Owen Schalk

A Mite and Seven Whales

The gigelorum was, according to Grandma, the smallest creature ever detected. Its description varied during the early history of Scotland, but most agreed it was an insect, so tiny it could live inside the ear of a mite.

Grandma often talked about the absolute grace of small things, the things so little they couldn’t be perceived. These invisibles made up everything, she told me; for her, all that fell within the realm of notice was in fact a harmonious symphony of unseeable beings which no human could comprehensively apprehend. ‘Some believe the smallness never ends,’ she once said to me, ‘or that it ends with the atom. But people forget the gigelorum.’

As a child, I was brought to her every winter. Her house dwelt deep in the forest, embedded in an umbrous bower, trapped there like a coin between cushions. Strips of gnarled ice spiked the gutters, as hard and twisted as dried toothpaste, and half-closed curtains gave the windows a squinty, investigative aspect that did not betoken frequent visitors (perhaps that’s why I felt so special when I was there). The front window overlooked a stream which I only ever saw frozen, and outside the guest room slouched an apple tree whose branches held bulbs of pink flesh – not frostbitten, but pinched to blush by the cold. Before then, I didn’t know apples could grow in snow.

To me Grandma seemed older than a lifetime, and more unwavering than the ice-armored oak trunks that encircled her. Her expression was open-ocean flat, her hair never without a grey cap, and her hands only grasped a plant when they were pulling it up at the root. She didn’t seem to eat much — frigid apples mostly, and fish she’d caught months earlier and suspended in her gelid cellar — and she rarely spoke, except to pronounce legends. That was my favorite part: the recitations of folklore preserved through countless generations, probably even preceding the Highland Picts.

Grandma had recently relocated from the islands of Orkney, where people had a long history of relating to the waves, of conjuring kelpies from sea foam and misremembering moss as monsters. The culture of superstition was much different in the Lowlands, but she refused to adapt. Instead, she transplanted creatures of the flooded northern shores into the forests of Tweeddale, where — for me — they actually settled quite comfortably. Her tales have since insinuated themselves into my gaze, to the extent that the buds of every spring branch wiggle like a trow’s ears, and behind every stormcloud lurk the blue men of the Minch. I can hardly contemplate Grandma herself without comparing her to the Green Glaistig, a tutelary spirit who treated most travellers with ambivalence, preferring solitude to simple good or evil.

She always began her tales in the evening, as we knelt at the bonfire and thawed a few fillets of frozen bream. While I ate, she sat sorcerer-like in the swaying amber light and crafted stories from the sparks: stories about the lavellans, rats of the water that sprayed poison at passing cattle and often doomed entire villages to starvation; stories about the eels of the coastline, thought to strangle horses and create new eels from their mane-hairs; and, of course, stories about Cirein Cròin, the sea beast who was larger than any animal ever known, so massive it could swallow seven whales in a single gulp.

Cirein Cròin was one of the malevolent monsters, which was the sort I especially enjoyed. While its staple diet consisted mostly of whale pods, the beast’s preferred delicacy was fishermen. Its most common tactic was to transform into a delicious-looking silver fish and allow itself to be caught, then explode into enormity and consume its captor whole.  But while I always got a sadistic thrill from Grandma’s tales of Cirein Cròin, I was never able to satisfactorily explain the transformation to myself. If all of these stories were true, as she insisted they were, then how could a beast big enough to eat seven whales at once fit inside my stomach?

I posed this question to her once. Her only reply was: “The world is more artful than you think.”

Owen Schalk has published in The Nabu Review, antilang, and the University of Manitoba’s Arts Tribune. One of his stories, “Cried for Night”, was shortlisted for the 2019 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival short story contest. Owen is a student of English at the University of Manitoba.