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The Cradles of St. Kilda

Catharine Clark-Sayles

From 1850 to 1890 forty-one of fifty-six infants born on St. Kilda
in the Hebrides died of tetanus caused by the custom of anointing the umbilical stump with oil stored in the dried stomach of a goose.

The cradles of St. Kilda stand empty and no one rocks them but the wind.
Cold, it blows from the empty North across bituminous seas
and in its sigh—the sound of children whispering at their games.

Cobbled streets are weed-grown, the houses stand unroofed,
blank eye-socket spaces where doors and windows were.
Walls sag slowly back into earth which gave them birth
as mosses and heathers and grasses reach up to pull them down.

Nothing moves but flickering birds and silent walls of cloud.
Somewhere there is a churchyard with rows of tiny stones
buried in green-wrapped years.

Once fish boats dried on the rocky beach, glitter-flecked
with the scales of fish and men threw curses with their nets;
the women spun and wove coarse wool, watching the sea
they sang their waulking songs into the salted wind.

But the cradles of St. Kilda stood empty,
fifty-six infants called to life; forty-one tiny bodies
twisted, gasping, dead of the sickness of eight days.

The men grew grim, the mothers still, the churchyard
grew a crop of stone and the sound of games was smoke.
Now where the cradles of St. Kilda stood—
the nests of birds and the heathered bed of deer.