M Evan MacGriogair sings and writes in Gàidhlig and in English. You can find their bilingual fiction at Tor.com and in Steall Magazine (summer 2020), with poetry in Poets’ Republic and elsewhere. Evan sings with the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association, the Alba Choir, and Fuaran. “A Pale Horse” is their first appearance in Uncanny Magazine, a beautifully written story of poetry, music, and searching for hope in dark times.
Uncanny Magazine: “A Pale Horse” refers to one of the four horses of the apocalypse. What drew you to this title? Did you know the title from the start, or did it come to you later in the process?
M Evan MacGriogair: The title was one of the last things that came to me with this one, and while the four horses of the apocalypse was one reference, it also refers to the each-uisge of Gàidhlig folklore, a creature that appeared as a shining white horse or a beautiful person near the shore. Unlike kelpies, which inhabit only burns or rivers, the each-uisge’s domain is lochs (freshwater and sea lochs) and the sea itself. If you mounted the horse, you were safe only if you were away from the shore—the slightest glimpse of water would mean you could not dismount, and the each-uisge would run to the deepest reaches of the loch or sea and eat you once you drowned.
There are also songs about them falling in love with human women, to various success or failure. (Usually the latter.)
The title is a bit of a play on both of those symbols, particularly with the ending and the protagonist’s experiences. Drowning can happen in a lot of different ways, sometimes without the help of water.
Uncanny Magazine: This story is set against a background of darkness (massive fires, mass shootings, general dread of an approaching apocalypse), but it is a story about finding beauty and hope. What are some of the things that give you hope right now?
M Evan MacGriogair: As I answer this question, I have been alone in my flat for ten weeks. I have two cats, for whom I am very thankful. Last year was a year of fault lines for me—my marriage ended, I was in the midst of a harrowing immigration process, I had just gotten a major medical diagnosis, and I felt very alone. I wrote this story the week after I got that diagnosis, I think, when the rest was looming in front of me, and the planet was on fire. Sitting here now in a slowly-easing lockdown in a global pandemic, I can’t help but be a tiny bit wild-eyed, I think. This story was me clawing myself out of a place of extreme fear that I was about to lose everything I loved.
Alongside all that, though, was what got me through it, and that was Gàidhlig and Gàidhlig music. I had just gotten back from Sweden, where I sang with a Gàidhlig choir formed from all over Scotland to represent Scotland at Eurovision Choir in Gothenburg. Our language is facing extinction—there is no other way to look at it. The pandemic threatens that even more. But there are people singing in the face of it, making art and music and sharing it. After years of campaigning, Gàidhlig is now on Duolingo, and where last autumn there were only 5,000 people learning it in all of Scotland, now there are literally hundreds of thousands, most of them in Scotland itself.
It also gives me hope that I am still here, alive, in spite of everything. For many years now, I have really tried to focus on gratitude. I was and am thankful for every day I got to sing with my choirs, every Gàidhlig conversation, every late night with song after song into the darkest hours of the night. I hope one day not too long from now, we will be able to be together again.
Uncanny Magazine: I love the descriptions of the beach—the sand, the waves, the sea glass. The sea also features prominently in your recent Tor.com story, “Seonag and the Seawolves.” What draws you to write about the sea? Is the beach in “A Pale Horse” based on a real world place?
M Evan MacGriogair: Thank you! My earliest memories are living by the sea half a world away in Alaska. My childhood was tumultuous and erratic, but the sea has been a constant in my life. Waterways join every part of the world. And the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska shares a lot in common with the west coast of Scotland, where my family came from. The story starts at Loch Long, a sea loch that is exactly what it says it is: long. I made a Gaelic-Welsh film a couple years ago there, and we spent the hottest day in Scottish history filming there. It’s a strange place; there’s military installations along the loch, and we were definitely under observation the whole time we were there.
Culla in Benbecula (Beinn na Faoghla) is also a real place, though I’ve not been there. My other story, “Seonag and the Seawolves” takes place south of there, in South Uist (Uibhist a Deas), where I spent a week in Gàidhlig immersion at Ceòlas, which I highly recommend to anyone who has the chance!
The sea for me is a reminder of many things. Of our mortality, of the power of nature, of the bounty of nature, and how greed can poison us. I think anyone who lives or has lived near the sea is aware that when she moves, you listen. You can have a romance with her, but you cannot do so without remembering her might. The wave that brings you breakfast can drown you. And anything you chuck into the sea can easily come back on the morning tide. Nothing vanishes.
Uncanny Magazine: What was the most difficult thing about writing this story? What was the easiest?
M Evan MacGriogair: I was in a really uncertain, painful place when I wrote it. That in itself was the difficulty for me. I was very raw, so the story became raw. But it all came out in one sitting, front to back, like I needed it to. That doesn’t happen to me often. This story is really special to me, and I’m very thankful to the Thomases for giving it a home.
Uncanny Magazine: This story blends Gàidhlig and English, with dialogue and poetry in both languages. How do you approach writing a story that features two languages? Particularly for poetry, do you find that you gravitate toward one language more than another?
M Evan MacGriogair: I live my life bilingually in Gàidhlig and English, so it’s actually harder for me these days to try and write just in English. I speak to my cats in Gàidhlig, think in Gàidhlig, speak to my friends and neighbours (yes, even in Glasgow!) in Gàidhlig, sing and write songs in Gàidhlig. The thing I try to do is weave it in so readers don’t need to understand it to understand me, if that makes sense. I gravitate toward Gàidhlig more and more now, which makes things interesting, as I’ve got books under contract in English.
Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?
M Evan MacGriogair: I am working on several different projects right now! My Gàidhlig short fiction and poetry will be appearing in Steall and in Poblachd nam Bàrd’s magazine, respectively, over the next few months. I’m also working on the final book in my English-language Stonebreaker trilogy, Windtaker, which is also very much concerned with seas and the land and how people interact with it and magic. I’m working on some new Gàidhlig songs with my band Fuaran. And I’m also working on two novels in Gàidhlig. And I also have a contemporary YA coming out next year (The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester from Boyd Mills and Kane), so I’ll be working on edits for that, too. I better get to work!
Thank you so much for speaking with me!
Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!
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