Loyal was a kelp town until there was no more kelp. The War had taken most of the young men and now it was a village of cripples and old women, bearing the names of long-destroyed royal clans. MacRaith, McRae, Buchanan. They grieved for the past. They held the memories of their grandfathers and grandmothers close.
Jamie led Bill the pony down the dark street by Loyal’s tiny harbour. The oily salt scent followed him in the cold air. During the storm, the boats had been pulled high above the waterline, into the cobbled street, masts unstepped and lashed down with rope. The boats now lay sprawled on their sides, putting Jamie in mind of beached sea monsters.
At ten to eight, Jamie was unlocking the shop. He had been the butcher in Loyal for two years, since he came home from the War. He went to the cellar, unhooked a large side of beef, and wrapped it in a sheet. He dragged it out to where Bill was tethered at the front of the shop. Jamie had spent several months training the pony not to fear the scent of blood. Still, Bill sometimes balked at it. The beef had been ordered by the Castle of Altnaharra for New Year’s Eve, known as Hogmanay in those parts. It was now three days late, owing to the storm, and Jamie was uneasy concerning payment.
He loaded the side of beef onto Bill using a harness and clips of his own design, then set off along the path which followed the sea.
He did not meet or see a living soul on the road. At nine o’clock, the hour of winter sunrise, the world began to reveal itself. Birds circling in the brightening sky; the hills painted in russet brown and grey, rolling on and on into the deep north. Out to sea the sun was a burning ball, casting its shattered light across the water.
The Castle of Altnaharra sat on the isle of the same name, a quarter of a mile off the western shore of the peninsula. In 1898 Colonel John Bearings returned from India and travelled north into the Highlands to take up his inheritance – a dilapidated ruin on a wind-struck island. He repaired the castle, planted gardens, set up beehives. Two women joined him, Alice Sed- dington and Nora Marr. They took in four infants, foundlings plucked from the many destitute communities that litter the Highlands. The inhabitants of Altnaharra came into the vil- lage every now and again to buy bootlaces, or to have harness mended. They were considered odd by the local population but were left alone.
After the murder, in 1917, a great steel gate appeared across the stone causeway that connected Altnaharra to the mainland. The children stopped attending the school in Loyal. The women no longer came to the village for bootlaces, no longer gathered driftwood on the shore. They retreated into themselves.
The only signs of life within were the polite notes left for tradesmen in the wire cage that hung from the gate. Pale green wool, the shade of a cabbage heart. Knitting needles (x 3). Three sharp flensing knives and a ball of string (large). Beef for Hog- manay, please. Hung for at least three weeks. The people of Loyal were accustomed to check the basket as they passed Altnaharra and left the goods there when next they happened by. Payment was left in the cage in the same fashion, always correct to the farthing.
It was said in Loyal that the residents of Altnaharra opened the gate at night under the autumn moon and ran wild over the moor, painted blue, looking for souls to take. Some said they were all long dead, and that the isle was now populated by ghosts. Jamie did not set any store by this. Ghosts and fairies did not use such things as lamb mince or wool.
The walkway to the isle lay before him now, under an inch of gleaming water. He congratulated himself that he had timed his journey so well, for the tide would soon turn and start coming in again. Altnaharra could only be reached at the ebb, and if he had dallied, the sea would have been lapping at his thighs by the time he came to cross.
But Bill balked at the causeway. He planted his four legs firmly and showed that he would not get his hooves wet. Jamie tried to persuade him with the piece of sugared bread which he had meant for his own lunch. He petted and threatened, all to no avail. The pony would not go across. Rather than argue with five hundred pounds of stubborn Highland, Jamie unhooked the side of beef, took it resignedly onto his own back and waded precariously out to the isle.
A stiff wind blew in the wake of the storm and more than once the weight of the beef nearly toppled him into the sea. He heard the distant bark of seals. He did not relish the idea of falling into deep water with a hundred pounds of steer strapped to him. The pods which overwintered at Altnaharra were grey seals: vast, ugly and strong. They had been known to attack if they caught the scent of meat.
As Jamie came close the wind sang strangely through the steel gate. It was fifteen feet tall, hung from vast posts. Heavy chains held it fast. Jamie put the beef in the wire cage with a thump. As he turned to go, he stumbled in the shallow water and steadied himself by grasping a crossbar of the gate. At his touch it slowly swung open and Jamie went with it, falling to his knees with a splash.
Before him was a small blue pebble beach. A path led up the hill through yellowed winter grass. Sheep scratched mournfully at the hard earth. Above, the tumbledown silhouette of the castle was stark against the sky.
Jamie straightened quickly. He called a hallo. The sheep leapt in alarm, but no answer came.
‘I thought they wished me to bring the meat up to the castle,’ he told the inquest later. ‘And that they had left the gate open for me.’
Jamie shouldered the beef once more. He climbed the narrow stony path. The sky was clearing to the sharp blue of a cold day. The sea rippled and shone. Behind, to the west, the land was bathed in light. To Jamie, each step felt like trespass.
The castle was surrounded by a motte, old and crumbling. The rusting portcullis was half-descended. In the courtyard beyond, scraps of white paper or handkerchiefs tossed violently in the wind.
The spikes on the portcullis were sharp and Jamie ‘did not want to put himself under, as it looked as if it might go all the way down at any time, and into me’. He called out to the house. There came no answer.
He rolled the beef under the metal spears and then, reluctantly, with his eyes tightly closed, he wriggled through, waiting for the old iron to hurtle earthwards and pierce his ribs.
Once inside the courtyard he called again. Still no reply came. Jamie was put out – he thought that perhaps he was being mocked, or that there was some game being played.
He saw as he approached the kitchen door that the white handkerchiefs were in fact five or six gulls, squabbling over scraps of something. As he raised his fist to pound on the oak, one gull, pursued by its fellows, barrelled into his legs. It dropped what it was holding in its beak at Jamie MacRaith’s feet. This proved to be a human thumb, severed neatly at the joint.
Jamie’s heart began to beat hard. He put the side of beef down quickly, then wrapped the thumb in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. The gulls pecked angrily at his fingers as he did so. Next, he removed the metal hook which had been lodged in the meat for hanging. With this in his hand, he opened the door and slipped quietly into the high-beamed kitchen.
He said later that knowledge swept over him the moment he entered Altnaharra. Standing in the silence and breathing the air, he knew that they were all dead. He looked about the room with its scrubbed table and iron range, four times the size of the little one in his cottage. The stove was cold to the touch, which told him that no one had stoked it that day. A heavy cleaver lay on the floor, a slit bag of flour slumped by it. The wind had blown a fine dusting across the room. In the flour were two sets of footprints. He followed them, taking care not to disturb the tracks. He was, after all, a reader of detective fiction.
In the passage, the flagstones were caked with black mud, great swathes of filth described across the floor, not quite dried. Jamie saw with a feeling like falling that the mud was tinged with red. From somewhere above there came what sounded like a shot. Jamie told police later that everything ‘went cold and came to a stop’. After a few moments the sound came again and reason reasserted itself. It was only a door flung hard by the wind in some upstairs room.
He went to the entrance of the Great Hall. The tall windows overlooked the sea to the east, and the reflections of the water played across the walls and beams of the vaulted ceiling. There was a sweet, fermented smell. Chairs were pushed back as if in haste and the candles were all burnt down to nothing in the sconces. In the corner of the room, two chickens pecked hungrily at the cold flags. Upstairs the door crashed again in the wind with an almighty sound. After a moment, Jamie MacRaith swallowed his heart back down. He went on through the house, following the trail of mud and blood.
He came to the door that gave on to the east of the isle and greeted the air and the sky with relief. But the lintel was marked with a rusty handprint. The path at his feet was spattered with dark drops. It led towards the sea. He followed as he knew he must, a question and answer repeating in his head like a nursery rhyme or a half-remembered song. What has happened here? A terrible thing.
He crested the hill, a smooth slope of green descending to the warm grey huddle of a ruined church. Beyond it were the standing stones. They reached like wise fingers to the sky, casting long shadows on the sward. The largest stone, known as Cold Ben, lay on its side, beside a gash where it had been torn from the earth.
Then Jamie saw them.
In the centre of the stone circle lay five shapes, arranged in a star. They were attended by gulls, feeding busily. As Jamie crept closer the gulls lifted off, beating white wings.
The shapes were people, lying peacefully as if in a children’s game. Their feet pointed to the centre of the circle and their heads radiated out; bodies telling the points of the compass. They were wrapped in fine white wool. Jamie saw their faces, and he saw that they were dead.
Jamie MacRaith’s first instinct was to turn and run. He mastered it. His second impulse was to vomit and for a few moments he crouched on all fours. When he had recovered, he went quickly to the circle. He checked each cold wrist for a pulse. Their hearts were still. Their right eyes had been neatly removed. The sockets gaped red.
Elizabeth’s corpse was laid east to west, pointing at the sea. Her head rested by the fallen stone. She had been fourteen. The wind tossed her curls. Next to her was John Bearings, his flesh like marble, stiff with rigor, hair spilling back from his brow. His thumb was neatly severed at the knuckle. By him was Nora. Her single large grey eye stared. Dinah lay on the far side of the circle. Beside Dinah lay Sarah Buchanan, a village girl. What ill fate had drawn her here to Altnaharra, Jamie could not imagine.
The inhabitants of the isle were all present save one: Evelyn was not among the dead.
The gulls cautiously began to return. One landed on Dinah’s face and drove its beak into the place where her eye should have been. Jamie shouted in horror and ran at it. It fluttered a few feet out of his reach and landed lazily on Nora’s foot. He lunged again at the gull, sobbing, but when he turned ten more had descended. They tore and picked with greedy beaks.
Jamie ran about the circle waving his arms. The gulls rose and settled and rose and settled in white-feathered waves, easily avoiding him. They filled their bellies with the soft flesh of the dead.
Jamie was screaming, and so he did not at first hear his name spoken in a weak voice. Dinah called to him again. She flut- tered her fingers. Her face was ghastly pale, her words slurred, her head lolled drunkenly and a thin line of blood trailed down her cheek. But she was alive. Jamie cradled her and wept.
‘Where is Evelyn?’ she said. ‘Oh, I remember. She took our eyes.’
Jamie MacRaith stared about him as if Evelyn might be lurking behind the stones or in the long grass, but there was nothing save the bright morning.
Jamie came galloping into Loyal. The pony trembled with exhaustion, his long shaggy coat drenched with sweat. They were greeted with astonishment by Mrs Smith, who had come out to sit on her doorstep to repair a fishing net. She tried to take Jamie inside to give him a nip and settle him but he would not go. He pointed again and again with a shaking finger: over the moor, to the east, to the sea, as if those things had done some great wrong.
‘They must get to Altnaharra,’ he said. ‘The police. They have all been murdered. Only Dinah is alive.’
What has happened here? A terrible thing.
So I lived, although I did not wish to at the time. They brought me back to Loyal on a stretcher. I stared up with my remaining eye. The clouds wreathed above me, forming and reforming. In it were the faces of the dead.
People came from houses and from fields as we neared Loyal. We became a procession. There were eyes and hands every- where. They seemed to lick their lips as they looked at me. A small boy touched a bloodstain on my sleeve with a dirty finger. I screamed. I did not stop until we were inside the inn and the door was bolted. I could still hear them breathing behind the door. All those people. I had not left the isle in years.
They put me in a room above the bar where they stored broken things awaiting mending: a hand plough, a tankard, a box of smashed plates, a stirrup leather, a spinning top with flaking red and blue paint.
An old doctor from Tongue dressed my eye. He smelt of tobacco and camphorated oil and I wept all the while. Strange that a missing eye can still weep.
‘My name is McClintock,’ he said.
I asked again for Uncle, Nora and Elizabeth. I said there must have been some mistake, for they could not be dead. He said that they were. I tore out my hair by the roots and clawed at my face. He gave me milk with something in it. Knowing no better, I drank it. The stuff sent my mind spinning, crashing softly into itself.
‘Why did she take the eyes?’ the old man asked me.
‘She thought it would give her power,’ I said. ‘She put her own eye out three years ago. It was not enough.’
He made a disapproving sound in his throat. ‘That is the sort of nonsense they will seize on. Out there they are already telling the old tale, saying it was the Eubha Muir.’ The old man rose with a creak. ‘I have tended to the living, now for the rest.’ Nonsense or not, he wanted to be away from me.
I said, ‘I must be with them.’
Despite his protests I went with him across the road in my bare feet, through the watching crowd. The bodies were in Jamie MacRaith’s cellar with the beef. I followed him down the stairs. When I saw them all I wept again. I tried to climb onto the slab to lie next to Elizabeth. The doctor would not let me.
‘I am one of them,’ I said, ‘I am dead, too.’
‘Get down,’ he said. ‘Let me do my job. There are things that I must do – the corpses must be aired. It is the old Parisian method. You will find it upsetting.’
‘I cannot go back to the inn. All those eyes and hands.’
He looked at me with impatience and some sympathy. ‘There is nothing to fear,’ he said.
‘There is Evelyn.’
‘Och, they will catch her and hang her,’ he said. ‘Or she will die in the cold. There is none in these parts will shelter her. She is not the Eubha Muir, merely an evil woman.’
‘Let me stay.’
The old man shrugged as if to say, ‘It is your choice. I still have work to do.’ He went to Uncle’s body, white on its slab. He made a small incision in the flesh, scalpel winking in the dim light. There was a hiss from the corpse, as of gas escaping. He scratched a match alight and set it to the wound. The inci- sion began to burn with a blue-green flame. He repeated this operation on the lungs and abdomen, making candles of the dead.
I lay down in the doorway of the cellar. The dose was work- ing in me. The scene shimmered, the corpses burned like votive offerings. All around, the carcasses of cows swayed gently on their hooks. I was changed.
Here is the jar with its pale contents. It is yours now. I hope it haunts your nights. I think it will.
Perhaps I will never send this. If I do, I will post it from another town. Do not look for me. You owe me that.