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The Isle of Skye
(Fiction) "I feel Ryan’s presence as if he is walking beside me."
On a five-acre plot, bordering a pond, the house stands at the foot of a green hill, like a solitary boulder deposited by a glacier. Running past the property, hedged with flowering black thorn, there is a path, seldom used by the tourists, who keep to the single-track road that follows the shoreline. The rest of the island is topographically varied, studded with mountains, farms, tiny ports, and pure white sandy beaches with aquamarine water.
The soft, sunny beaches are a shock to me. As are the rainbow colors of the heather, primrose, dog violets and sorrel. According to Samuel Johnson, whose book I perused on the plane from New York, nothing grew in the Hebrides because of the harsh wind and unending rain.
I was looking forward to a squall or two. To mirror my sense of loss. I pictured myself taking intrepid walks under fierce Scottish skies. Seeking shelter in the ruins of prehistoric forts. Instead the sun glides like a silk scarf over the grassy hills, and a gentle wind carries the bird songs into the house.
I should feel consoled. But the beauty of this place only intensifies my grief. Take a pill. A deep breath. A piece of fruit. A glass of port. Well-meaning relatives shed their guilt by lending advice. I can barely hear their voices, let alone listen to their words.
Days before our wedding, my fiancé, Ryan Walker died in a climbing accident on the Cullins mountain range. Our families, gathered in Manhattan for a celebration, instead flew across the ocean to attend a funeral. As Ryan requested in his will, we spilled his ashes into the North Sea. Afterwards, at the airport and ferry terminals, there were more tangible goodbyes.
To have Ryan’s house and not him is impossible to reconcile. Objects come alive and die in my hands. Food has no taste. Even soft music is abrasive. The view of the rolling hills from the cottage appears friendly one moment and hostile the next. The air inside is too thin and then stifling.
In time for my arrival, Ryan had added a new wing. The large open space, combining the living, dining, and kitchen areas was given two picture windows, double paned to keep out moisture and conserve heat. The furniture was custom made of the finest Scottish hardwood. Brand new monogrammed sheets and towels filled the linen closet. I don’t know yet what to do with them. A piano has my music sheets in its bench. Next to an ancient fireplace in the bedroom, a lovely vanity from a castle nearby is set with a silver brush, comb, and tissue box that I’ve emptied a few times. In the vanity’s oval mirror, I look alternately pale, puffy, and alert. My dark brown, doll-like eyes tear up, but rarely blink, as if I was born with this new, freshly painted dough colored face.
I have watched the sunrise every day for two weeks. I compose letters, arrange to meet a realtor, talk on the phone to my sisters and friends who have returned to the states. I tissue-wrap our new silverware, fine china, and crystal and place them in crates. Discard the caviar and champagne, meant for our first night. I sit at Ryan’s desk, fiddle with his pen, read his notes, and then, gaining strength, pack his books and personal things.
Midmorning, I slip on my boots and go outside where I feel Ryan’s presence as if he is walking beside me. I gaze at myself in the still waters of the pond and am surprised his reflection does not appear next to mine. I dread the other side of this dream. The truth. The creeping fear of recklessness. Of ever loving and losing again. Of memory receding.
The seagulls circling above, riding thermals from the Gulf Stream, are strangely without voices and wary of the Golden Eagle overhead. The vistas seem to cross over and into each other, the blues, greens, purples, and velvet blacks double-exposed. The acute silence excites my mind. Past, present, and future seem folded together like a paper fan, which, if it were flipped open, would fling the two painted lovebirds to opposite ends.
I head down the old pathway through the hills and out past the moors. The sea manufactures clouds in the shape of sheep. The dampness works like a mechanical monster on my wool clothes that seem to be growing hair and on my hair that seems to have grown woolly. Ryan wouldn’t care. It is unthinkable that I will never feel or touch or see him gain.
I want so badly to share last night’s sky with him. Opening dark as a raven’s wing, it swept up the mountains and the icy sea, and then tossed trillions of stars like sparkling seeds over and around the house. Stepping outside, I felt as if I were sitting inside a magician’s hat, the tip of its cone reaching to another galaxy.
I have come upon a sandy beach. Just offshore, sharp, menacing, rocks, half-concealed, part the waves.
Beyond them, a man is hauling lines from the back of a fishing boat. As the black-and-white-painted boat rolls by, quiet as a silent film, the man’s height, bulk, and darkness cast a spell on me. His face is both handsome and brutal, devastated by an astonishing scar—a thin white welt like a vein of opal quartz in one of the nearby cliffs. It runs from the brim of his cap diagonally across his face and widens as it makes its way down, parting a well-cropped beard, disappearing into his thin parka.
As the prow rises in the cold swells, the man moves gracefully, like a ram on rocks, his scar bleached and glowing in the dusty light. He’s at sea. I am on land. And yet our eyes connect like two animals caught in each other’s paths.
I inquire in Portree about him and am told only his name— Brandon MacLeod—and that he was struck by lightning. When I ask for more information—an obvious mistake—the storekeeper ignores me and turns up the volume on the television. I buy a bottle of wine and a dozen eggs and walk several miles back home, thinking of MacLeod and the frozen channel dividing the two continents of his face. Human beings can survive anything. Scars are like mirrors, Ryan once wrote. They perfectly reflect pain and glory. They are the gateway to our deepest memories. And the thread that ties us to the underworld.
For the next two weeks, the sky turns stone cold and it rains without relief. The dampness rots the grasses and interferes with the telephone lines that gleam under the road lamps. As if a drunken dragon is peering in, spouting fog instead of fire, the yellow beams of the occasional passing car fill the house. I don’t know how long I will stay or when I should leave. My body seems to be electrified. Plus to minus, minus to plus. I want someone, anyone, to pull the plug.
Finally, the sky clears. Nice enough weather, I think, to take a small trip over to Lewis Island to see The Standing Stones of Callinish, known to the islanders as The False Men. (I’ve had plenty of time to read, but nothing too complex.) The tourist guide says the site is similar to Stonehenge, but older, the inner circle formed before the Egyptian pyramids. I hop over to Lewis on a helicopter and settle at the Stornoway Inn. In the moment, I am outside of myself. Outside my grief. Then I spot Brandon MacLeod sitting alone at the tavern bar. He appears drunk, or depressed, allowing his chin to dip. Wary of his being so close with passable land between us, I tiptoe past the door without his seeing me. The sun warms my skin. I walk quickly away from town and toward the black moors. Along the wandering road, small, scattered lakes, shaped by lava and ice reflect bite-sized clouds afloat in a blue sky.
I can’t help thinking about Ryan and the first time we met. Renting my family’s house in the Grenadines, he was covering the annual whale hunt for a book. Ryan believed the same whales that squired their young in the warm waters migrated to the coast off Harris and then to the North Sea. He’d brought tracking devices and he hired a small boat to see if he could identify one or two. My opinion was that this was interfering. If we want earth’s creatures to survive, we have to stop spying on them, I said huffily. But I also knew Ryan was trying to help, and he was a bit of a crusader when it came to protecting the whales.
Afterward, he flew to New York, to see his publisher and return my keys. I arranged to meet him outside the classroom where I taught English Literature. He showed me his photographs of the island in which small clouds dappled the sky, reflecting in the pupils of several small scruffy children. We went to dinner, and by dessert time, already knew how we felt. Ryan. Dark haired, broad-nosed, full mouth, deep, sentimental eyes. Honest face. Melodious voice. Ryan was a romantic, but his writing was to the point. His being as dedicated as he was, I never had to worry about his suffocating me.
I’ve walked nearly five kilometers before passing an old black house with a heavily thatched roof. The crofters have left a rickety bicycle beside it, and finding no one, I borrow it. With my feet off the ground and my head higher, I can see the Standing Stones and, behind them, several islands that look from a distance like humpbacks, breaching in the dark, inlet waters known as East Loch Roag. My isolation suddenly dawns on me. I am alone on earth, except for the enormous stones, bursting like petrified fingers from an inescapable grave.
Other than a thimble of porridge, I have not eaten all day. I lay down the bike and take a long drink from the bottle of water in my pack. I nibble on some cheese and bread and a small raspberry tart. Then, with great relief, my mind empties out. Besides an occasional flap of a bird’s wings and the low hum coming off the stones when the wind hits them just so, the quiet is undisturbed. I think of the passage in Ryan’s book about the megaliths.
Stone Age people had righted the rocks in several circles, aligning them succinctly with the points of the compass and the stars. Some archaeologists now believe that, aside from predicting the seasons, the Stones were meant as vehicles for the dead to travel back to earth. Like the pyramids of Mexico, and Egypt, the great Sphinx, and the temples of Angkor, the theorists say it is possible that these perfectly designed structures were built to instruct time-travelers. Like flight simulators for kings who would be reborn.
The sunrays dance around the edges of the mammoth stones, radiating off the surfaces. In the slight breeze, as I stroll among them, perhaps because several of them are shaped like men, they take on human characteristics: one weeping, one serene, one bragging, one sad. The circle seems to move, and I imagine myself being flung out into space. Perhaps, I think, I will be informed of the path to the dead.
When I look down the hill, I am shocked to find I am not alone. For a few moments — I am not sure how long — I cling to the idea that what I am seeing is not real. That I am still at home, dreaming in bed.
The surrounding lakes, now glazed and darker, look like pewter plates. I search but there is no crofter’s bike. Then, in a single second, the sun pulls down the shadows of the great stones and sinks with them below the horizon. And what trace there is of Brandon MacLeod also disappears into the darkness.
I sense him creeping up, and then see him coming toward me stiffly. The atmosphere changes radically. Big clouds join in vertical columns off the coast. With him just standing there—mute—like one of the slabs, I have no idea what he wants. I break into a run across the field. But, even crippled, he is faster than me, and he catches my elbow and yanks me around. His face is contorted and his eyes wild.
It isn’t a violent struggle, but it is worse in a way, because not a single word is uttered, not by him or me. It is clear enough that he is taking me somewhere, as he points in that direction. He drags me down a long slope, and we wade through a shallow inlet nearly a hundred yards wide. I catch him looking up several times at the sky. Something dawns on me.
“You were struck by lightning,” I say, breaking the silence, trying to reach him. “I know. They told me in town.” I want to let him know that people are aware of where I am. Ignoring me, he frowns, wincing at the sky. “If that’s what this is about, just calm down,” I shout, yanking and releasing my wrist. “I’m not frightened of a little rain.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy.
MacLeod feels it coming before I do, and he grabs my waist and flings me as far as he can onto the opposite bank. Big bolts of lightning splinter the darkness, jumping between clouds. Then a small leader stroke hits the ground over the top of the hill where we stood moments before. The massive return stroke bursts from the ground and hits the undersides of the clouds, unfolding like a blanket and releasing millions of volts into the sky, heating and expanding the air and producing a near eardrum-splitting crash, which stands my hair on end. For several minutes, I am deaf and my flesh stings, like I’ve been combed with a poisonous thistle or attacked by a hundred bees.
Brandon MacLeod and I barely get to our feet before the rain hits, drenching us. I give him my hand and watch his eyes flashing and see a bit of foam at the corner of his mouth. Together we run for it along the tributary, and I follow him into a hidden cave.
Once inside, MacLeod holds out his trembling hands. He gives a little laugh before his eyes come to rest on me. I realize he was being protective. And I wonder why? Why did he follow me? I look down at my wet muddy clothes and then his. “This is my fault,” I sputter, clearly ashamed, trying to dust myself off. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you saw me leave town or how anxious the storm might make you, but we’re…”
He interrupts me, speaking haltingly in English. “Ryan Walker was mi friend, rest ‘n peace,” he says, stirring the ground with his foot. His injury has affected his speech, and he talks as if he has a marble in his mouth. It’s why he didn’t explain himself before coming after me. Soaking wet, his legs are stiffening badly. With searching eyes, he wanders off. Judging by the sound of the storm outside, we will be here a while. I take off some of my wet things, and rub my sore skin, thinking not to say I feel lucky to be alive in front of MacLeod. I look about and recall reading about these caves up and down East Loch Roag, some of them completely hidden, where fugitives of old and often thieves would hide out and bury their stash. The cave is well stocked for just these kinds of circumstances, and Brandon MacLeod returns with some peat for a fire, some key-operated cans of herring, a tin of dried goods, and a bucket to catch rainwater. There is also a small kerosene lamp, a pot of oil, and matches.
After he makes the fire, he gets rid of his outer gear and relaxes somewhat, leaning against the opposite wall of the cave. We share some food and listen to the thunder and watch the mouth of the cave light up occasionally. The wind is blowing hard, around seventy miles an hour, close to hurricane force. I apologize for running and putting us at risk, and thank him the best I can, and he just nods brusquely and chews on the dried fruit I hand him. There is a staff of some kind that he’s found, and he uses it to poke the peat in the fire and wave at the ceiling of the cave when he feels a strike is close.
Glancing at me, he speaks a few Gaelic words, and realizing he is drawing a blank, stumbles into English. “When I wiz hit, boom, two hundred sheep...splee...” he mutters, using his hands to illustrate that the animals were killed instantaneously, one hand hitting the other, then diving, then slapping the ground.
I am not surprised that he knew Ryan. Though Ryan didn’t grow up on the island, he had, with his father, visited quite a few times. From Edinburgh, his father was an outdoorsman who loved taking his son sailing, fishing, and mountain climbing. Ryan would’ve been open to a man like Brandon MacLeod. Not just because of Brandon’s scar, and the fact that he had survived being hit by lightning. But because of Brandon’s nobility and the basic instinct that seemed to rule his body. His pale irises circle a small, penetrating pupil, giving me the impression that he is wired like a wolf. Ryan would have appreciated that. He too liked to hunt, though not with a weapon.
“Was it out here that the lightning struck you?” I ask, already improvising in my mind how I might restate the question in case he did not understand it. Peering with one eye, he sweeps up the staff and begins to draw a circle in the dirt.
“The Great Bernera...” he says, referring to the tiny island connected to Lewis by a bridge, “far out.” Near the western tip, I think. “Two ‘undred sheeps’agraze.” He shows me with his staff where it must have happened. He was for sure the tallest thing out here. The perfect conductor, I think. He was completely vulnerable, and the sheep within several hundred yards must have been electrocuted as the shock spread through the rock and was dispersed. I am truly amazed that he is alive, and now I am overcome, thinking what he’s done for me.
“And Ryan, how did you get to know him?” I say obliging with a smile, thinking it is a lighter topic than the storm that threatens us now. Brandon MacLeod didn’t seem particularly disturbed about telling me his story, but now he grows visibly more serious, his forehead twisting where the nerves still work. He hesitates, looks at his hands, then at the ceiling, and finally deeply at me, that connection there again. And I realize that even at a distance, he knew I was Ryan’s fiancé when he saw me on Skye from the boat.
“Ryan Walker...” his voice breaks, and I sense he is searching for the words, his mouth breaking into a lopsided grin. Again he snatches up the staff and draws a winding path at the end of which he uses the point to poke at the same spot he has drawn before at the tip of the Great Bernera. “Ryan Walker fownd mi...”
It is difficult to grasp how much the living and the dying can become entwined. In the following days, with the sea still rough, I discover just how fierce a storm the two men survived, the wind up to ninety knots, the sky flashing high in a pitch-black ceiling for two days, the noise absolutely terrific. The innkeeper at Stornoway, who opened up to me when MacLeod and I returned from our stay in the cave, told me that the islanders suspected Ryan was stranded when he didn’t make it back to the village. There was nothing anyone could do in that situation. And the people who knew Brandon MacLeod was on the Great Bernera with his sheep thought he had gone immediately to take refuge in the caves.
In fact, Ryan was on the Great Bernera himself, hiking, and he turned back when the big bolt hit. The storm surged so quickly there was no time to get back to the inn. Instead, he took shelter in a small peat shack, remembering that he had seen a man tending his sheep earlier. He wasn’t familiar with the caves, and so, when it quieted down, he walked back to the tip of the island, nearly two miles in the bitter cold. It was not his first trip to Lewis, nor the first storm he’d experienced on the sea. Doing research for his book, he’d gone diving in icy waters, swum with otters, seals, and dolphins, and lived in the Shetlands during its harshest season. He’d crossed the northernmost fiords of Norway and Denmark, and spent a month traveling with oil prospectors on the Barent Sea. Many of these adventures he wrote about, and others he had revealed to me. But never had he said anything to me about Brandon, and I wondered if Ryan, being five years younger then, had had difficulty accepting his responsibility for saving a man’s life.
Where Ryan found Brandon MacLeod, there is nothing but black sea. Across the water, only a few hundred miles, lies Iceland, another volcanic-born landscape possibly more hospitable than this one. Oddly, the day after my own brush with lightning, there are no clouds at all, and the sun is blazing through a frigid coarse wind. As Brandon and I get closer in our Jeep to the tip of the small island, though the awful danger has long since passed, it seems very close to us, even as I am tangibly faced with Ryan’s death.
With Brandon, standing directly on the spot where it happened, I imagine the blinding light, the smoke, the crash, and the little sheep, all dead. Scanning the shore, I feel the presence of something supernatural and begin to move beyond my own loss. I think of Ryan finding MacLeod. He must have looked more like a fisherman’s catch than a man.
Ryan did not leave Brandon’s side. Instead, he curled him up like a worm and slipped him inside the body of a large ram whose belly he slit. Until the storm weakened, Ryan lay next to the animal in an effort to keep himself and Brandon from freezing to death. Heartened by the drumbeat thumping inside the dead carcass, Ryan took strength from Brandon’s will to survive.
These two men traded destinies, I think. They shared one space, one time, one netherworld of ice. And visited, as one, the ninth circle of Dante’s Hell.
Using the innkeeper as a translator, Brandon tells me more over the next few days. After the accident, he lay for months in a coma. He underwent eight operations, lost a kidney, and most of his colon. His wife died, he believes, from overwork, taking care of their farm and five of their eight children too young to leave home. He leased out his farm and house to pay for his medical bills, and eventually sold them. His two teenagers got into trouble, and now reside at Rossy Priory, a boarding school on the mainland for wayward boys. The three girls live with his late wife’s sister in Quebec. He doesn’t sleep and can’t eat. He talked to the pastor, but it did no good. He sends money to his children, who he fears have been told he is dead. He won’t leave his homeland, he says, because he wants to die and be buried here, where he was born, in the same cemetery in South Harris as his ancestors. He also prays for his wife and children, and for me. This is a surprise. And I ask him why.
When he tells me he dreams the same dream every night, of covering a mountain trail on foot, I don’t know what to say to him. He reports that in the dream he uses a forked branch as a walking stick, the whole time tasting water and mud. He feels guilty that he survived and others did not. Ryan wouldn’t want it that way, I say. And I know why we have met. No longer a stranger to his damaged face, I purposefully touch his scar, and embrace him before I leave. He gives me a pair of earrings that he has carved from driftwood. Lacquered, they shine like tiny silver lightning bolts.
Back in the house on Skye, Ryan’s North Sea book sits on the table beside the bed. On the cover is a photograph of nearby St. Clements Church in Harris, whose stone foundation is the oldest in the world. I take the boat out and walk southeast to the cemetery in Leverburgh where Brandon will one day be interred. I can see across the water—I think, or imagine—the very top of the peaks forty miles away of the Cuillin Range on Skye, where Ryan’s body was found.
I stay a month longer, sadly signing my maiden name to the contract with the broker who will sell the house. Before I leave for London on my way to New York, I take a very early morning walk down to the shore. It is windy and warm. The crescent-shaped cove enfolds the turquoise sea. Out past the rocky bottom, a big swell has appeared, and there are surfers in full-body wet suits riding the pipe of the waves. One of the young men seems to have lost his surfboard, and he comes ashore far down the beach. I have to focus and refocus my eyes on his stance and shape. He leans a certain way and curls his left foot out. It is Ryan, I am almost sure. Steadying myself, I try to think. It can’t be. It’s not. It’s just someone who looks an awful lot like him. But I am walking quickly toward him, watching him stare at the glistening sea. Now I am jogging, getting closer, but I am still thirty yards away. His features are bold, his nose broad and lips full, though even from a distance, blue from the cold. I am fifteen yards from him when he turns and smiles at me. It’s him, I think. It’s Ryan. Even his teeth are crooked the same way. Drums are beating in my ears. My mouth and throat have gone dry. And just as I am within reach of him, a huge fiery ball of light, rising above the mountaintop, blinds me, reflecting off the sea. For a long moment, I have to shield my eyes. When I can see again, the man is gone. A bright green light scalds the air where he stood. It turns dark purple and then orange. With my heart still racing, I walk slowly to the spot. At my feet, I find lines have been drawn in the shape of a large square. And I hear a whisper:
“When your time comes, draw a window in the sand and step through it before the next wave comes in. On the other side, you will find me.”
Constance Christopher’s work has been in Fence, Bomb, Northwest Review, & Ginosko. A novel Dead Man's Flower was published in the Bogie's Mystery series. She has published reviews for Publisher’s Weekly and worked in film & television. She is painting a large oil based on Robert Graves’ White Goddess.
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