A Gift From Shetland

By Chris Carr <carrcmh@yahoo.co.uk>

Rated: G

Submitted: January 2004

Summary: A story about growing up and growing old, and what happens when superstition meets Superman.

INTRODUCTION:

Although the show makes it obvious that Clark travelled extensively in the years before he settled in Metropolis, we are told very little about the places he went to. We know even less about the people he met. But Clark is a likeable man. Despite maintaining a cautious distance from those around him, he nonetheless seems to have a gift for making friends. It's hard, therefore, to believe that he would have forged no lasting relationships before he started work at the Daily Planet.

That, then, was the starting point from which this story grew. The final result? Well, you'll have to read on to find out where my musings led me.

I apologise in advance for any mistakes I have made in getting cultural and geographical nuances right. While I've tried to do my best here, I am by no means an expert. The Shetland Islands are beautiful, but, alas, I know them only as a visitor, not as a resident.

With many, many thanks to Yvonne for beta-reading. Thanks, also, to Wendy for suggesting "Grannanna" as a term of endearment and the kind people on IRC who found a few things for me to alter. :) Thanks also to the folks at the Lois and Clark Fanfic message boards for saying such lovely things. :)

DISCLAIMER: This story has been written for fun, not profit. No attempt is being made to infringe any existing copyrights held by December 3rd Productions, Warner Bros, D C Comics, or any other copyright holders.

***

As Winnie Byrne, nee Eunson, grew older she found herself remembering the old days more and more. She remembered life in the old croft house, which had long since been abandoned. These days, gutted of its contents, its timbers, windows and thatch, it was a ruin, barely more than a pile of stones rising out of the long grass on the other side of the voe. She remembered sleeping in a box bed — a cupboardlike arrangement with sliding doors that had been set into the wall of the bedroom. She had shared it with one of her sisters and some friendly fleas.

Winnie remembered the long summer days and the not-quite darkness of the short summer nights that the Shetlanders call the simmer dim. In her memory they were times of endless sun, the kind of perfect summers that only exist in an adult's memory of childhood.

Winnie remembered the long, dark winter nights, and the evenings spent huddled around the peat fires as she listened to her father telling stories while he mended the fishing nets and her mother taught her to knit.

Along with more recent ones of her own, Winnie had passed her father's stories down to her children and her children's children. Now she was passing them on to her first great grandchild, Jessi.

Winnie told Jessi how life had been when she was young. She told Jessi about the doomed love her sister had had for a Norwegian fisherman, who had been a refugee on the islands during World War II. She told Jessi what life had been like before oil wealth had come to Shetland. But most of all, she told Jessi about the old beliefs.

Of course, in more enlightened days, children no longer believed in the selkie folk or the trows. And Winnie Byrne, nee Eunson, also knew better than to believe in such nonsense.

And yet…

When Jessi pointed out a stranger on the beach, Winnie's first thought was of the stories she had learned at her father's knee. She remembered the legends of the selkie and of the Finn because who, or what, else could have emerged out of the tempestuous sea in human guise?

***

"Grannanna! Grannanna!"

"What is it, Jess?" Winnie asked. She lifted her eyes from her knitting to look at the eight year old who was kneeling on the window seat. Jessi was pressing her nose against the glass so that she could peer around the rivulets of water that were streaming down the window pane.

Jessica turned her head slightly and replied, "There's a man down on the beach!"

"People come down to visit the beach all the time, Jessi," Winnie said. "There's no need to make a song and dance about it."

"People don't come down here on a day like today," Jessica argued in the patented manner of a child talking to a particularly dense adult. As if to reinforce her argument, the wind chose that moment to howl particularly loudly around the eaves. "In any case, that's not the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is that he wasn't there a moment ago. He just… appeared. It was like magic."

Winnie shook her head. "You must be mistaken," she said. "He probably just walked down by the side of the house."

"Grannanna!" protested Jessi, as well she might. It was, even to Winnie's ears, a feeble suggestion. For one thing, there were no trees anywhere on the island, let alone around the house, to hide a fully-grown man from view. For another, Jessi had spent the last half-hour staring out of the window, watching the lashing rain and wishing petulantly and vociferously that she could go outside. Moreover, Jessi was the most observant child Winnie had ever known. If Jessi said the man had just appeared from nowhere then, as improbable as it sounded, Winnie was inclined to believe her.

Winnie carefully heaved her arthritic body upright and put her knitting to one side. "Let me see," she said.

Jessi shifted sideways so that Winnie could peer over her shoulder. Like Jessi, Winnie had to press her face close to one of the window panes so that she could squint around the glistening streaks of water that were streaming down the glass.

They watched the stranger pace along the sand, getting wetter and wetter, his dark hair plastering against his skull, his jeans clinging wetly to his legs, and his jacket darkening by the second with all the water it was absorbing. His hands were thrust deep into his pockets and his shoulders were hunched against the wind.

Jessi looked up at Winnie and asked, "What's he doing?"

"Just walking, by the looks of it."

"Why?"

Winnie frowned and said, "I've no idea, Jessi."

Winnie Byrne's life had been a difficult one. She'd known hardship and sorrow, yet there was no bitterness in her heart. She knew the meaning of compassion and she shivered in automatic sympathy with the stranger. What kind of a fool came out into a spring storm dressed only in a light summer jacket and jeans?

The elderly clock on the mantelpiece ticked wheezily as they watched, and the frown lines on Winnie's forehead carved themselves deeper as her concern grew. Finally, she could stand it no more. No matter who he was, he had to come in out of the driving rain.

"Stay here," Winnie said. "I'll only be a minute." Then she went into the porch, pulled on her boots and shrugged on her oilskin coat. She pulled the hood over her head and held it tightly closed with her left hand as she opened the front door with her right.

The wind was fierce, and Winnie could taste the salt spray that was blowing off the sea when she licked her lips, where it mingled with the rain. There were whitecaps on the water, and the waves pounded against the sand, foaming angrily.

The storm pushed at Winnie; she pushed back, determined to defy it. Maybe, had she not been struggling so hard, she would have realised that the stranger was not fighting the storm. Instead, he seemed immune to its fury, walking around in it as if it were nothing more severe that a light July shower. However, it would only be later — much later — that Winnie would think about that.

As it was, Winnie concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, taking a route down to the shore that avoided all the cotton-grass and moss-covered bog. The grass, normally ankle-deep, was almost flattened by the wind, and the few sheep she could see were huddling miserably in the lee of the house.

Winnie made it onto the beach and called out, but her words were ripped away by the storm. She couldn't hear them herself, so there was no way that the stranger should have been able to. Yet, he turned around to look at her, his whole face a question.

He mouthed something, but Winnie had no hope of deciphering the words. Her "I can't hear you!" should have been futile, too, so she reinforced it by pantomiming a cupping of her ears and then beckoning him towards her.

He came, and when he drew level with her, she yelled in his ear, "You should come along inside, before this weather is the death of you!"

Winnie surely imagined his response: a wry laugh and the words, "The wind and rain can't hurt me!"

"Don't be a fool, man!" she shouted brusquely. "You need warmth. And, I dare say, some tea wouldn't hurt, either!"

He smiled at her, either amused by her manner or grateful for her care. Winnie wasn't sure which. All she knew for sure was that his was a gleaming white smile.

It was a movie-star kind of smile, Winnie thought. It made her ageing heart skip beats and remember how it felt to be young. If she had been fifty years younger, she might have been attracted to him. Even now, in her seventies, she could appreciate the beauty of his smile. She was old, not dead!

Then again, Winnie Byrne, nee Eunson, had always been a one- man kind of woman. Arthur had stolen her heart the moment she had first set eyes on him, back when she was only fifteen. She'd had to wait impatiently for three years before he'd got a clue, then another four before they'd finally married.

This young man would never have stood a chance with her.

It was easier going back to the house, with the wind at their backs and their arms intertwined together to give them added balance. Indeed, so strong were some of the gusts that once or twice Winnie was sure that she would have been swept off her feet were it not for the stranger's firm grip.

Winnie opened the front door and ushered the stranger in before her. It took the two of them to push it shut again. Then she called out, "Jessi! Fetch me some towels and blankets!" as she began to peel off her waterproofs.

The stranger and she stood in the enclosed porch and looked at each other. Even though Winnie had lived on the islands all her life, she could not be described as načve. She knew exotic when she saw it, and this young man was certainly that. She'd never seen a face quite like his, not even amongst the tourists who sometimes passed through. His wet hair gleamed like onyx, his cheekbones were chiselled high, and his eyes were of the gentlest, deepest brown that she'd ever seen in a man. They were seal's eyes, Winnie thought, and she shivered.

Seal eyes… and he'd come from the sea. And she remembered all the stories she had learned at her father's knee some seventy years before.

But Winnie was a wise and practical woman. She was too sensible to entertain the mad thoughts that had just come to her, so she pushed them away and busied herself with more practical matters.

Jessi bustled in self-importantly with a huge pile of towels and blankets. It looked as though she had the entire contents of the linen cupboard gathered precariously in her little arms.

Winnie passed a bath sheet over to the stranger — now their guest — and bade him to dry his hair. Then she led him through the house to the bathroom. She told him to go inside, take off his wet things and pass them to her so that she could hang them up. "I'm sorry," Winnie said, "but it's been a few years since there has been a man in the house, and I've nothing to offer you to wear except blankets until your own things are dry. Now, take a good, hot shower and get the chill out of your bones!"

He smiled again, and again Winnie saw a flash of perfect white.

***

By the time she heard the plumbing give the tell-tale clank that told her the stranger had switched off the water, Winnie had put his clothes on a clothes horse in front of the fire in the living room, had made a pot of tea and had set some bannocks and jam out on the kitchen table.

Winnie felt, rather than heard, his arrival, and she turned to find him hovering self-consciously in the doorway. He'd wrapped one of the blankets around his midriff as though it were a generous bath towel and he'd draped another around his shoulders in the manner of a cape. Tanned forearms, hands and feet poked out from beneath the voluminous material.

"Come in, come in and sit down," Winnie said. She managed, with an effort, not to stare. Then she called, "Jessi! Come and have a drink with us!"

The clatter of what Winnie guessed to be pens and paper being dumped unceremoniously onto the coffee table in the living room and the thud-thud of small feet told Winnie that Jessi was doing as she had been told.

"How do you like your tea…?" Winnie let an unspoken question hover behind the verbal one.

Her perceptive visitor answered both. "Without milk, please, Ma'am. And… I guess I should introduce myself properly. My name is Clark Kent." He took a couple of steps forward and held out his hand.

His palm felt warm against hers, and her hand was very small in his. For some reason, his touch made her want to blush, so she withdrew as quickly as she could without seeming rude. Then she busied herself with the tea-pot.

"I'm Winnie Byrne," she said. "And this-" she paused to gesture at Jessi, who had just arrived, "-is my great granddaughter, Jessica."

"Jessi," corrected the child with a slight whine and a scowl.

"Sorry. This is *Jessi*." Winnie looked at Clark, letting their gazes lock over the child's head. "She's only Jessica when her mother is really cross with her. Isn't that right, Jessi?"

Jessi, still scowling, nodded and scrambled into a chair. Perhaps she didn't like the reminder that her parents could ever be angry, or perhaps she didn't like the fact that her great grandmother would reveal that she could be naughty to a visitor.

Clark laughed. It was a rich sound that filled and warmed the kitchen. "Oh, I know just how that works! Most of the time I'm just plain old Clark, but when my folks get mad, I become 'Clark Jerome Kent'!"

Jessi looked up at Clark and her scowl shifted into a shy smile. Winnie was tempted to smile, too, but before she did she wanted some answers from the young man. After making sure that all three of them had everything they needed, Winnie sat down, took a sip of her own tea, and asked, "So, where are you from, Clark?"

He chewed and swallowed his mouthful of bannock, taking slightly longer about it than Winnie thought was strictly necessary. It was as though he was delaying having to answer, though why such a question should be difficult was beyond her… unless, of course, he had something to hide.

Finally he said, "Kansas."

"In the USA?" asked Winnie. She couldn't help being surprised at his answer, even though she had already noted his accent. They rarely got visitors from America on the island. She couldn't remember ever having met one so early in the season. Nor would she have expected to because neither of the bed and breakfasts took bookings before Easter. Yet his answer seemed to be too improbable to be a casual lie.

He nodded. "My parents have a farm there, near the town of Smallville."

What an odd name! Winnie thought. It seemed almost too mundane to be true, but if it was a lie, it wasn't a very good one. She had never heard of Smallville. Then again, there were many places she had never heard of, so that proved nothing either one way or the other.

She tried again. "And what brought you out here on a day like today?"

"I…" Clark definitely seemed at a loss this time. "I was upset about… something. And I needed time to think, so I got out of the house and started… walking. And before I knew it, I was on your beach."

Winnie eyed him sceptically. She'd raised enough children to recognise an evasion when she heard one. "One thing you should know, young man, is that everyone on this island knows everything about everyone else. And I know that you could no more have walked here than you could have flown!"

The strangest expression flitted across the young man's face. It was a blend of embarrassment and unease, both of which Winnie put down to his being caught in the lie. It crossed her mind, then, to wonder how sensible it had been to invite this man — little more than a boy, really — into her house. It was an uncomfortable feeling; distrust didn't come naturally to Winnie Byrne.

"How *did* you get here, mister?" asked Jessi. Winnie was grateful to her great grandchild for asking the question. She, herself, would have found it difficult to ask for information in quite so direct a fashion. However, coming from a child, the words could never be seen as rude. Jessi didn't sound wary, just openly curious. "I know! You came on the boat, didn't you?"

Winnie shook her head. "He can't have done. The ferry doesn't run on a Sunday. You know that, Jessi." She flicked her eyes at Clark, wanting to see his reaction to that bit of information. However, he was looking down at his hands, so she couldn't see his expression.

"So, how *did* you get here, mister?" demanded Jessi.

He looked up again, and across at the child. There was a strange kind of dismay lingering around his eyes, even as he forced himself to smile. He flicked a glance at Winnie, then began to speak. "I'm a poor shipwrecked sailor, the sole survivor of a ship lost far out to sea."

Not true, thought Winnie, and she wondered at the way the lies flowed with ease from his mouth. She was certain he was lying, not only because of the teasing note he had injected into his tone, but also because his clothes were all wrong for a sailor, just as they had been wrong for taking a stroll in a Shetland storm. What she wasn't certain about, however, was his motive for telling the lies; was he trying to evade, to deceive, to beguile or to entertain? Did he mean them any harm? She wished she could know for sure.

Meanwhile, she saw Jessi's eyes light up at the promise of a story, and she decided to let Clark weave his tissue of lies for a little longer. Maybe she would figure something of the mystery out if she observed him for a while.

***

Clark had just concluded his story when a grizzled mongrel tottered into the kitchen. The dog moved stiffly and uneasily, and his paws scratched and slid against the vinyl floor.

"Well, look who has woken up at last!" said Winnie fondly. She reached out from her chair and scratched the top of the dog's head.

The dog sniffed the air, then turned curious eyes towards the stranger. He gave a vague wag of his tail and tottered over to investigate Clark more closely.

"Don't mind Haggis. He's as friendly as they come, just a little old and arthritic. He's rather like me, really," chuckled Winnie.

"Hi, there, old fella," said Clark, leaning over, and offering a hand to the dog for him to smell. "Haggis, is it?"

Haggis woofed in lethargic agreement, sniffed Clark's skin, and decided that he approved. Then he rested his chin on Clark's lap and raised soulful eyes at his new acquaintance.

"My grandson — Jessi's uncle, that is — named him," Winnie said.

Clark scratched Haggis behind the ears, prompting the dog to push his greying head even further across Clark's lap in appreciation. Then the dog lifted his chin a little, tilted his head to one side and whined, his eyes flicking from the remains of Clark's bannock, which lay abandoned on his plate, to Clark's face and back again.

"Now, don't go believing any of that dog's nonsense," warned Winnie. "He's no more starving than I am!"

Winnie and Jessi watched Clark pet the dog. After a while, Jessi slid off her chair and moved to crouch next to the pair and wrapped her arms possessively around Haggis's chest. Clearly she had reached the limits of her eight-year-old ability to share. If Winnie were not careful, Jessi's famous temper might begin to fray.

"If we're all done," she suggested, "perhaps we might move into the living room. The chairs in here are a little hard, don't you think?" It wasn't entirely an excuse, made to defuse any tantrums that might be coming her way, either. If Winnie stayed in one place for too long, she could feel her joints begin to stiffen in protest. She would feel more comfortable if she moved around a little bit.

She braced her right hand on the table to increase her leverage as she tried to stand. She could have managed perfectly adequately on her own, but she didn't need to. She felt a warm hand brace her elbow and heard Clark murmur, "Here, let me help you, ma'am."

"Thank you," she said, and she meant it. His was a tiny act of kindness, but it showed an unusual degree of empathy, she thought. Not many strangers would have thought to help her in that way. Indeed, only the closest of her family knew to do it.

She felt herself soften towards the stranger just a little bit more, then struggled to resurrect her guard. She didn't want to let it slip just yet.

***

As Clark looked around, Winnie saw her living room anew. It was a small room as befitted such a small house. The walls were covered with a pink floral wallpaper, the pattern faded with age. Two framed prints of landscapes faced each other from opposite walls.

Jessi's colouring pad and felt-tip pens lay scattered across the coffee table and floor, and Winnie's abandoned knitting was resting in a bundle in the old wing chair closest to the fire. The fire, itself, was currently blocked from view by the clothes horse upon which Clark's clothes had been set out to dry.

Beyond that day's disorganised mess was the more ordered clutter of a lifetime's accumulated knickknacks. There were delicate china boxes and figurines along the window sills and framed photographs aplenty atop every available surface. There were pictures of weddings, christenings and parties, and there were portraits of smiling gap-toothed children in school uniforms and self-conscious looking adults in their Sunday best. There was at least one picture for every member of Winnie's large family.

Most prominent of all, on the mantelpiece, stood two black and white photographs, one on each side of the wheezing clock. The one on the left was a wedding photograph. By modern standards, it was of poor quality, grainy, poorly focused and sepia with age. The couple within appeared stiff as they stared sternly into the camera's lens.

Winnie had still been slim when that picture had been taken and, according to Arthur, she had been beautiful. Winnie didn't know about that; all she knew was that Arthur had been the most handsome of men and that no picture could ever have done him justice.

The photograph on the right came close, however. It was a head and shoulders portrait that one of Winnie's children had taken on Arthur's fiftieth birthday. Whereas she had widened and lost her looks as she had aged, Arthur had merely become more distinguished. His hair had greyed and the lines on his face had become more deeply carved as the years had passed, but he had never gained weight or lost his hair. And, somehow, the picture had managed to capture the twinkle in his bright blue eyes and the hint of his trademark smile that was playing around his lips.

For some reason, Clark seemed drawn to the photograph. He walked over, stopping a couple of paces short of the mantel, and gestured towards it. "Is this your husband?"

Winnie nodded. "Yes. That's my Arthur. He's dead now, though."

"Oh. I'm sorry."

It was nice of him to say so, Winnie thought grudgingly. She still had her concerns about him, but she had to admit that he had good manners. Someone, somewhere, had taught him well.

Since he was next to the fire, he fingered his clothes and said, "I think they're dry now."

Winnie did not believe him — how could they have dried already? — so she checked for herself. Her eyebrows rose a fraction. Surprised, she said, "And so they are. But you can't leave until the storm eases. Otherwise you'll be right back where you started."

Clark nodded, then turned to look at the window. He seemed to stare out into the impenetrable darkness. Then he said, "I think the rain's stopped. I should be fine." He glanced sheepishly down at the blankets he was wearing. "In any case, I think I'd like to get changed."

Winnie thought his discomforted embarrassment was rather endearing. "Very well. You know where the bathroom is."

While he changed, Winnie took a look out of the front door. Clark was right: the rain *had* stopped. How had he known that? She shook her head, perplexed.

***

The wind had veered around to the north and had dropped down to a stiff breeze. There was a noticeable bite to the air that had not been there earlier. Above them, broken clouds scudded past, revealing glimpses of the glittering stars and crescent moon beyond.

"Good-bye, Mrs Byrne. Thank you for everything."

Winnie didn't say "You're welcome." She wasn't entirely sure that he was. Certainly, he was a likeable boy, but… She stopped herself from shaking her head. She still had so many unanswered questions!

Clark held out his hand, just as he had done earlier in the kitchen.

Winnie took his hand and shook, and was pleased that the darkness hid her blush.

Then Clark turned away and began to walk. Winnie watched for a minute before retreating inside. When she looked out through the living room window, he was nowhere to be seen.

She pondered for a moment on his disappearance, then turned her attention back towards a more immediate problem. Jessi's parents would be coming by soon to collect her, and the child's belongings had somehow managed to scatter themselves throughout the house. She stiffly bent over and began to gather the various bits and pieces together even as she called Jessi to come and help.

Winnie's thoughts lingered on Clark as she and Jessi tidied. She was sure that she would never see him again.

She was wrong.

***

It was a cold, clear day in early January, during that dead time following the turn of the year. A thin smattering of snow covered the ground, but the sky was clear and serene. The feeble sun hung low in the midday sky, casting long shadows across the ground. All too soon it would pass below the horizon again, and another long winter's night would begin. Winnie had to make the most of the precious hours of daylight while she could.

Winnie was dressed in coat, hat, scarf and gloves. Her cheeks were pink where they had been pinched by the cold and her footsteps were as brisk as she could make them. Haggis was having a hard time keeping up with her. Winnie suspected that he meandered off as often as he did to investigate a myriad of exciting smells so that he could hide his age and decrepitude.

Suddenly Haggis barked happily and scampered with uncharacteristic energy past her. Winnie looked around to find the cause of the commotion.

It took a moment for her to recognise and remember the young man who was now crouching down, making a fuss of the dog. It had been almost a year since they had met, after all.

"Clark!" she exclaimed. "This *is* a surprise!" She wondered whether it was a welcome one.

"Hi, Mrs Byrne." Clark smiled readily and warmly as he stood up. His smile was just as dazzling as she remembered. "I was passing by, and I decided to take another look at the beach. I wondered what it looked like when there wasn't a gale blowing!"

"And what do you think of it?"

Clark inhaled deeply and said, "It's beautiful."

Winnie nodded, pleased with his approval. Of course, it was no less than the beach deserved.

"I never saw a real beach when I was growing up," Clark said. "Except on television, of course. But that never prepares you for the real thing. This" — he waved a hand to encompass the sea and the sand — "is wonderful."

"So what was it like, where you grew up?"

"Oh…" Clark shrugged. Winnie watched him as he searched for the words he needed to describe… Where was it he had said he was from again? Ah, yes. Kansas. "Mostly flat," he said eventually. "A few trees. Some hills. Acres and acres of farmland, of course. Lots of corn, although my parents keep cattle, too."

"It sounds nice," said Winnie, more out of politeness than with any real conviction. She couldn't imagine anywhere without the sea.

"It is nice," agreed Clark.

They fell into step and walked silently a little way down the strand. Then Clark asked, "How's Jessi?"

"She's fine. Doing well in school."

"That's good."

"And yourself?"

"Pretty much the same," said Clark.

Haggis, Winnie noticed, as they wandered along the beach, appeared to have wandered off again. She was beginning to wonder where he had got to, when he suddenly broke into a full-throated frenzy of barks. Something had to be very wrong, thought Winnie, to make him react like that!

She broke into as much of a run as her tired, old legs could manage, and she mentally cursed the way the years had aged her. Oh, to be able to run as she had done, back when she was young!

The way Clark was running now.

The young man tore along the beach, guided only by the sound of the dog's alarm call. Then he disappeared from view, into a small gully that channelled water down from the hills behind the house.

When Winnie, out of breath, caught up with him, he was kneeling down, crooning at a sheep that lay in the bottom of the gully, tangled in what remained of a barbed-wire fence. She scrambled as best she could over a few scattered boulders to join him.

"Oh!" she breathed in horror. "That's my ram! He must have fallen down from the field up there, and pulled the fence along with him! Is he all right?"

"I think so, yes. Just a bit panicky. He'll be fine, once we get him out of this mess."

She crouched down, her joints protesting vehemently as she did so, and added her soothing voice to Clark's. Between them, they persuaded the ram to stop struggling, then they carefully worked together to release him from the wire.

Finally the ram was free. As if to reassure Winnie that he was fine, he immediately scrambled to his feet, bleated loudly, and scrabbled his way up a steep slope and out of sight.

"Well, there's gratitude for you," laughed Clark. "He didn't even stick around to say thank you!"

"Then I'll just have to say it for him, won't I?" said Winnie. Then, to reinforce her point, she added, "Thank you."

"You're welcome, Mrs Byrne. Now, if you can lend me some tools, I'll fix the fence for you before anything else can fall down here."

"I don't want you to go to any trouble…" Winnie said doubtfully.

"It'd be no trouble, really."

"Well, if you're absolutely sure… To be honest, that fence has been worrying me for a while. My grandson, Doug, promised me a couple of weeks ago that he'd take a look at it just as soon as he had a moment. But he doesn't have much spare time these days, not now he's started working full time at the oil terminal."

"Well, I'll fix it now," said Clark. "Then you won't have to worry about it any more."

"Well, then… Thank you! I'd appreciate it. And when you're done, you must come in and have a bite to eat. You'll have earned it."

***

"You're a good worker," Winnie said a little while later. They were once again sitting at her kitchen table, this time with tea and fruitcake in front of them. "Thank you."

"It was nothing, really, Mrs Byrne. I'd have done the same for any of the neighbours back home."

Winnie considered him for a few seconds, then said, "Maybe you would, but that doesn't mean that I appreciate your efforts any less. That ram's a good breeder and I'd hate to see anything happen to him." She remembered the way Clark had calmed the sheep down, and she added, "You'll make a good farmer, one of these days."

She glimpsed a flicker of something in Clark's expression. Then, tentatively, he said, "I don't think I'm going to be a farmer."

"Why not? You're obviously a natural with stock."

"I…" He shook his head. "I just don't think it's for me, you know?"

Winnie didn't know, so she said nothing. Instead, she waited patiently for him to say something more.

"I… I don't seem to fit in around Smallville any more. Back when I was a little kid, everything was fine. But then… I guess I started to grow up. I began to change. And last year when I found out that I could-" He stopped abruptly and shook his head. "No, farming's not for me."

"What will you do instead?"

"I'm not sure, but right now I'm in school — what you'd call university, I guess — and I think I'm going to major in journalism."

"Journalism?" Winnie asked. "Like for a newspaper?"

Clark nodded.

"You'll need a lot of learning for that, I would imagine."

"I guess so," Clark said. He didn't sound unduly worried, though.

"Your parents must be proud of you."

Clark nodded. "I *think* they are. But my dad never says much and I think he's also a little disappointed with the way things are turning out. He always wanted a son to pass the farm on to, but since I'm an only child, that's not going to happen. My mom, though… She's great. I think she might have gone to university, if she hadn't married my dad."

They sat in silence for a few more minutes and sipped companionably on their tea. Winnie thought about what he had just said, and the way he'd said it, then cut Clark another piece of cake. Finally, she said, "Having more children wouldn't guarantee that there would be someone for your dad to pass the farm on to, you know. Take my children, for example. Three of them have moved away from these islands altogether and, of the two that stayed, only one is a crofter. The other works as an estate agent in Lerwick."

"So what will happen to this place when you…" Clark trailed off uncomfortably.

"When I die, do you mean?"

Clark nodded.

"Don't be embarrassed to say it, boy! It'll come to us all, you know!" Then more soberly, Winnie said, "I don't know what will happen. But I gave up worrying about it a long time ago."

That wasn't strictly true, of course. Although she tried not to think about it, she never really succeeded in banishing her worries altogether. She couldn't imagine this land without a Byrne to work it. However, unless one of her descendants had a change of heart…

"Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that all a parent really wants is for his or her child to be happy. If you would rather do something other than take over your father's farm, you shouldn't feel guilty about it. No right thinking parent would want to stop you from being happy, and I bet that's just as true about your father as it is for anyone else. And if he doesn't say that he wants you to stay on the farm, then all that means is that he's leaving the decision of what you do up to you. His silence is a gift, Clark. You should treasure it."

Winnie watched as Clark let her words sink in. She could see tension she hadn't even realised was there leave his shoulders. It was obvious to her that Clark had been wrestling with the issue of his future for a long time, and finally he was making peace with the decision he had made. Eventually he said, "Hearing that… It helps more than you can possibly imagine. Thank you, Mrs Byrne. Thank you so much!"

***

From then on, theirs was an odd kind of friendship. It hovered somewhere beyond casual acquaintance but it was less than intimate. Years passed, and their distant affection for one another was punctuated by occasional visits by Clark, who, after earning his degree, had decided to travel around the world. He seemed to take odd jobs where and when he could, but he never stayed long in any of them.

Clark would drop by and tell her stories of exotic places she had barely heard of. He would bring small gifts at Christmas and Winnie would tell him that he should not waste his money on her. He would do little jobs as and when they needed doing on the croft, and Winnie would make him tea and tell him about her ever-expanding family.

And then she would ask him when he was going to marry, settle down, and raise a family of his own, because that was the kind of life she understood best.

Although Winnie still wondered where Clark came from, her wariness eased. He gradually won her trust and regard, and that was all that mattered.

***

Winnie reached up stiffly and placed the star on the top of her Christmas tree. Then she stepped back to survey her handiwork. She nodded, satisfied.

At eighty-three years old, she had long since ceased to be overly bothered about Christmas. However, her children, her grandchildren and, most of all, her great-grandchildren expected her to make an effort. Her children and grandchildren saw such efforts as reassuring evidence that the passing years were only slowly taking their toll on the family matriarch. For the youngest of her great grandchildren the fact that it was Christmas was reason enough for them to think that Winnie ought to make a fuss over the season.

So, for all their sakes, Winnie had carefully hung Christmas cards across the chimney breast and tinsel around the door frames. She'd taken most trouble, however, over the Christmas tree she'd positioned on an occasional table in a corner. That she had decorated with love.

And memories.

Each glass ball carried a memory with it. And, when the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren came around, she would tell them about those memories, and they would listen, never tiring of Winnie's stories. Or, rather, if they did tire of the stories she told, they hid it well.

Winnie and Arthur had bought the first few baubles together, soon after they were married. They'd thought the baubles were a wicked extravagance, back when times were lean. For years they had made do without a tree; they'd hung the glass balls in the windows of the house instead. Other decorations had been added to the collection later, most as little tokens of affection from each other. And slowly, over the years, the collection had grown.

Some of the baubles had been made by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. These were the handmade ones, mostly rough, ready and cheap in materials, but infinitely precious in every way that counted.

Winnie missed Arthur. After nearly fifteen years alone, she knew that she always would. They'd loved each other all through their forty-six years of marriage.

She turned away from the tree and walked over to the fireplace. She picked up the photograph off the mantel and smiled down at her husband's face. She ran her fingers lightly across the glass, caressing it as gently as she had once caressed his cheeks. "The house looks good this year, Arthur," she whispered. "Even if I do say so myself."

Her reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come in!" she cried. "The door is open!" She carefully replaced the photograph on the mantel and turned around just in time to see her visitor pause on the threshold.

"Hi, Mrs Byrne. I was… in the neighbourhood, and I just wanted to drop in to wish you a merry Christmas. Also, I wanted to give you this." He held out a small gift.

She eyed him and tried to chastise him. "You shouldn't have!" Unfortunately, she knew that the severity in her words was at odds with her tone and the twinkle in her eyes. Her pleasure shone through as she reached out and carefully took the gift from him. She placed it under the tree and said, "There. It looks just right, don't you think?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Sit down, sit down, and I'll make you tea!"

"Tea would be great, Mrs Byrne, but let me make it. I don't want to be a bother."

"You're no bother, lad. You know that."

Clark smiled at her use of the endearment, probably thinking it incongruous that she would call an adult in his twenties a lad. However, these days, everyone under the age of seventy was a lad to Winnie. Clark, although he didn't know it, had a lot more growing to do before Winnie would even think to call him a man.

***

More years passed. The croft became too much for Winnie to manage, so she rented out the land and sold her stock. Now the sheep that grazed her grass belonged to someone else. She became more and more house-bound. Increasingly she relied on the visits of others to keep her links with the outside world alive.

Jessi's parents moved off the island, moving to Aberdeen. Jessi, herself, went to college, then met a banker and settled down in Dundee. Winnie's family continued to grow as more great grandchildren came along, but they dispersed, moving across Shetland and then across Scotland. Jessi's uncle — the grandchild who, so long ago, had named her dog — had taken his family even further afield. Now every birthday and Christmas Winnie would receive several parcels with Vancouver postmarks. She had an ever-increasing collection of photographs of Canadian great grandchildren who she had never seen.

And through all the changes, Clark remained a constant. He never forgot her. She never quite knew how he managed it, given all the travelling he seemed to do, but he remained a more regular visitor than many of her own family.

***

"Now, tell me, have you met that special someone yet?"

They were sitting in Winnie's kitchen, a fresh pot of tea and a plate of digestive biscuits in front of them. At Winnie's question, Clark looked up from the plug he was rewiring.

To her surprise, instead of the automatic no she had become accustomed to over the years, this time some colour crept into Clark's cheeks. He sucked on his lower lip for a moment or two, then shyly said, "I think so, yes."

"Go on," prompted Winnie.

"You know I moved to Metropolis a couple of years ago?"

Winnie nodded. Clark had told her that much before. She thought he worked for a newspaper there, but he had been sparing of the details. Besides, the name would have meant nothing to her, given that they were lucky to get the British dailies on her island, let alone anything more exotic.

"Well, I have a colleague. Her name is Lois, and she's beautiful and brilliant. I think I fell in love with her the minute I saw her, but it took me a while to admit it to myself, let alone confess how I was feeling to my folks." He laughed. "Of course, it turned out that *they'd* figured things out months before!"

Winnie nodded and smiled. She liked hearing about his parents. They sounded like a lovely couple.

"The only problem was that Lois didn't feel the same way. But… I think she might be…"

"Coming round to your way of thinking?"

"Yeah. There have been a few times in the last few months when there has been something about the way she's looked at me. It's not the same as how she used to. It's like…" The colour in his cheeks heightened.

"Like?"

"Like she knows something has changed, and she's trying to figure out what it is."

"She doesn't know?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so."

"But you think she's falling for you?"

"I… I'm not sure, but I'm hopeful. Plus, there's something else."

"Oh?"

He nodded. "Something happened at Christmas. I knew that Lois was going to be alone, you see, so I made an excuse to stay in Metropolis with her. We held hands, watched the snow fall and listened to carollers together. And, for a moment there I thought we might even kiss."

"You didn't?"

"No."

"And then, last week, I was kidnapped-"

"Kidnapped! Clark! What kind of a life do you lead?"

"It was nothing. Just a couple of mad scientists with a cyborg."

Sometimes Winnie wondered how many of Clark's stories were true and how many were figments of his imagination. She could tell that he was still evasive at times, but, unlike during their memorable first meeting, his evasions tended to manifest themselves in omissions rather than outright untruths. So, were his stories of kidnappings, near death encounters with gangsters and the like actually true? Or were they tall tales, like his fabrication of a shipwreck had once been? In many ways, she hoped the latter was the case because, if his stories were true, she could only be scared for him, even if he seemed to take all these things in his stride.

"Anyway, Lois came to rescue me. It was an incredibly reckless thing for her to do, but really brave, and I figure that has to mean something. Plus she told a mutual friend that there wasn't anything she wouldn't do for me." He said the last with a mixture of bashfulness, pride and awe in his voice.

"So what's stopping you getting together, if she feels that way about you?" asked Winnie.

"I don't know. I guess… the timing never seems right or something. And I don't want to pressure her into doing something before she's ready. She's been hurt so many times before and…" He shrugged. "It's complicated."

"But you like her, this Lois?"

"Oh, yes! I think… No. I know that I love her. And I'll wait for her for as long as it takes her to realise that she feels the same way about me. But the waiting is just so frustrating sometimes!"

"I waited years for my Arthur," said Winnie. "The waiting was frustrating for me, too, Clark. But patience is a virtue. Just you remember that. And your patience will be rewarded, I'm sure."

"Thanks, Mrs Byrne. That makes me feel a lot better. Here, do you want to see her picture? I have one in my wallet."

***

Several more years passed. Winnie found her little house harder to manage and she became increasingly reliant on the kindness of her neighbours and the strangers social services sent around. When she had visitors, she tended to sit back and let them do the talking. She spoke less and listened more, and she was content.

Still Clark visited.

Somewhere along the line, Clark's patience had been rewarded, just as Winnie had predicted it would be, and he and Lois managed to get together. There had obviously been more than a few bumps in the road along the way, but Clark never went into details, and Winnie, now used to his occasional fits of secrecy, didn't bother to ask for them. He was, however, far more forthcoming about his wedding ceremony, a wonderfully charming affair that took place in the middle of nowhere, with only immediate family and intimate friends present. It sounded terribly romantic to Winnie, and Winnie liked nothing better than a good romance.

More time passed.

Lois and Clark adopted a child, a little girl they called Rose.

Clark proudly brought photos of both Lois and Rose for Winnie to see and Winnie laboriously knitted a pair of pale yellow booties.

***

The last time Winnie Byrne saw Clark was the summer before her ninety-fifth birthday — the summer before she died. She was sitting in the conservatory her children had built on the back of her house for her eighty-fifth birthday, painstakingly knitting a sweater for her second youngest great grandchild. There had been a time when her fingers danced nimbly, wrapping the wool around the needles and manipulating the pins with ease. Nowadays, though, the once automatic task required effort. As with so many other things, she found her ease at knitting slipping away. She had grown slow with the passing years.

Still, she wasn't going to give up, just because she was slowing down. Not a bit of it! So, she resigned herself to taking her time, working on the basis that managing a little, while worse than a lot, was far better than none at all.

It had been a perfect summer. It had been like the endless summers she remembered from her childhood, she thought, a smile gracing her wizened face. The sun, which was now easing down towards the western horizon, had shone every day since the beginning of July, the temperature had been a couple of degrees warmer than was usual, and the wind had seldom been more than a light breeze.

Winnie lowered her knitting and turned her incurious watery eyes towards the fields that her neighbour, Tom, farmed these days. The good weather had brought the crops on well. The harvest was going to be early this year. Then she turned her gaze back towards the beach.

The water was a vivid shade of turquoise and the sand a pale stripe of creamy-white. From time to time she could hear the eerie, strident cries of the oystercatchers. If she chose not to seek them out, it was not because her eyes now lacked the power to do so. In fact, her eyes were almost as acute as they had ever been. Rather, it was because she did not have the inclination to take the time to look. So attuned was she to her home that she didn't need to see the oystercatchers to know they were there. Nor did she need to look for the dunlin or the ringed plovers to know that they were also probing the beach for food, or that the shags and eider ducks were bobbing in the water, a little way from the shore. That they were there was a given, and that, for Winnie Byrne was enough.

She let her arthritic fingers rest, laying them, still wrapped around the knitting needles, in her lap. She closed her eyes, letting her imagination alone paint for her the burnished oranges and reds of the setting sun. As with everything else, she didn't need her eyes to see it.

It was night when she awoke, and she realised that she had dozed for far longer than she'd intended. The hills were black silhouettes against the navy sky, and the moon had risen, one of the biggest, creamiest moons that she could remember having ever seen. It reflected on the water as a stripe of white, a bright band of dappled light across the sea.

It was a night for lovers, she thought, remembering the times she had spent watching the moon with her husband, back in the days when their marriage was new… and in the days when it was not so new, too. All that was needed, Winnie thought, was a couple of lovers to make the moment perfect.

And then she saw them.

Like the gently rolling hills that framed the voe, they were black silhouettes, but she didn't need to see his features to recognise the man.

As she watched, Clark came to a halt, turned his back to her, and put his arm around his companion. Winnie had never met Lois, but Clark had spoken about her often enough for Winnie to guess that this was she. Winnie knew how to read body language, and who else would Clark lean so close to as they strolled along the sand?

Winnie watched as they stopped and turned to face the sea. She watched the way Clark wrapped his arm around Lois's shoulders, the way Lois allowed herself to be drawn into his embrace, the way she moulded herself against his side and leaned her head against his chest. Clark rested his cheek against her hair, and together they looked at the sky.

Winnie knew it was her imagination — there was no way she could hear them from this distance — but she fancied that she could hear them whisper sweet nothings to each other in the quiet of the night. Or maybe what she was hearing was the sound of her own memories, the words that her husband had spoken to her when they had strolled along the beach, looking at the moon, some seventy, sixty, fifty, forty or even thirty years before.

Then she saw the couple move in the intimate dance of lovers. Lois moved into Clark's arms, her face turned up towards his. He lowered his head and they kissed.

And then they floated, spiralling lazily in the still night, the lightness of their spirits making them lighter than air.

Winnie wondered why she wasn't surprised by the way the two lovers were drifting above the ground. Surely she should have been. Maybe it was because of her age. Maybe she was dreaming. Or maybe it was because she had always known that Clark was different. It was just that she had long since learned not to care about those differences. Whatever the reason, she felt neither shock nor alarm at what they were doing.

Instead, Winnie thought about Arthur. She had never floated in his arms, but she didn't need to have done it to know how it felt. She remembered the way his arms had held her safe, the way his fingers had felt against her skin as he'd caressed her cheek in a prelude to their kisses, and the way his lips had felt against hers.

Down on the beach, Lois and Clark drifted slowly back down to earth. Clark took six steps backwards, looking as though he was being torn reluctantly out of Lois's arms.

Then he began to spin.

When he came to a stop seconds later, it took Winnie a moment or two to work out what precisely it was that she was seeing.

The way the cape fluttered behind him as he walked… the outline of his body where the costume hugged close to his flesh… There was only one man that this could be: Superman.

She watched, fascinated, as he walked towards Lois and then effortlessly swept her up into his arms. Lois wrapped her arms around Clark's neck and tucked her head under his chin.

He levitated a few feet off the ground for a few seconds, allowing them one last look at the moon, before he rocketed upwards, vanishing from Winnie's field of view.

Twenty years after they had first met, and long after all Winnie's questions had ceased to matter to her, Winnie Byrne finally had her answers.

Clark had no more come from the sea than she had. He had come from the sky.

***

A stranger came to the funeral of Winnie Byrne, nee Eunson, although it seemed to the rest of the family that he had been no stranger to her, nor she to him.

He stood quietly towards the back of the mourners, trying — and failing — not to draw attention to himself. He drew attention through the mere fact of his presence.

He was a good-looking man, possessed of the kind of features that Jessi had swooned over as a teenager, back before she'd met blonde-haired, blue-eyed William and had fallen in love for real. The stranger had dark hair, dark eyes that were half-hidden behind wire-framed glasses, skin the colour of pale honey and straight white teeth that flashed brightly when he smiled. He didn't smile often, though, because to do so would not have been appropriate at a funeral.

After the service was over and the mourners began to disperse, the stranger edged forward diffidently and held out his hand to Jessi. "I'm Clark," he said. "We met once before. I think you were about eight at the time. Maybe you remember me?"

Jessi, momentarily distracted by her new daughter, Winifred, who chose that moment to begin to fret, shook her head automatically.

"Oh…" said Clark. Then he flashed a quick smile before ruthlessly suppressing it. "I'm sorry for your loss. She was a lovely person."

"Yes, she was."

Jessi plucked the baby out of her buggy and cuddled her into silence. Then she looked more carefully at Clark. Suddenly she remembered an afternoon long ago, back when she was a child. She remembered rain and wind and the man on the beach. She remembered sitting at the kitchen table in her great grandmother's house, entranced by the fabulous story he had spun about being shipwrecked and swimming for days across the storm-tossed North Sea.

Her mouth opened in a small "o" of belated recognition.

He was about to turn away when Jessi said, "Wait! I… I do remember you!"

After he had left, her great grandmother had advised Jessi not to believe a word of Clark's story; it had been just one more tall tale, like the tales of the selkie folk and the trows that Winnie herself told. Jessi, Winnie had warned her severely, was never to believe the glib lies that flowed from the mouth of a man from the sea.

Looking at him now, Jessi was sure her great grandmother had been right. His story of shipwreck and adventure had been nothing more than a nonsense created by his imagination. Except for the expensive suit, designer glasses and American accent, he was, Jessi decided, just an ordinary man.

But it didn't matter what he was. All that mattered was that he had cared enough to come, and that made Jessi think warmly of him. So, prompted by something more than politeness, Jessi invited him to join the rest of the mourners back at Winnie's house.

No. It was Grannanna's house no longer. It was Jessi's house now.

Jessi had missed the islands terribly once she'd moved away and her husband had never much liked his office job. So, after much discussion, they had decided, with the blessing of the rest of the family, to take over the croft. Their new life would be a struggle, Jessi knew, but they would manage somehow, just as Grannanna had done for all those years.

Jessi looked down at little Winifred, who was now sleeping contentedly in her arms, and she knew with a certainty that she could never have explained that their decision to move was the right one. Little Winnie would be happier here than she could ever have been in Dundee.

Clark shook his head, murmured something about Jessi's kindness, and declined her invitation. "I have to be getting back," he said.

Jessi didn't think his excuse odd until later, when she realised that Clark hadn't had a car and that there were no buses running on a Sunday. It was as though the American had appeared out of nowhere and had vanished back the way he'd come.

Just as he had done, all those years before.

Clark was to remain a mystery, however, a mystery equalled only by an odd bequest Jessi's great grandmother had made in her will.

With one exception, Winnie Byrne, nee Eunson, had left what little she owned to be divided up among her remaining family. The exception was a sum of one hundred pounds, payable to the Superman Foundation.

THE END