The Blue Men Stories, 1
The Blue Men of the Minch
by S. J. McKenzie
The main thing you need to know about John MacCodrum is that he never listened to what he was told. Well, maybe that’s not quite it. It was more the case that he would listen to you well enough, but then he’d go and do the exact opposite of what you’d said. Many young lads have their heads on backwards that way, but it was particularly so with young MacCodrum.
The real problem was that his father had filled the boy’s head with all sorts of ideas about the Blue Men. Everyone feared them back then, and hated them too, but it was more like an obsession with Bill MacCodrum. “They’ve ruined me,” he would say as he sat all hunched over, drinking to ease his sorrows. He would rather drink good ale and complain than pour it into the morning tide in an effort to get on the Blue Men’s good side, a thing some others tried. “I could have been prosperous, and made a good life for my family but for those devils.”
Any ill luck that came his way, he’d blame it on the Blue Men straight out, rather than look to his own failings. When holes appeared in his newly-mended nets, he said it was the Blue Men that did it, and not his own clumsy fingers. Or when his boat came limping home with a hole in the stern, it was the Blue Men’s doing, and not the rocks in the Minch near the Shiant Isles.
He could do no wrong himself, because everything was down to them. But he never minded the trouble they caused to others or sorrowed for the widows of all the men they’d drowned over the years. He only cared about the holes in his own nets, and so forth.
No-one could say he didn’t have more bad luck than other fellows, for it’s true that he did, and maybe it was their doing. But when a man does nothing but moan and complain and will take no steps to improve his situation, well, he doesn’t make himself popular, especially if he never says a word about anyone else’s problems but his own. So after a while, people used to dread him being around, and sometimes took to pretending they’d gone out when they saw him coming down the road.
That’s why his son, young John, turned out the way he did. He didn’t want to end up like his father, so whatever the miserable old fellow said, he’d do the reverse; and once the habit had gotten into him, he’d pay no heed to anybody else, either. It was an annoying habit to say the least, but in the case of the Blue Men, it really landed him in serious trouble. You see, after all those years of his father’s telling him they were treacherous devils, one day he decided to take a boat out and see if they were really as bad as all that!
When he was much older, he told us the whole story of what happened. He did meet up with the Blue Men right enough, as you’ll hear in a moment. But it must be said that he wasn’t much of a storyteller. Even when he’d gotten older, he was still plain and direct about everything. He just said things one after another, and the whole tale lasted no more than five minutes.
Now, that really won’t do, with a tale like this one. You have to spin it out, add in little details of your own here and there to keep it going. But despite all that, the basic shape of the story here is just as he told it to us.
* * *
Early one morning, John was out alone in his boat on the Minch, trying to get himself into mischief by calling out “Balloo! Balloo! Come to me if you’re Blue!” and all other kinds of nonsense, as loud as he can. It was a fine day when he went out, but it’s always rough in the Minch, especially the part near the Shiant Isles, which is where he was now. The Blue Men make the current with all their splashing and churning around in the water, people say, although there isn’t much sense in that, when you think about it.
Anyway, young John has all the luck his father doesn’t, and things have a habit of coming to him just as he wants them to, including trouble. So it isn’t long before he sees a Blue Man sticking his head up out of the water and looking straight at him.
The fellow took the shape of a man and was about the same size too, but his skin was blue and shiny, like a dolphin’s, all except his face, which was more of a grey colour. He swam like a dolphin as well, with his body standing proud out of the water and his legs pushing him along beneath.
Upon his head was a blue cap, what they call a “sea hood,” which looked like nothing so much as the end of a bright blue sausage-skin that had been rolled up over his head.
“What on Earth are you doing out here making all that noise, lad?” said the Blue Man, in a voice that had a hint of the Erse about it.
“Well, I’m out looking for the Blue Men, and it seems I’ve found one of you, right quick. But I can’t see how I am supposed to answer you in a rhyme if you don’t ask me in one, see?”
The Blue Man must have thought John was completely out of his mind, but really he was only halfway out of it, and now I need to explain why. Before MacCodrum met with the Blue Men, we all had this funny idea that they spoke only in rhymes and riddles. It seems strange to say it now, but we all believed that without question.
We’d heard from somewhere that if you met with them at sea, and they sang two lines of a song at you, you’d be all right provided you could answer them with two lines that rhymed with their own. If you couldn’t answer in that way, you were dragged below, or your cargo was taken, or something dreadful like that. So, bad luck if you were no good at rhymes, then.
Anyway, that was how the story went, but it turns out this wasn’t the truth at all, so poor John had gotten off on the wrong foot, for the creature had no idea what he was talking about. “It is you that are talking in riddles, boy,” said the Blue Man, scratching his head. And after they talked for a bit more, it came to light that the whole story about rhymes and riddles had been made up by some lads from Ullapool, to excuse the fact that they had somehow lost another cargo.
“I remember that crew,” said the Blue Man, whose name was Alexander. “Sold off all their herrings to the smugglers, kept the money, and told their bosses that we’d taken it! Do you mind! What would we want with salted fish? We’ve got plenty fresh down in our caves. All lies it was, but we took the blame, and people came out hunting for us. That was years ago now, though.”
Thought John, ‘If that part is untrue, I must see if the rest of it is lies, too.’ So he says as bold as you like: “Just as well for me anyway, as to the rhymes, for I’m no good at them. Why, if you asked me to rhyme ‘fish’ with ‘wish’ I’d be hard-pressed. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is John MacCodrum, although I wish it wasn’t. My father has told me a lot about you, and I have come to see if it is true.”
The Blue Man was smiling before that, but now he looked at the boy with a glint of menace in his eyes and said, “You’re not the son of William MacCodrum, are you? The one living in Tarbert? Eighteen-footer, blue mainsail, leaks like a sieve?”
“The very man!” said young MacCodrum. “But this acorn fell far from the tree, I promise you that. I am nothing like him.”
The Blue Man stared at him for a minute and then said “I think you’d better come down below and meet with the family. It’s no good talking to you about it up here. You’ll need a sea hood, like mine here, so you can have a good look around.”
“I’d be delighted,” said MacCodrum, although it was an invitation to terrify the stoutest heart. “Tell me how I might go about it, and I’ll do it straight away.”
“It’s easy enough. Meet me here, tomorrow, at around this time,” said Alexander. “And don’t bring anything but yourself.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie