Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Category: fiction

Vae Victis!

Listener, are you familiar with the sayings of soldiers? They say “A soldier can only be defeated in battle or in bed”. Are they right – who can tell? But no matter where defeat comes, there is a sadder, more terrible saying that encompasses it: Vae victis – Woe to the vanquished!

I have seen these things and I swear to these things, sir, by Mars, by Jupiter the Best and Greatest, and by Mithras, in whose service I hold the rank of Lion – I mention this only in case there are brothers present who can vouch for my honesty, sir. My name is Marcianus Gallo, I am a Roman citizen, an Optio – chosen man – attached to the fourth Flag Unit, second Century of Gaulish Auxiliaries, stationed at Bertha, where the Almond joins the Tay. I beg leave to report, and to state my case.

It happened at the last winter solstice, sir. My unit had lost the lottery and drawn duty manning the watchtowers along the road to the south west, where it runs along an old ridgeway used by the natives for gods know how long. It is straight, like one of our roads, and had been cleared of trees for fifty paces each side, and the tree trunks used for the watchtower stockades.

My boys – my unit, sir – grumbled a bit about missing the celebrations in the native settlement around the camp, but they’re good lads… well, sir, they were good lads, I mean. We all get on well with the natives. It’s easier when the soldiery and the natives pray to the same gods – to Belenos and to Cernunnos and the like – and when the languages are close enough to get by, with a bit of camp Greek and Latin thrown in. At solstice, the natives light great bonfires, sir, and they sing, and dance, and drink, and everyone has a good time. If you ask them why, or what god they are honouring, they’ll shrug, and say it is to keep bad things away – bad thoughts, nightmares, things like that – but they won’t say anything more than that. No, they’ll grab you by the hand and pull you away to dance with them.

Anyway, it was our luck – our fate – to miss out on that, and we marched out of Bertha on the eve of solstice, up over the place they call the Badger’s Den, and on to the ridge road. The boys we were relieving were all smiles, and hurried off back down the road. I split us up into threes, sent most of them on to the other watchtowers with instructions who was to man which one, and I stayed in the first with two of the auxiliaries under my command, sir. Their names? They had Gaulish names, sir, but their Roman names were Rufus – he had red hair, sir – and Aper, the wild boar. Good lads both, sir. I sent them for more wood for the beacon and for our own camp fire, and stood a watch on the step of the palisade.

The last of the returning guard we had relieved marched back along the road – a little more smartly when they saw an Optio was watching them, sir – just as dusk began to fall. I watched the beacons light up further down the road. You can see a long way down the road because of the trees having been felled.

It was a clear night, sir, and while there was still a smear of dirty orange on the horizon, where the sun had gone down, the stars came out like some god had thrown a great handful of road grit into the sky, and the moon shone like a lantern. It was freezing cold, and we wrapped ourselves in our cloaks and stayed close to the fire. Whoever was on watch stood as close to the beacon as he could. We ate a little of our rations – nothing to drink, sir, because no one wants to go to the latrine when it’s that cold! You cant really sleep either, not when it’s that cold, but Rufus and I were propping each other up, back-to-back, and Aper was up on the step, stamping his big feet and blowing on his hands, maybe cursing under his breath, wishing his watch was over and that it was Rufus’ turn. Yes sir, I know, most unsoldierly, but you have to realise that sometimes discipline has to be light when it is cold and there are few of you, and if it kept him awake and alert, I wasn’t going to pull him up. Begging your pardon, sir.

I was getting drowsy, sir, and Rufus was elbowing me to keep me awake – as per my instructions – when I suddenly realised that Aper had gone silent, and wasn’t stamping his feet any more. I thought he had fallen asleep propped against the stockade, when I heard him speak.

“You’d better take a look at this, Boss,” he said… I know sir, but like I said, it’s informal up there on a winter night.

I got up, stretched my aching legs, thought myself a fool for getting stiff and drowsy, and joined him on the step. I looked out to the south west, where he was looking. I couldn’t see anything.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” I said.

“The dark,” he said, and pointed.

I looked, and then I could see what he meant. It was like an obscuration by fog, sir, but it was like no fog I had ever seen. With fog on a moonlit night, in this part of the Empire, you get a sheen first, as the moonlight reflects back off it. This bank of fog was black as Tartarus. Blacker. It was as though someone had built a wall, or thrown a dark curtain up between us and the stars in a section of the sky.

“I’ve never seen weather like that,” said Rufus, who had joined us on the step, to see what we were looking at.

“I don’t like it,” said Aper. “Is it getting closer?”

We stared and stared at it for several minutes. At one moment, yes, it seemed as though it was moving, at another it seemed stationary. We couldn’t tell, and we couldn’t agree, whether it was a long way off and towering into the sky, or much nearer to us and closer to the ground; but we were staring into the dark at something dark, and our eyes were playing all kinds of tricks on us.

Then Rufus said, “How many beacons should we be able to see from here?”

“Five,” I said. “Why?”

“Count them, Boss,” he said.

I did. There were four beacon fires visible down the straight ridgeway, burning brightly and fiercely against the blackness. Number five should have been in sight, but it wasn’t there. We strained to see it, hoping it was something simple – maybe the lads manning that watchtower had let it go out, and would re-light it in a moment. We waited, and waited, while nothing happened. Then number four suddenly winked out.

We looked at each other, then back towards the south west.

“It’s closer,” said Aper. “I’ll swear I can see fewer stars.”

“If something is happening, like an attack from one of those marauding tribes from the North,” I said. “Then there’ll be a runner back from one of the towers soon. It’s standard drill.”

“Even the wild Picts from the mountains have no magic to make the stars go out,” said Aper.

We waited and watched. No runner came. I wondered whether to send one of them along the road to see what had happened, but they were both peering at the sky, as though they were watching for more stars going out. I didn’t fancy my chances of being obeyed if I gave that order. Rufus and Aper were standing as still as statues. They must have been cold – I was like a block of ice myself – but they gave no sign. They just watched, with their faces turned half upwards, a look on them which was one part attentiveness one part fear, like two hounds sniffing the air for the wolf-scent.

Then the beacon on watchtower number three seemed to flicker. We held our breath, and watched as it faded to an ember, and died. None of us spoke, none of us really knew what to say. I felt that if I broke the silence at that moment, it would not matter what words I said. I could offer no explanation, no encouragement, not even a supplication to the gods. I could not even have brought myself to say what each of us saw and knew, but dared not admit we saw and knew – that the darkness now appeared to fill at least one third of the whole sky, and had crept nearer along the road, and was moving, moving towards us.

The beacon of the second nearest watchtower went out when none of us were looking. One moment it was there, and none of us seemed to have looked away; but then it simply wasn’t there. Rufus gasped, and the sound choked off, gurgling and dying in his throat.

“Lads,” I said, as calmly as I could. “There is an explanation for this. The cloud comes low along this ridge, and heavy rain comes with it. In a few minutes we’ll all be under the canopy in here, watching it drip, watching it put out the beacon.”

“Where there’s rain there’s wind,” said Rufus. “Do you hear any wind.”

“The wind’ll pick up,” I said.

We strained to hear wind, to smell rain on the native pine trees. There was no sound, and the air which we breathed in was freezing cold, and numbed our sense of smell. Then the beacon at the next watchtower disappeared.

“What was that? Did you hear that?” said Aper.

“What? What?” said Rufus, catching at the sleeve of Aper’s tunic and shaking it.

“Quiet – listen!” I hissed.

We thought we caught the sound of a scream.

Maybe all three of us should have run at that moment. We didn’t. We just got down from the stockade step, sat beside our camp fire, and did nothing. We sat there and waited, instead of standing and waiting. None of us dared say the things we were thinking – that the nearest watchtower was only one thousand paces away, and that was how close the darkness was now, closer maybe. I didn’t dare give them any words of encouragement, I didn’t say we’d sit it out, let the darkness pass, and go to find out what had happened at first light. I sat there, struck dumb, between my two soldiers, also struck dumb, feeling as though we were hunched together on a small island of fire-and-beacon light in a great, dark ocean…

Then suddenly Aper sat bolt upright. His sharp ears had caught another sound, and his right hand went to the hilt of his sword. I looked at Rufus, wondering if my face looked as white as his, we began to hear scratchings and low voices outside, and then a scrape, as the gate to the stockade began to inch open.

We scrambled to our feet, pulling out our swords and pointing them towards the gate. We stood shoulder to shoulder, and I shouted – maybe more loudly than I should, and with a bit of an edge to my voice – “Halt! In Caesar’s name, who goes there?”

The gate swung slowly open, and there were two figures standing there, barely lit in the light from our beacon. For a moment it seemed they could have been shades, sent from the Underworld – it was the night for it – as the flickering flames made grotesque shadows on their faces. It was as though their features swam before our eyes for a moment or two, before resolving into something more recognisable – the faces of two young native, a girl and a boy of maybe twenty years of age. They looked cold and frightened, at least the girl did; the boy was huddled under her cloak, leaning against her, his eyes not showing any emotion, barely showing any sign of life at all. For a while we forgot everything else, put our swords away and pulled them inside. Aper put the bar on the gate, while Rufus and I got the two youngsters to sit by our fire and take some of our rations. The girl ate like she was starving, but the boy just mumbled a bit at his food. Rufus is the best of us at the native language, and got names out of them. The girl was Guenhumara, or something that sounded like that. The boy’s name was unpronounceable, but Rufus said it meant Son of the Bear, and he was her brother. Aper laughed, threw an arm round the lad, and declared him his brother too.

“Bear and Boar, that’s what we’ll be, young warrior, eh?” he said, and yes, he got a flicker from the youngster’s eyes and the ghost of a smile.

For a good while, their presence cheered us. We talked. Well, mostly Aper, Rufus, and I talked. We couldn’t get much out of the girl, and nothing out of the boy. She would answer questions with a word or two, and it seemed they had been hurrying up from the next valley, trying to get to Bertha, where their family were, for the celebrations. But they’d got lost somewhere, and found themselves on this ridgeway, in the dark. When Guenhumara ran out of things to say, she was content to show us the metalwork of the brooch, or the carvings on her bead necklace, and to encourage us to talk about our soldiering equipment and weapons. And as we talked, and shared our rations, it felt as though everything was going to be all right. The beacon stayed bright, the camp fire was warm, and even the boy was nodding and smiling a little.

Then there was a lull. I looked up at the sky, to see if I could see any stars, but all I could see was the moon, dimly shining high above us. Then a shadow seemed to spread over it, and its face was hidden. We became silent, and in our silence we heard a sputtering and hissing, and we watched in horror as the beacon fire was extinguished, as though an unseen hand was slowly pouring water onto it. The brightness of our own camp fire dulled to red, and threatened to go the same way as the beacon. Suddenly the girl grabbed the neck of my tunic with both hands, and shook me, crying out in bad Latin.

Orate ad deorum! Canete! Canete!” she shouted. “Pray to the gods! Sing! Sing!”

She knelt before the fire, started clapping her hands, and singing an absurd little song in her own language. Rufus and Aper picked it up, and I went “La-la-la” with the tune. The boy rocked back and forward in time to his sister’s clapping. The fire flared up, and for a minute or so burned brightly again, and we grinned at each other – forced grins to go along with our singing – willing the fire to stay bright and keep us safe. But the brightness was only short-lived, and soon began to redden and fade. Our singing became desperate. I could hear panic in the girl’s voice, and it felt to me as though a metal band was tightening around the stockade. I knew that the darkness was closing in on us again. Guenhumara’s singing turned to a moaning.

Suddenly the bar on the gate shattered, and it was flung wide open! The last thing I saw as the fire died, was the boy jump to his feet, dash to the opening, and immediately fall backwards like a felled tree. Something… rolled towards the fire… Guenhumara screamed… and everything was black.

I can remember very little else, sir. The darkness pressed on me like a great weight, a living thing, and I thrust and slashed at it with my sword… I’m sure… I think.

They tell me I reached Bertha, alone, babbling like a man demented, just before dawn. They tell me I had gashes on my legs, which I suppose I must have got scrambling up and over the stockade in my panic, and scratches all over my face and hands, from tree branches ripping at me. I had one great gash on my neck, which no one can explain, sir. Look, you can see the scar from it. I told the Centurion and everyone what I remembered, and in the morning he marched me, under escort, up to the ridgeway to investigate. There was no sign of anyone in any of the watchtowers – the men were all recorded as deserters – except in the one from which I had escaped. There they found the bodies of two auxiliary soldiers and two young natives.

The heads were missing from all four bodies, sir.

I told everyone I hadn’t done it, sir, but there was blood on my sword, and they didn’t believe me. I know you don’t either, sir. I knew from the start you wouldn’t. But it is all true, I swear, by Mars, and by Jupiter, and by Mithras the soldiers’ god. Sir, I am not a coward, no matter what they say. Send me now to a battle, order me to charge alone into the thick of the enemy and die a soldier’s death, and I will do it. Even, if I must, sir, I can face the shameful death of being stoned by my comrades. I am not afraid, sir. Death will blank out the memory of that awful darkness that pressed in on me, that night at the watchtower. It was a darkness of terrible power. It robbed me of my name, of all my memories, all knowledge of sunshine, the power of speech, of thought itself, and replaced them all, sir, with fear… total, utter fear. I felt in my head, rather than heard in my ear, terrible words repeated and repeated….

Woe to the vanquished… woe… woe… to the… vanquished… sorry sir… can’t stop the tears, sir…

Listener, it is nothing to you that many lifetimes ago, a forgotten soldier was executed for cowardice and murder. Much of the old, straight road he matched along is now under your hard, grey asphalt, and the fierce headlights of you car push back the thickest darkness. But there is a point where your road turns left, and if, on a clear night in midwinter, you are tempted to stop by the wooden gate, and take to footpath which runs straight along the Gask Ridge, just to see the bright stars without the ghastly glare of your town lights, make sure it is not the one night of the year when it is the custom to sing and make merry in your towns and villages. If you do not, it is not stars you will see, but utter darkness, and you will hear those words “Woe to the vanquished… woe.. woe to the vanquished.”. For I am She Who Walks The Ridge, on the longest night of the year. The solstice… is Mine!

__________

©Marie Marshall 2008-2020
Yes, I know the story is more appropriate to midwinter, but I couldn’t resist telling it to you.
The image is a detail from an illustration by the late Ron Embleton.

The Legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline

Never, never go anti-clockwise!

I’ll tell you a wee fairy story, if you would like to listen for a few minutes, if you’re not dashing away to watch TV, or play with your computer. It was told to me by someone who we always knew as “Aunt Sheena” when I was a girl on Mull.

You thought I had always lived here in Glasgow? I know I’m old myself – I shall be ninety-one next month – and I seem like I’m Glasgow born and bred, but until I was ten years old I lived on the island of Mull. My dad came here looking for work in the shipyards, and my mum and my two brothers and me followed him.

Aunt Sheena – she was a Gaelic-speaker – wasn’t anyone’s aunt really, that’s just what we called her; and when I knew her she must have been as old as I am now. I mind well how she came to wave me and my brothers goodbye the very last time we got on the bus from Killiechronan, on our way to Craignure for the ferry to Oban, and the train to Glasgow. I mind seeing her getting smaller and smaller in the back window of the bus as it headed down the Salen road. I waved until I couldn’t see her any more. I promised I would try to remember all the stories she had told me.

She was more like everyone’s granny. I suppose she really had been someone’s aunt at some time, but I don’t know whose. And on the occasions when she would come from her cottage to ours, during those long summer holidays when we didn’t have to trek into Salen to school, and when dad was away working and mum was shopping in Tobermory or doing her typing job at the doctor’s surgery, Aunt Sheena would tell us stories, usually about the fairy folk, or spirits, or ghosts.

Och, I knew you would say that fairy stories are for wains. But just hear me a moment. When we lived there in Killiechronan, my brothers and I had no radio –  there wasn’t even electricity, and it was years before television came to Scotland. So we had to live in our imaginations. In the winter time it would be books borrowed from the school library. In the summer we would range around the countryside, playing games of cowboys and Indians, Jacobites and Redcoats, Boers, Zulus, knights of old – even I would wield a stick torn from a tree as a musket or a spear. One of our favourite places was the Mausoleum of an old Major General at Gruline, which would be a fort for us to defend or attack, depending on what game we were playing. We would wage our mock battles there until the ghillies from Gruline House came to chase us off. So tales of fairy castles, elf knights, and wandering ghosts just fed that imagination of ours.

And of course the whole landscape of our part of Scotland is full of fairy rocks, magic trees, and so on, if the place names are to be believed. There are things which must be said at odd times, little rituals such as kissing the tip of your fingers and touching your gatepost each time you left home, to make sure you returned safely. These were all part of our lives, and we imagined that they belonged to that time before people came to Mull, when there were magic folk here instead, who hadn’t really gone away, but who slept, or kept guard over the doorways between our world and another world where magic still ruled, and who had to be kept sweet so that they would not creep in to our world and do us harm. I remember how, on the last day that I left our cottage, I kissed my fingertips and touched the gatepost…

Listen, I’ll tell you how I know there are such things as ghosts. A mile or so down the road from our cottage there is a wee kirk, dedicated to St Columba. I was walking towards it one afternoon, and I was about one hundred yards from it when I saw a man open the door and go in. I don’t know whether he actually looked at me, but I could see that he had turned his face in my direction. I thought he must have been the minister. But when I reached the kirk and tried the door I found it shut fast – locked – and no sign of a light inside, no sounds. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer. I walked round and round the building, jumping up to look in the windows, but it was deserted. Just then a cloud covered the sun, there were a few spits of rain, and a wee wind sprang up. The leaves on the trees started to rustle and rattle, as though hundreds of tiny hands had started to shake the twigs and branches, and I realised what I had done. I had gone round the kirk anti-clockwise. You must never do that, never go round a kirk, or a stone circle, or an ancient cross anti-clockwise. It is such bad luck! As the rustling and rattling grew louder, I felt I had insulted the spirits or elves that guarded that place, and if I didn’t do something very quickly to put matters right, I would be struck blind, or dumb, or daft.

So I ran back round the kirk, but this time clockwise, like the sun in the sky. I ran round twice, three times, and the rattling stopped, the wind died down, and the sun came out again. Each time I passed the kirk after that, I dropped a curtsey to whoever guarded it.

But that’s my story, not one of Aunt Sheena’s. The trouble is that, despite my promise, I can only remember snips and snaps of her tales, apart from one. I’ll tell you that one. It’s the legend of the Grey Lady of Gruline.

One rainy day when my brothers and I did not want to go out, Aunt Sheena was there, in my dad’s armchair, nodding, and pursing her lips, the way she always did when she was thinking of a story. I was just bringing a cup to her, and I decided to nudge her towards the story.

“Aunt Sheena,” I asked. “Do you know anything about the standing stone by the road to Knock?”

“Do I know about the Grey Lady?” she said. “Of course. I know all about her. Why – do you want me to tell you her story? All right, gather round, just let me take a sip of my tea. Now then…”

And this is the story she told us:

There once was a man from Ulva, called Ewan MacDaid. He was handsome enough, but very quiet, hardly spoke. At the age of fourteen he had taken work at the Ben More Estate, working for the Factor as a labourer He worked hard in all weather, never complained, always smiled but said very little to the other workers on the estate. He loved to be given work that meant he had to wander up Glen Clachaig, or along Glen Cannel to the shielings at Gortenbuie, whether it was to look for stray sheep, mend a wall, or simply take a message. Solitude was his joy, the quiet countryside of Mull was his love, and work was his excuse for enjoying both. Not that he complained when the Factor partnered him with another man, or put him in a team under one of the ghillies. He simply went along with that, pulled his weight in the job at hand with that good-natured smile, but sat apart to eat his midday food. That was always some grey bread – his mother’s own oat bread made in her oven at home – and a can of water from Loch Ba.

When he was old enough to be let a wee cottage of his own, in the row of cottages in Knock where the other estate workers all lived, his mother used to come all the way from Ulva with a basket of grey bread for him. Of course it wasn’t all he ate – he was allowed his share of snared rabbits from the Estate, and fish from Loch na Keal – but his mother’s grey bread made his eyes light up most of all.

It was a shock to his workmates and to the Factor when Ewan, on hearing of the war between Turkey and Russia, announced that he was away to join the army, and would be leaving soon for the Crimea. He left, an unlikely soldier, remembering of course to kiss his fingers and touch them to the gatepost of the cottage.

He was gone for three years. His mother was often heard to say, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread? Do they have grey bread in the army?” She, poor soul, died before he came back. Neighbours found her on the floor of her cottage on Ulva, her hands covered with oat flour, her bowl full of dough.

Ewan did come back, still smiling but with the boy’s look in his eyes changed into a man’s, and a man who has seen things which no one should see. The news that his mother was not there to welcome him made that look softer, sadder, but still he smiled and said very little. His workmates said, half-joking, “What will poor Ewan do without his grey bread?”

The answer was that he took two days off work, arranging with the Factor to go without pay for those days, took the next boat to Oban, and returned with a wife. The new Mistress MacDaid – Elspeth – was a bonny lass with high cheekbones, dark hair, and a ready tongue. His workmates teased Ewan for keeping her a secret, and though they all found out that he had courted her while he was billeted in Oban, always intending to ask her to marry him, they let him have his own little joke – “I wed her because she makes good grey-bread.”

For a few years the couple were happy enough. But then Elspeth began to notice that the handsome soldier she had first met was content merely to get on with his job in the hills and glens of the estate, to enjoy his luncheon of grey bread, and to come home to her at night for quiet companionship.

“Have you no ambition, Ewan?” she would complain, and Ewan’s workmates on either side of their cottage could hear her plainly enough, because her voice had become shrill. She chivvied him endlessly – why did he not try for the Head Ghillie’s job, and then even for the Factor’s. He would shake his head, saying he was content with things the way they were, much to Elspeth’s anger.

“I’m the man you married, Elspeth,” he would say.

The day came when he said that once too often, and Elspeth seethed. When Ewan’s next remark was to wonder whether she had ready his wee bit of grey bread for next day, she boiled over into the most terrible rage. She chased Ewan out of the house, cursing, and pelting him with the dozen or so wee loaves she had just baked.

“Grey bread? Grey bread? Is that all you care about Ewan MacDaid? Is that all you can offer me – a life of baking your grey bread? The man I married, are you? Well I don’t see him here, I don’t see the soldier who fought at Sevastopol and Balaclava, and faced Russian guns, the man who courted me bravely. All I see is a little baby crying for his grey bread! God knows why I ever married you, I wish I could be rid of you!”

And she chased him round and round the cottages, pelting him with the loaves. When she had run out of loaves she pelted him with clods, stones, anything she could pick up, with his astonished workmates peeping out of their windows.

And she chased him… anti-clockwise.

That night they lay in bed, he on his right side, snoring, and she on her left, weeping. At last, after two hours of tears, she began to slip into that state where images from dreams begin to crowd in on the familiar things of waking. It seemed to her that there was a draught in the room, and that the door had been half-opened letting in a grey light, a little like dawn but somehow harder; it seemed as though the bedclothes were sliding off her, or as though little pairs of hands were pulling them back.

Then there came the sudden shock of these little hands’ being placed over her mouth, and more dragging her from her bed and into a nightmare.

There was a noise of chattering and laughter, dry as old leaves and pine-needles; the tread of dozens of pairs of feet; bumps and bangs as she was carried out of the bedroom. She tried to call out to Ewan, but he just snored more loudly.

Out of the bedroom she was carried, and out of the cottage into the cold moonlight. She could see the dark shadows of the creatures who carried her, as though they were the silhouette of a thorn-thicket. She hoped she was dreaming, but when they clumsily collided with the gatepost and she felt a pain in her foot, she knew she was not. A wind blew as they carried her along, round and round the row of cottages… anti-clockwise… and leaves and twigs from the nearby trees pelted her face.

Then it seemed that a hole had opened up in the ground, and she was carried down a steep slope and out of the moonlight. How long that terrible ride lasted she could not tell, but at last she felt herself being thrown down, and she sprawled on a hard, stone floor.

But at least she could see. There was a glow from a fire, and from many torches round a hall. And her mouth was at last free. She shook her head to clear it and looked up. Instantly she wished that she couldn’t see at all, and that the hands were still over her mouth so she couldn’t cry out. Around her, leering at her, were the Brownie folk.

Now, put out of your mind the wee lasses who dance around at the kirk hall; and put out of your mind the pretty fairies in story books. These folk, these creatures that surrounded Elspeth McDaid, mocking her, scorning her, were the real Brownie folk. They are not really of our world, they don’t think the way we do, they don’t have the laws of God, much less the laws of science, to rule them. They have no sense of justice or fairness. Oh they can be kind to those folk who respect them, but they can be wilful and wicked too, to good and bad folk alike, especially those who show them no politeness at all.

In the hall where Elspeth grovelled on the floor, there were imps and elves and trolls of all shapes and sizes. There were goat-footed, goat-horned demons; there were tall tree-spirits with skin as white as birch-bark; there were tiny mayfly-fairies like dancing points of light that flittered up to her and pricked her with needles; there were misshapen gnomes and fierce elf-knights; there were nut-brown bauchles who laughed and threw things at her. Worse than all those was the one who sat on a throne in the middle of the hall – the Brownie Queen. She was terrible, beautiful, she shone like polished brass, and her eyes flashed with burning, red anger!

“Who do you think you are, Elspeth MacDaid?” she said, in a voice like the roar of the water that falls from Eas Fors. “Who do you think you are to rage and rage, and chase a man widdershins round your croft? Who are you to throw good food away in your anger? Who are you to shout aloud against the joining of you to your man according to the magic of your land? Give me one good reason why I should not dash your brains out, open the trap door in the floor of my hall, and throw you into hell!”

If Elspeth could have grovelled any more than she was doing, then she would have.

The Queen spoke again. “What have you to be angry about, you who can spend her life in the sunlight as we once did?”

“My man…” stammered Elspeth. “My man… he wanted his… grey bread.”

The Brownie folk laughed, but the Queen silenced them all with a voice like a rainstorm.

“Is that all? Is that all? A man asks for his food and you throw it at him? Very well, your punishment shall be that you will work forever, in MY kitchen, baking oat-bread for me and for all my courtiers here. It is the next worst thing to hell, Elspeth MacDaid, and you will never see daylight again.”

“Pity… some pity…don’t forbid me the daylight,” cried Elspeth.

The hall went quiet. The Queen seemed to think for a long time.

“I will have mercy,” she said. “You may have daylight.”

“Oh thank you, thank you,” cried Elspeth, now upon her knees.

But the queen walked over to her, and whispered an enchantment in her ear. She would indeed have daylight, she would have sun and moon, rain and stars. She would stand forever, her back hunched against the cold and heat, in the cow-field by the Knock road. And in that instant Elspeth was transformed into a grey, dour, lonely standing-stone, the one we all know to this day as the Grey Lady.

Of course all Ewan MacDaid knew was that she had gone. He was sad for a while, but his workmates’ wives baked grey-bread for him, and took much solace in the beauty of the lands around the Ben More Estate. And that is the end of Aunt Sheena’s story.

Och I know what you’re going to say. But let me just tell you something else. My own grandson took his wains to Mull last summer for their holidays. One day they parked their car outside St Columba’s kirk, and took a walk down the road. They spotted the standing stone – the Grey Lady – in the field, and my grandson took his new digital camera as far as the barbed-wire fence, steadied his foot awkwardly against a squelchy tussock, and tried five or six times to take a photograph. None of them seemed to come out better than a blur, and the stone seemed to become more and more hunched, as though offended to be disturbed in that way. As he continued to try, he tells me that the sky clouded over and he felt a few drops of rain on him, and the leaves on the trees began to rustle as though hundreds of little hands were shaking each twig and branch. He says that his wains pulled him away, back to the car, wanting him to find a café where they could have chips, and that as they walked away the sun came out again and the wind that had stirred the trees died down again.

But that was just a coincidence, and Aunt Sheena’s story about the Grey Lady is just an old fairy tale. Isn’t it?

__________

©Marie Marshall 2011-2020

The photograph of the ‘Grey Lady’ is indeed from Mull, but from Quinish, not Gruline. Naturally enough, I couldn’t find one from Gruline!

On the Platform

Here is another tale for you in the run-up to Halloween. This little railway station in Scotland seems so clean and modern… but is it haunted?

I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I heard a sound as though the sole of a shoe scraped against the platform surface. The lamp at the far end of the platform flickered on and off. There was no one there, not that I could see. The hash from the lamps seemed to accentuate the dark outside them, making it seem as though nothing existed beyond this station platform. There was no movement except for a piece of litter being blown across the platform and spilling onto the track, out of sight, making a scratchy, fluttery noise against the concrete edge as it went. Was that what I had heard?

“Hello,” I called. “Is anybody there?”

There was no answer. And yet I still felt as though someone else was there, or was expected soon. Maybe the bloke from Scotrail would be here shortly. Maybe his shift was an early one, and he would soon turn up and switch on the strip lighting in the glass-fronted ticket office and waiting room. Maybe he would unlock the door to the waiting room and switch on the vending machine. I could get a Mars Bar. I wasn’t hungry but it would pass the time. I peered into the dark, willing a set of headlights to illuminate the station car park. Nothing happened. No one came.

I pulled my coat collar snuggly to my neck, smoothed my skirt, and crossed my ankles. I wished I had a book with me. I wasn’t cold, but I pushed my hands into my coat pockets. In the left one, my fingertips found something small and hard. Whatever it was – a piece of grit, I don’t know – I rolled it in between my fingertips, pressing it, squeezing it, deliberately trying to find sharp edges to graze my fingertips. Anything to occupy some time. I had nowhere else to go. The seconds on the indicator board ticked away. I uncrossed and re-crossed my ankles.

What is it about stations? They should be busy, there should be coming and going. I was certain that this little place with its up and down lines, and its two platforms, and its footbridge, would be full of commuters during daylight hours, people bound for their offices in Edinburgh, or wanting to make a connection to Glasgow. Mid-morning and afternoon there would be shoppers, maybe the occasional out-of-season backpacker. Late afternoon there would be children and teenagers coming back from school in town, and the car park would have four-by-fours or a mini-bus waiting for them. people would be sipping coffee and eating Twix bars from the vending machines, or munching bridies from the wee Co-op. The wee Co-op that was somewhere out there, in the darkness beyond the light hash here on the station. Then in the evening, late commuters, folk going out for the evening, folk coming back, the last train. The lights being turned off in the ticket office and waiting room. The bloke from Scotrail getting on his moped. The sound of its motor dying away. That’s how this station, this platform came to be a little island in the dark, a place where things waited to happen, where someone was expected. Maybe.

But now, on this little island, I couldn’t even see over to the other platform. All the lights seemed to be off over there. There was an indicator board. It glowed, just like the one on this side, but it was slantways on. It gave no real light. I couldn’t read it. If I got up and walked a little way down then maybe I could. I could cross over the footbridge, walk into the dark, and go and read it. It would pass the time. From there, from that dark platform, I would be able to look over at this one, the lighted one. I could, but I didn’t. Here I felt – what? – safe. I waited. There wasn’t really anything to do except wait.

“Is anybody there?” I called again. I still had this feeling that someone was here, or expected. If I sat here, right where I was, the spot on the platform I had become used to, I would see anyone who came. The platform entrance, the ticket office, the footbridge, all of them were to my right. The entrance just this side of the flickering light, the footbridge just beyond it. They were all in my field of vision.

I looked at my watch again, then realised what I was doing and made a little “kah!” sound in my throat, annoyed with myself.

Then I thought I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. The light flickering? I looked back along the platform. Yes, it was still flickering, on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, still throwing the pillar, the bench, and the rubbish bin into sharp relief, and making a silhouette of a man. He was standing there, a tall shadow, hatted, and with a bag at his feet. I hadn’t seen him arrive. Maybe I gasped in surprise, or maybe he had heard my little syllable of annoyance, because he seemed to turn towards me. I heard the sole of his shoe scrape on the ground. I watched as he bent to pick up his bag and began to walk my way. His steps were slow, light, deliberate, almost cautious. He seemed to be made completely of shadow, all I could see of him was three pale patches where the nearest light caught his cheekbones and his chin as he got closer.  Nothing more. As for those measured footsteps, I seemed to feel them rather than hear them, except for that occasional scrape, maybe as the sole of his shoe scuffed a pebble or a loose piece of tarmac.

In my left pocket I squeezed the little piece of grit hard. Harder, the closer the man came to me. He stopped a pace or so away from the bench where I was sitting and put his bag down. He gestured towards the bench. He wore gloves. They were dark, like the rest of his clothes. Dark as shadow.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit here,” he said. “I would have taken the other bench, but the lamp…” There was something old-fashioned about the way he spoke he wasn’t a young man, that was certain. I nodded, and he brought up his hand to tip his hat. Old fashioned again. He sat down, not too close to me, not touching distance, and I was glad. I like my personal space. Once he had sat down I could see nothing of his face at all. He was directly under the nearest lamp, and the shadow of the brim of his hat covered his features entirely. His hands were folded across his lap. His coat was long and shapeless, down to his knees. An overcoat, with the collar turned up, as far as I could see. I couldn’t see much. He didn’t look at me. I turned my head away and looked into the darkness where the other platform ought to have been, but occasionally I glanced at him without moving my head.

It was strange. Even though I was sitting next to him, on the same bench, I felt exactly like I had done before he arrived. I felt that I was alone, but that somebody was there out of sight, maybe watching, or somebody was expected soon. I kept wondering what I would see if I got up and looked at him from the other side. I kept wondering if I looked away and looked back, would he not be there. Would he go as quickly as he had come.

“What time is it?” he asked suddenly.

I looked at my watch. It had stopped, of course, it was showing the same time as before. Why did I keep doing that? I suppose it’s what you do when someone asks you.

“I don’t know,” I said. “My watch… it’s past midnight.”

“Oh aye, it’s well past midnight.”

“The indicator board. It shows the time.”

“Of course. Of course it does. Sorry to have bothered you,” he said. To me it was as though his voice came from a long way away. He seemed to have been cut out from shadow and pasted onto the world. He, the station, everything in it, all now had a flatness, a two-dimensional quality to it.

“No trouble,” I said. I thought I must be getting tired, but for some reason I knew it was important to stay awake. This funny flatness of everything, it must be like those hallucinations you get when you’re about to fall asleep. I didn’t want to fall asleep. I had been waiting here and I wanted to keep waiting and to keep my wits about me. The man was old, strange. Part of me hoped he would go. Part of me felt like if he got up to go I would beg him to stay.

We sat in silence. Another piece of litter scraped and scratched its way across the platform. It teetered on the concrete edge and fluttered as if caught there. I watched it. I kept very still, as though if I breathed I would influence things, I would tip the piece of litter over the edge. I would be like the butterfly wingbeat in South America that causes a storm in Europe. In the flatness, it felt as though I could reach out and pick it up, just like pulling it off the surface of a picture.

“Causality,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He didn’t repeat what he said. I realised I hadn’t moved since he had sat down. In my left pocket that little piece of grit was still tight between my thumb and index finger. I peered into the dark. I could make out nothing. He said nothing. He was silent for at least ten minutes, motionless. The piece of litter still fluttered at the edge of the platform.

“I know this will sound strange, but I have something I want to say to you,” he said suddenly. I looked at him. He might have turned his head towards me, but I still could see nothing. His hat still shaded his face. Looking at him was like looking into the darkness where the other platform should have been. I peered, I tried to make out something of his features as he talked. I listened to his old, faraway voice.

“Ghosts. Ghosts do exist. The spirits of dead people, spirits that can’t rest. The French call them revenants. That means the ones who come back. The ones who keep coming back. They can’t help coming back, again and again, to a place, to a particular place. They are compelled to come back because they have left something undone, something incomplete. Sometimes they know what it is, often they do not. But they all want one thing. They’re all aware of this wanting, some more than others, for some it is just a vague restlessness. But that one thing they want is someone else, someone to tell about what they have left undone. They want someone to listen, or to see. Some tell their story, others act it out, running through the events up until a certain moment, in the hope that if someone hears or sees they will understand. Then the ghost will be able to rest. But often this telling or showing becomes a puzzle, pieces that don’t fit, a mystery, incomprehensible, and even the ghost does not understand. That is why we hear stories about ghosts wailing. So much pain. Such endless torture. Like rolling a stone up a mountain only to see it roll down again.”

“Sisyphus,” I said. “Yes, Sisyphus. I know that story. It’s familiar.”

He paused, and then went on.

“Again and again they come to one particular place. They don’t know why. That’s the stone being pushed up the mountain. Between their visits to the place, they forget. That’s the stone rolling down. If there is someone there, in the place, a ghost will appear to them, may try to make them feel the same pain, or understand it somehow, or perhaps try to make them the one who gives them rest, assuages their pain. Who can say what ghosts really think or feel? I don’t think they want to frighten anybody, but they do. That’s their curse. So people stay away from those places. The ghost’s pain will then be like the tree falling in a forest. Because there is no one there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. But it falls nevertheless.”

I looked at him, at the darkness and shadow, at the platform, the flickering lamp, the pillar, the bench, the rubbish bin, as it all seemed to become flatter and flatter. Why was he telling me all this?

“Why are you telling me all this?” I asked. “Have you got some kind of unfinished business yourself?”

“You could say that,” he replied. “You could say there is something I need to do. You could say I need to… reach out to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

It was true, I didn’t. How could I? How could I understand this strange man whose face I couldn’t see, who seemed to have been cut out of shadow and pasted onto the surface of a flat picture. This man with his old-fashioned manners and bizarre stories. This man in the little island of diffused light in the middle of a great sea of darkness. I kept my left forefinger and thumb tight on the little piece of grit. It hurt. There was such a lot of pain in my left hand. I couldn’t understand the man so I focused on that pain. I think I cried out.

I heard the rails begin to whisper and sing. Somewhere in the darkness there was a pinprick of brilliant white light. It quivered. It grew bigger. It was coming… nearer. As it came the singing in the rails grew louder. Suddenly the flatness was shattered, the white light burst upon my eyes, flashed, passed, roaring, screaming, so fast… so fast… a terrifying noise that filled the whole world, filled my head. A body, a vast, hard, long body like a beast, an insane beast, howled and hurtled past. I was standing. The man was standing too. His face was lit up by the passing lights. It was just a face, nothing more. A man’s face. I could see his lips moving.

“The sleeper to Inverness.”

I reached out my hand to him. He did the same. Our hands passed through each other. The beast, the train, had gone by. The forgotten pieces of litter spiraled in its wake and fell back into the darkness. The singing in the rails died away.

“It would be so easy for someone to stand too close to the edge of the platform,” he said. “Someone with news to tell. Someone with people waiting at home, people to make smile. It would be so easy to trip or to slip and to be caught in the bow-wave. Or it would be so easy for someone who could see nothing but pain, to look into the darkness over on the other platform, and simply to walk towards it. So easy.”

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

“The sadness of ghosts is that they are awake while most of the world sleeps. They slip back into nothingness with the day. They sleep, if you like. It’s a sleep without dreams. It’s a sleep in which they forget everything. They know this. They know it’s going to happen. It’s part of the pain.”

I still said nothing. I still couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew I ought to say something to him, but it wouldn’t come. I knew I ought to reach out again, but I couldn’t.

“There is so little time,” he said, his old face lit up by the amber lights of the indicator board as he looked at it. “Ghosts sleep at dawn. It’s almost dawn.”

Dawn? I looked at my watch. I don’t know why, some reflex action I suppose, habit, almost automatic. It had stopped of course, it was showing the same time as before. I guessed it was some time after midnight, though, and I was alone on the station platform. At least, I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was as though someone else was there, or if not actually there, then expected soon.

I looked up and down the platform. The lamp at the far end was flickering on and off, making light… shadow… light… shadow… on the cracked tarmac surface, and throwing a pillar, a bench, and a rubbish bin into sharp relief. The lamp above my head was steady, as was the one at the nearer end of the platform, to my left. The indicator board glowed amber, showing the time of the next train. Not for hours. Not due until morning. The sign said ‘On time’ and the intermediate stations were scrolling right to left across it. The seconds were ticking away. I looked at my watch again. Why? Why look at my watch when the time was up there?

I was alone on the platform. Waiting. Waiting.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2012-2020

Chagrin

Most of you will not know this story. My first tale of a haunting… well, it may have been a haunting… was written in 2007, and was one of the first winners of the Fearie Tales contest at Pitlochry. It has undergone several revisions and rewrites since then, but it is now here for you to read, in the run-up to Halloween. An old man in Edinburgh walks between dreams, memories, and the fleeting presence in his life of a woman with red-gold hair. Enjoy.

__________

I have moved from waking to sleeping, and from sleeping to waking so many times, it is now difficult to tell the difference, and one is as familiar to me as the other, and as strange. I understand this is to do with becoming old, and I am surely that, and have been for a long time. For instance, it might have been last night I woke up to hear my late wife calling out, in her rising, questioning tone, “Charles?” I wanted to answer her but my mouth was dry, as mouths often are in dreams, but not in waking; also it was not her name, Eleanor, which was on my lips, but another’s, and even that was caught away, as though seized by a passing zephyr and lost somewhere. I know I lay awake, or maybe still asleep, and sought to recall it in the dark. Names, memories, all haunt me as ghosts would; I live in a haunted world, old age, peopled by such things, and find it difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when I did not.

And it may have been yesterday (except I knew it could not have been) that I walked past the hoarding at the end of my street, the hoarding saying “Persil 62 – as new as 1962”, and boarded a bus bound for Corstophine. On the hill by Craigcrook Castle I kicked up leaves as though I was a child. The leaves rose and fell like a mane of red-gold hair, the autumn sky reflected blue-as-eyes in the far-away Forth, and I was stopped by the miracle of a memory. A love, long in the past, forgotten, recalled… and a snatch of song.

Lord knows why, the other day as it might have been, I came back to Corstophine instead of being, once again, the only visitor to Eleanor’s grave. I have tended that grave, and have neglected it in favour of visits to the hill, in memory of the tenderness that Eleanor and I once shared, and of the fruitlessness of that tenderness. And now, that folding-over of time, that trick of memory in which I thumb idly through my mental journal and flick it open at random pages. But on each page is a clear image, an image of burning immediacy, clearer than yesterday, clearer than today’s own, dim morning.

Such as riding home on the tram, and having my eyes drawn to a woman on the pavement; a woman pale and tired from the burden she carried in her womb, but nonetheless serene, her head held high, a cascade of red-gold falling on her shoulders almost wantonly, her clear, blue eyes purposefully on some horizon not encompassed by the urban landscape, her sage-green coat open, her white, strong hands laid tenderly upon her fullness. Or so it seemed to me. Surely it could not have been yesterday that I pressed through the crowded tram, leapt off at the next stop, and followed her? I am not capable of pressing and leaping these days, but this pursuit of her is so bright a picture in my mind. The sudden, torrential rain, the thunder, the hurrying folk with umbrellas raised or collars hastily turned up; but still ahead of me, as I dodged this way and that around the cursing fellow-pedestrians, a sunlit patch of red-gold, lank in the rain but gleaming like a precious nugget or like a vision of the Holy Grail, pulling me through the streets. There is a moment in this picture-show of recollection in which the high, iron railings to my right were struck by a lightning bolt, blinding me, hiding even the blessed, golden mane from my sight, a divine warning that I am too close to something I should not touch. Only afterwards, when I found myself before a black door which, I was convinced, she had opened to gain entry to a particular house in a Georgian terrace, did I reflect that I had come so very close to death. That realisation did not stop the scene rolling on, did not stop my pushing against the unlocked door, and going in. An Etoile marble hallway, a winding staircase, echoes of footfalls above. I know I climbed the stairs, and that part way up a burly, female figure barred my way, and a firm but gentle voice, with a hint of Irish in it, said, “Mannie, she needs her rest.”

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie
.”

What relation all this bears to the memory of sitting at a kitchen table, sharing a cup of tea with this Irishwoman, I do not know. Very clear now is the recollection of her little pastries – she plied me with them, eager for me to taste them, to eat my fill – crescent-shaped, tasting of almonds and honey, while upstairs, or maybe in the next room, I thought I caught the sound of footsteps, a snatch of song, or sometimes a high voice calling out for me. But that is all, and the memory shifts and shifts. I stood by a public bench by the Water of Leith. It was and is familiar, it was and is empty, and I am sad.

Where does this come from? The memory of standing before a row of houses, which may well have been the same Georgian terrace, looking at them in ruins, blackened fingers of brick and stone, pointing obscenely to the sky, terrible as sea-stacks. I seem to recall, as I stood there uncomprehending, hearing a passer-by saying, “Zeppelin raid, Mister.” And again seeing a smart, new hotel in what could have been the same spot. Then a later visit, when the instruction “Somewhere this side of Corstophine” failed to impress an otherwise helpful cabbie.

Into the flow of these memories sharper than today, suddenly others are flung, inapposite, startling. Eleanor, returned from an outing with a bereaved friend – a visit to a spiritualist medium – frowning. “She calls herself ‘Dona Andalu’. It was all a waste of time. Told us nothing about Margaret’s poor Geordie. All she would do was look at me and say, ‘She is of the Djinn and bore him a son’!”  Why did I flinch at that, and why is some kind of guilt now making the memory even sharper than most others? Why did I search my mind for some recollection of my tour of duty in Palestine, trying to remember whether I had opened any ancient bottles or rubbed any lamps, broken Solomon’s seal somehow and let a genie escape? And why did the fact that there was no such recollection seem to stoke more shame in me than the fact that my love for Eleanor had, at some undefined moment, become commonplace and banal, though far from incomplete?

There have been so many times, I now recall, that I have seen children, and even adults, with red-gold hair and with eyes as blue as the sky. I had not realised until today how my gaze has always been drawn to them, unless this is a false memory illuminated in retrospect – but if so, no such memories can be relied upon – and how I searched every face to see if I recognised it. Did that young Gordon Highlander officer, in the times of austerity and sandbags, really tip his Glengarry to show curls of burnished brass? Did he really wink a blue eye at me as he strolled along with a pretty girl?

This is the clearest scene of all, and it has just come back to me in its entirety. I approached a public bench, on it there sat the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Her ensemble was sage green, her hair red-gold, her eyes sky-in-the-lake blue. She wore no hat, neither was her hair up; it simply hung loose, rich, glorious, fast, wanton… Her glance was friendly, but there was an innocence there in her eyes which gave the lie to the wantonness of her display. I raised my hat, and asked her if the seat next to her was taken. She motioned towards it with a delicate hand gesture, and I sat by her. We talked. I told her my name. She told me hers, in an accent which could have been French. “Chagrin”.

“It means sorrow. I know that is strange, but it goes back a long way in my family.” She said. And then she sang, quietly, for me.

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
J’ai toute quitt
é pour l’ingrate Sylvie.
Elle me quitte et prend un autre amant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
Tant que cette eau coulera doucement
Vers ce ruisseau qui borde la prairie,
Je t’aimerai, me r
épétait Sylvie,
L’eau coule encore, elle a chang
é pourtant.
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment,
Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.

She sang with her own name on her lips, as though the great sadness of the song was in her heart, and I listened, holding my breath and with my pulse seemingly stilled, for as long as it took for the last laissez vibrer of her singing to fade. But at me she smiled, and her eyes smiled too with shades of cerulean that defied my gaze and my powers of description; but I knew at once that I loved her, and desired her, in a way I had never known before and would never know again. When no one was looking, we kissed, daringly for the time, and I unbuttoned her sage jacket, seeing the gold pentacle at the neck of her blouse. I felt entirely safe, completely loved, detached from the world. I cannot – for the life of me – remember making love, there or anywhere else. I do remember a tremendous sense of loss, of bereavement, and I remember standing, looking at that same park bench, empty. I also remember reaching behind myself, at the next bath night, and running the back of my hand awkwardly over deep scratches or weals on my back. Images of harpies, or strange, crying birds came into my mind then – grey images of broken gravestones in the Dean Cemetery, and my dodging of rain-soaked people on the city streets flowed into a near-nightmare of running, hawking for breath, between obelisks, weeping angels, frowning busts, stoneworks in mockery of classical elegance and gothic piety. And always ahead of me, but never close enough to see clearly let alone catch, the spilling red-gold that could have been her glorious hair or a trick of the queer Edinburgh light at the time of year when the sun scarcely rises above the brim of my hat. I was running after escaping love, my soul possessed by longing, and behind me, overtaking me, always the panting and the hoofbeats of fear and loss…

All that having been exhausted as soon as it was recalled, my last vision does indeed belong to today, to as recently as five minutes ago, or less. Or I am entirely demented in my old age. I have been walking, as I so often do now, by the Water of Leith, lost in thought. I hardly noticed a nanny with a child in a push-chair, hardly noticed her burly figure, his red-gold hair. Only when they had passed did it occur to me that I had heard an Irish voice say, “There goes your grand-daddy!” When I looked around they had gone, as surely as my dreadful nightmare images had disappeared, all those years before.

But… but… on the far side of the water, just now, I saw them, and a saw a whole family of children, running to a woman who had her arms outstretched to greet them. Even at that distance, they called up an intense pang of recognition in me. Their hair… their eyes…

It could have been though – most likely was – the leaves I had just kicked up, as red-gold as a young woman’s hair, and the sky-blue, eye-blue water.

__________

©Marie Marshall 2007

The End of the Feud – a Christmas story

This is how it all happened. Leastways, this is how I heerd it. See, there were two families – the McCratchits and the Scroogefields. The McCratchits lived up on McCratchit Mountain, and to say they were dirt poor is to give disrespect to dirt. And they didn’t take kindly to folk trespassing on the mountain. The Scroogefields lived down in the valley where the river runs and the land is sweet, and old Eb Scroogefield was rich, by Appalachian standards that is. Now, old Eb Scroogefield and Paw McCratchit didn’t much like each other, didn’t have no reason to like each other. Both families were Scotch, like you folk. Leastways, Paw McCratchit’s granddaddy and old Eb Scroogefield’s daddy had both come from Scotland to America, but the Scroogefields were what you’d call Low-landers and the McCratchits were High-landers. That was bad enough, but old Eb Scroogefield held the mortgage on the McCratchit place, and as the land didn’t grow much cepting rocks, the McCratchits owed old Eb Scroogefield and owed him big.

Old Eb Scroogefield, last of his line, could have afforded to be generous, he could have cut the McCratchits a whole lot of slack. But he had a tight fist, deep pockets, and short arms. He was a by-word and a hissing in the valley when it came to meanness, and a plain cuss to mountain folk. Not that people would say so to his face. He counted every cent, made an inventory of all his possessions, and wouldn’t spend if he could mend. If charity began at home it stayed there as far as old Eb Scroogefield was concerned. If anyone was collecting for worthy causes they knew to walk right past the Scroogefield house. If you knocked on old Eb Scroogefield’s door and asked him for a drink of water he’d tell you to lie on your back, open your mouth, and pray for rain.

Not that he was much for praying. I guess you could call him a rationalist. Yeah, he rationed everything. He had been a church-going man oncet, but folk could remember when the preacher took as his text “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and Eb Scroogefield walked out.

From that moment on nothing metaphysical bothered him much. That is until one night when he got metaphysically bothered big. It was a cold night in December, the threat of snow was in the air. Old Eb Scroogefield shut his ledger, shuffled out of his coat, his shirt, and his pants, and into his night-shirt, blew out his candle, and huddled into the blankets on his bed. He had calculated that two blankets was enough to keep in his body-heat, no sense in having three on the bed – they’d only wear out quicker. Anyways old Eb tried to settle to sleep. Sleep never came easy to him, but this particular night it eluded him entirely. In the darkness the figures from his ledger seemed to dance the polka with dollar bills right in front of his eyes. He lay there and worried. First he worried on his right side, then he worried on his back, then he worried on his left side. It seems like he stayed awake for hours, but then maybe he did fall asleep, because he suddenly heerd his daddy’s old long-case clock downstairs strike midnight.

Old Eb Scroogefield started and sat up in bed. He was no longer alone in the room. Someone was standing by the side of his bed.

Eb began to reach for the old flintlock pistol he kept by his bed, but then stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up like bristles on a hog. The man standing by his bed was his former business partner, and that was impossible, because he had been dead for seven years.

Old Eb Scroogefield pinched himself. “Ow!” He tried to look away from the apparition but his eyes were drawn back in-exorably.

“Jake? Is that you?” he asked, his voice scarcely above a whisper.

“Well it sure ain’t Thomas Jefferson,” said the apparition. “Yep, it’s me, it’s Jake Marley come back to haunt you.”

“Horse-feathers!” said Eb, a collecting himself. [By the by, it weren’t exactly ‘horse-feathers’ – like I said old Eb Scroogefield was mean and he wouldn’t waste two syllables where one would do.] “You’re dead, Jake. How in heck can it be you?” He pinched himself again, and sure enough it hurt again.

“I’m a sperrit,” said Jake, raising his arms and looming over the bed. “I’ve come to you with a warning. If you don’t want to spend eternity wandering the world as a ghost, you have to change your ways.”

“Horse-feathers,” said old Eb again, but with more uncertainty.

“I knowed you would be hard to convince, Eb,” said Jake. “But heck, just look at me… I wasn’t half as mean as you are, and yet I’m a-floating round in limbo and a-dragging these here chains after me, never peaceful, never resting. It’s no way to spend eternity, Eb. You’re not getting any younger, you’re running out of time to change your ways. If you could just do one act of generosity, then maybe… maybe…”

“What kind of act of generosity?” said old Eb. By now he was commencing to get frightened. But his meanness was fighting with his fear. “Not a big one, just maybe a little one?”

“The size doesn’t matter, so long as it shows a change of heart,” said the apparition. “You’ve got to change, Eb, really change! Aw, I knowed I wouldn’t be able to convince you. I’m going to hand you over to three other sperrits, Eb…”

“No! No!” begged old Eb, now getting really frightened.

“Too late, Eb… they’ve been summoned… they’ve been summoned… they’ll visit you one by one, on the stroke of midnight…” The words of Jake’s ghost faded as he himself faded.

With the disappearance of the apparition old Eb Scroogefield began to regain some of his composure. He must have been dreaming, he surely must. It was dark in his room and his shoulders were cold, so he huddled back down in the blankets and shut his eyes. He still didn’t sleep, though, because Jake’s words would not leave him be. He heerd the clock strike the hour and opened his eyes in surprise. Surely it was only one o’clock? But the clock was striking two… three… four… Old Eb held his breath and counted all the way to… twelve!

A figure stood beside his bed, and again old Eb Scroogefield’s eyes were drawn to it. “Who in tarnation…” he began, but couldn’t get no further. Jake’s ghost had come as a shock, this here second sperrit added confusion to that. One moment it seemed like a youngster, the next a grizzled old-timer. Eb rubbed his eyes, but couldn’t look away. “Who… who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” he managed to say at last.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” said the sperrit. “Ya’ll ready fer a ride down Memory Trail?”

The sperrit didn’t wait for any answer, but touched Eb Scroogefield on the arm, and suddenly there they both were standing outside an old log cabin. Eb recognised it, but more’n that he recognised the two young people setting on the bench outside it. “Why, that’s the old McCratchit place, and that’s Mary Lou McCratchit and… me! That’s me when I was no more’n sixteen, and we were sweet on each other.” Well, the young couple were a-gazing into each other’s eyes and a-talking, and they didn’t notice when someone else arrived on the scene – Grandpaw McCratchit. Well, he wasted no time in ordering Mary Lou inside and telling young Eb to git. Old Eb watched as his young self ran away and Grandpaw McCratchit followed Mary Lou inside, taking off his big leather belt. Old Eb went to call his younger self back, but the sperrit told him, “Won’t do not good, he cain’t hear ye.”

The scene changed, and there was the young Eb setting at the table in the Scroogefield house, while Big Daddy Scroogefield paced the room. Old Eb and the sperrit stood by like lollygaggers at a medicine show.

“Eb, boy,” said the patriarch, “I jest had Robert McCratchit Senior come to the front door, with his shotgun, giving me a piece of his mind that he could ill afford. I resent it when the likes of that mountain trash come to my house armed and loaded, but if what he told me is true then jest maybe he had reason. About you and Mary Lou McCratchit – that true?”

“It is, sir. We love each other. We aim to get married.”

“And if I say to you, here is a silver dollar,” said the patriarch, putting a coin on the table, “and it’s yourn if you give up the girl, what would you say?”

“I’d say no, sir, I love her,” answered young Eb.

“And if I put another silver dollar on top of it?”

“No, sir. Wouldn’t change a thing.”

“And another?”

“No, sir.”

“And another?”

This went on until there were forty silver dollars on the table in front of the young man. It was more’n he’d ever been told was his in his life. When he answered “No, sir” that time there was hesitation in his voice, and when he heerd that, Big Daddy Scroogefield grinned. Well, the pile got to forty-eight before young Eb changed his answer.

“I’d think about it, sir…”

“And another, then… makes forty-nine?”

Young Eb stretched a hand out towards the money. Old Eb wanted to cry out and stop him, even though he knew he wouldn’t be heerd. Jest in time the youngster saw his daddy’s hickory switch come down – didn’t exactly miss, caught him a stinging blow.

“Merry Christmas, son,” said Big Daddy Scroogefield, shoveling the silver dollars into a leather bag. “And no need to thank me.”

“Merry Christmas? Thank you fer what?”

“A valuable lesson I jest taught you,” said his father, grinning more, and leaving the room, while the young man sat nursing his stinging knuckles.

“Horse feathers!” he said.

Those were the very words old Eb Scroogefield said as he came to himself, setting on his own bed, alone in his room. But he said them with far less conviction than usual. He was thinking about the time in his life he chose money over love, and wondered whether it had been as wise a decision as his daddy had convinced him. Still, saying “Horse feathers” again gave him some comfort.

But then he heerd his old clock striking, and again it was striking the full twelve. Eb looked around him for another sperrit, but he couldn’t see nothing. After a few minutes, maybe there was a chink of light under the door, though, and from outside the room was that the sound of laughter?

“Ya’ll fixing to stay in there all night, Eb?” said a voice.

Cautiously, Eb Scroogefield got up from his bed, crossed the room, and opened the door. He expected to see his staircase, but what he did see instead was a big room with a big chair in it, and in the big chair there sat a big, big man, quite the biggest man old Eb had ever seen. he was dressed from neck to toe in fringed buckskins, with a coonskin cap on his head and a couple of eagle feathers stuck in it. His buckskin shirt was open to the waist, and round his neck there were strings of Delaware beads. He had a skillet in his right hand, and he was frying chicken wings in it over a roaring fire.

“And who in tarnation are you supposed to be?” asked old Eb.

“I ain’t supposed to be nobody,” answered the buckskinned apparition, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I’ve got something to show you, Eb Scroogefield.”

Eb was about to ask him what that something was, when the sperrit reached out and touched his arm. The fire and the skillet and the chicken wings disappeared, and Eb found himself staring  at a table in a mean room. Around the table sat a crowd of poorly-dressed critters, and at the head of the table… why, that was Bob McCratchit Junior, head of the whole McCratchit tribe. He rose to his feet and spoke.

“Brothers, sisters, cousins, McCratchits all. Today’s Christmas day, and this here’s our annual Christmas dinner. Now, times is hard, game is scarce, and money’s even scarcer. So all we’ve got fer dinner is squirrel stew, same as yesterday, same as the day before. But as it’s Christmas, I’m a-breaking out the moonshine, so at least we’re gonna get a mite merrier than usual.” There were cheers all round the table, as he reached for a big old fruit jar, and splashed a helping of mountain dew into each McCratchit’s cup.

“We’ll drink a toast,” said Bob, “to old Eb Scroogefield!”

Well, that surprised Eb, to see each one of the whole tribe of his enemies raise their cups to their lips and take a mouthful. It was less of a surprise when each one of them spat that mouthful on the floor and cussed!

“Is this supposed to make me feel better towards this trash?” he asked the sperrit.

“Hush up and watch and listen,” the sperrit replied. Eb did as he was told, and he saw a look come onto Bob’s face like he never saw on any McCratchit. It was a soft look, with a smile concealing deep worry, as he looked down on the little boy setting hunched on the next chair.

“Hey, Tim-Bob,” he said, gently. “How’s my little man?”

“I’ll be fine, Daddy,” said the boy. “I’m jest a mite tired I guess.”

“Well jest you go and sit next to the fire, and I’ll get your maw to bring over a bowl of stew.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” said Tim-Bob, throwing his arms round his daddy’s neck and kissing him, before hobbling off to the fireside on a home-made crutch. Bob McCratchit drew his wife to one side and spoke quietly to her with tears in his eyes.

“He ain’t getting any better.”

“No Bob, he ain’t. To speak the truth he’s getting worse. Bob… Bob… can we not ask the doctor to call?”

“Now Mary-Jean you know we cain’t. Doc costs money, and the next mortgage repayment’s due.”

Eb looked at the Ghost of Christmas Present and was about to ask him a question, when the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and Eb found himself in the middle of a desert. A man in ragged clothes was crawling over the stony ground, gasping “Water… water…”

“Sperrit, will he find water?”

“He might,” said the sperrit, “if he lies on his back, opens his mouth, and prays for rain.”

Eb put his chin in his hand. “I suppose you’re telling me that nothing good happens without somebody making it happen?” But there was no answer. The sperrit and the desert had gone, and Eb was standing in the dark outside his own bedroom.

Well, he went back inside, but he didn’t get near his bed before he heerd the clock begin to strike. He didn’t have to count, he knew it was going to be twelve. On the twelfth stroke the room became cold. Eb didn’t quite see, more like felt the presence of someone… something… in his bedroom, over in a dark corner. The moon came out from behind clouds, and a shaft of moonlight fell on the frock-coat of a figure, dressed entirely in black. Old Eb was rooted to the spot with fear. Of all the sperrits that had come to him, this one was the worst by a long mile!

“I guess you’re supposed to be…” he began. “Darn it, I know you are the Ghost of Christmas-yet-to-come. I also know this ain’t going to be no picnic!”

The sperrit moved forward noiselessly. He was dressed in mourning clothes, and his face was in shadow. He said nothing but pointed out of the window with one hand and touched Eb’s shoulder with the other. Window and night melted, and there they were outside, in the main street of the town. A buckboard went slowly by with a coffin on it, followed by a whole line of mountain people, and a couple of townsfolk stopped to watch it pass.

“There’s been some deaths this past month,” said one.

“True enough. And some mourned more than others.”

“I reckon so. There goes that poor little critter. And two weeks back it was the old skinflint.”

“Him? Oh yeah. Well no one went to see him buried, that’s for sure.”

“Who’re they talking about, sperrit?” asked Eb. “Not that little McCratchit? Not Tim-Bob? Heck, I know I’ve been no friend to that family, but he’s just a kid, a harmless, sickly child. What does he know about feuds and such? Tell me it’s not him!” As though in answer the sperrit touched him on the arm again, and there they stood in the town graveyard. Right in front of them was a tidy little plot with a bunch of mountain flowers placed lovingly on it. There was a plain wooden board placed at its head, and in neat pokerwork were the words “Timothy Robert McCratchit, beloved son of Robert and Mariah Jeannette McCratchit.”

Well, old Eb shed the first tears he’d shed in a long time, and they were like fire in his eyes.

“Sperrit, tell me these things ain’t fixed. Tell me they’re just things that might happen, and all it takes is for someone to…”

The sperrit pointed to another grave, and Eb approached it in terror. There were no flowers, the earth was piled on it in a tumble, and already poison ivy was spreading its leaves-of-three there. A single plank was stuck in the ground at a crazy angle. As the sky darkened, Eb strained to read what was written on the plank. It was hard in the twilight – the words appeared to have been cut crudely with a bowie knife. There was a peal of thunder and a flash of lighting, and Eb could make it out…

“EBENEZER SCROOGEFIELD”

“No!” he cried, falling to his knees. “No! Look here, sperrit, surely all it takes is for one person to do… well… something, and all this could be different. Couldn’t it?”

There was another peal of thunder, and Eb found himself kneeling on his bedroom floor. Outside it was light, and he could hear townsfolk shouting “Merry Christmas!” to each other.

He stood up.

“The feud has to stop,” he said. “It’s brought nobody no good for three generations. I’ll stop it. I’ll start by cancelling the McCratchit mortgage and giving Bob the deeds to his family home.

Now folks, this is the point I’m going to have to take you to that same McCratchit home, up McCratchit mountain. You got to see things from their point of view. So, there’s Bob McCratchit setting by the fire, and there’s his eldest, Pete, standing by the window.

“Hey, Paw!” the lad calls out. “Here comes old Eb Scroogefield on his horse!”

“The heck you say!” says Bob. “Here? On McCratchit mountain?”

Bob got his hunting rifle, opened a window, aimed, and fired. Shot old Eb right between the eyes.

What? What? You were expecting a happy ending? Heck, this is the Appalachians. These are mountain folk.

It was the end of the feud, though. That enough “happy ending” fer you?

The water of life *

There is a building in our burgh that once was – several generations ago, after it had been a cottage and before it became a warehouse for garments and then a dance studio – a chapel of sorts. Its small congregation was looked down upon by the Kirk, by the Baptists, by the Romans, and by the Episcopalians, and its pastor or preacher, John Michie, was a byword in the town. He was an incomer, along with his family and a couple of members of the congregation, from Clackmannan, and his church was of no noted denomination, save that some said it had been set off from the Sandemanians. One thing was certain, however, was that John Michie was a man who preached sin, and its consequences in eternal fire.

He was dead against strong drink, and preached every Wednesday and Saturday in the street, handing out tracts about the dangers of alcohol, of how it polluted a man’s soul and body, and how pure water was enough for man’s thirst. It was mainly this that made him a byword. He said it himself. “But he has made me a byword of the people, and I have become one in whose face men spit, Job chapter seventeen, verse six. I am now their taunting song and their byword, same book, chapter thirty, verse nine,” he declared. Small wonder, it could be said, because his Saturday preaching was done outside the Johnstone Arms, and his Wednesday at the gates of the distillery. Taunts he endured, sometimes he was pushed and shoved, an occasional stone was sent flying his way. Once a pebble struck him high on the cheekbone, just under his left eye – he never flinched, and his bearing of the wound seemed to make him stand straighter. For all their detestation of him, people said grudgingly that he had the courage of his convictions.

One Wednesday, having had enough of the disruption caused by Michie’s regular visits, the General Manager of the distillery, a Kirk man, came down in person to the gates and harangued him. The precise words of the exchange are not recorded, but the parting shot of Campbell, the Manager, as he ground on his heel and stalked back to his office, was to the effect that Michie was a fool; Michie, to his back, shouted, “Matthew, chapter five, verse twenty-two!”

Campbell had some influence in the Kirk of Scotland, and it was little surprise that on the following Sunday the Minister there preached about the Marriage at Cana, and how Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine, about how this prefigured the coming of the New Covenant and the ending of the Old, in which the injunction had been “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup” according to the Book of Proverbs. Moreover, said the Minister, the Apostle Paul had told Timothy, his fellow-disciple, to take a little wine for the good of his stomach. When he heard of this, John Michie said very little, except he made a remark about people who confused fermentation with distillation.

People thought that perhaps he had been silenced by one better versed than he. However, next Saturday he appeared as usual at the Johnstone Arms. Only this time he did not preach outside. He pushed open the door and walked in. He walked right up to the counter and, in a room that had fallen silent, addressed the landlord.

“I believe you sell whiskey here, is that not so?”

The landlord placed his fists on the counter and leaned forward.

“I do, John Michie,” he said, “and it is my business if I do, and none of yours!”

“Landlord, I wish to buy some.”

If it were possible for a quiet room to become even quieter, then the bar of the Johnstone Arms did. For a second or two, the landlord, stunned, did not move. Then he reached for a glass.

“No,” said Michie, “I wish to buy more than that.”

The landlord raised his eyebrows and reached for a bottle.

“Landlord, please do not waste my time. Sell me a case. I presume you have one in your cellar? Yes? Then sell me a case of whiskey!”

Every denizen of the pub watched this drama unfold, disbelief on their faces. The landlord went down to the cellar and brought up a case of whiskey. Michie paid for it, hefted it onto his right shoulder, and walked outside. Several – most – of the drinkers followed him, watching as he marched up the road that led to the sharp glen cut into the Ochil Hills, at the foot of which our burgh stands. Some then walked after him, others went into the burgh, to passersby in the street and to customers in the shops, saying “John Michie has bought a case of whiskey, and he’s away up the glen with it!” Soon there was a long straggling line of townsfolk following behind the preacher.

John Michie wasn’t a big man, but he was wiry and tough, and even with the burden of the case of whiskey his pace up the steep glen was hard to match. The path, laid alongside the pipeline that carried the burgh’s water supply from the burn, was narrow, and the drop to the torrent below often sheer. As a result, the preacher kept ahead of the following crowd. When they eventually caught up to him, after a forced march of about an hour, he had stepped onto a rock in the middle of the burn, just below an artificial weir, and just above where an intake had been built to divert some of the water into the pipe. There he sat, the case open, and a whiskey bottle in his hand. The gathering crowd watched as he unscrewed the cap of the bottle.

He poured the contents into the burn.

“That’s a waste of good whiskey!” said one of the younger men in the crowd, and made as if to loup onto the rock himself. But Michie took up another bottle with a reverse grip, testing it as one might test the weight of a handy weapon.

“A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength, Proverbs chapter twenty-four, verse five,” he said, and the young man decided not to intervene after all. In fact every single one of the preacher’s pursuers, come in ones and twos to that place where the hand of man first interferes with the wildness of the burn that runs through the steep-sided glen, simply stood and watched as he emptied the contents of bottle after bottle into the water.

Eventually the crowd was joined by Sergeant Turnbull. Or rather they made way for his slow approach; Turnbull being a man of some girth, and what is more another incomer, from Lothian, his stripes and his exoticism gave him a cachet in their eyes, and so they showed him a good deal of deference.

“John Michie,” he said, “Can ye no see what it says on yon notice?”

water supply for MarieThe preacher looked across to where the policeman was pointing – a sign stating that anyone found polluting the water supply would be prosecuted – and nodded. “I see it fine,” he said, emptying the last whiskey bottle.

“I shall have to arrest you, then.”

“Aye, I think so.”

Packing the empty bottles back into the case, and hefting them once again onto his right shoulder, the preacher followed the Sergeant on a stately progress back down the glen. The others stood back to let them pass. In answer to the occasional quizzical glance, the Sergeant jerked his thumb at the case and said, “Evidence.”

Two days later John Michie stood before the Procurator Fiscal at Alloa Sheriff Court. When asked how he pled to the charge of emptying bottles of whiskey into the water supply of the Burgh of Alva, he said only, “Guilty.” The Procurator Fiscal had been minded to fine the preacher twenty-five pounds, but because of his plea and his obvious subjection “unto the higher powers” as scripture has it, the fine was reduced to seventeen pounds and ten shillings.

If anyone thought this was the end of the extraordinary episode they were wrong. On the day after his appearance in court, John Michie caused a handbill to be circulated widely in the burgh – pinned to posts, handed out to all and sundry by members of his little congregation. The headline on it ran thus:

“THE LAW DECLARES WHISKEY TO BE A POLLUTANT.”

The text below was an honest account of the preacher’s actions, his deliberately disobeying the precise words of the sign, his subsequent appearance at the Sheriff Court, and his guilty plea. And of course no one would gainsay the headline, because it was literally true. It is not recorded whether this actually altered anyone’s drinking habits, but the story is always retold with a smile, and a note that no one ever called John Michie a fool after that. For a while his little congregation was even a person or two larger, and it is said that, with a twinkle in his eye, he preached less about hell fire and more about baptism, and about the pure water of life.

__________

*I was sent the photograph which accompanies this story, with the suggestion that I could probably find a story in it.

Whichcraft

Recently, someone asked me what my fascination was with the tarocky pack – better known as tarot. I don’t know whether I can answer that, without telling a tale I first told in verse in 2008, about how I came to put on the mantle and hat of le bateleur!

Le bateleur

I met a man some time ago,
….beside the old High Road.
He asked me whither I would go,
….he bade me rest my load.
His doublet had a pearled jabot,
….pteruges, sleeves that flowed;
he asked me what I wished to know,
….beside the old High Road.

Upon his bench he set a stall,
….beside the old Highway,
with cups, and coins, and swords, and all,
….and said “I will soothsay.
All Nature answereth my call,
….no man can say me nay;
I can raise up, I must let fall,
….beside the old Highway.”

His beaver hat was lemniscate,
….beside the road to Town,
which is to say a figure-eight
….gave shadow to his crown;
a yellow thatch sprung from his pate,
….its ringlets hanging down.
His words gushed like the Rhine in spate,
….beside the road to Town.

He said to me, “Nu, zay nisht beyz’
….beside the Avenue.
“I’ll tell you all the mantic ways
….of Which, and How, and Who.”
And from his sleeves he drew bouquets
….of Pink, and Green, and Blue –
Abba-Dabar” was his catchphrase,
….beside the Avenue.

I took him for a Mountebank,
….beside the old Towpath,
that peeped and muttered, with an ankh
….scribed on his wand of lath;
or was he German, Celt, or Frank?
….“Forsooth,” thought I, “He hath
an eldritch air, a touch of swank,
….beside the old Towpath!”

“In my land, dwellings with mansards,
….beside the Country Lane,”
he said, “have in their sparse dooryards
….a trug of blue wolfsbane,
a driftwood cross, a pile of shards –
….a shattered windowpane.
Come friend, please buy my pack of cards,
….beside the Country Lane.”

I took a shilling from my purse
….beside the Old, Straight Track.
I took the cards and, with a curse,
….I put them in my pack,
as though his offer did coerce –
….I could not give them back!
The dyke and fence he did traverse,
….beside the Old, Straight Track.

I have not seen him from that time,
….beside the Thoroughfare,
although through every land and clime
….I’ve sought him here and there.
I’ve heard tell of his sleight and mime,
….at country wake and fair,
as fickle as the new springtime
….beside the Thoroughfare.

And I’ve heard tell that Woden, blind,
….beside the Great Turnpike,
where gibbets creak and nooses wind,
….walks by the misty dyke;
I’ve heard the Flying Dutchman pined
….to slip ashore and strike
his foot upon the tussocks, twined
….beside the Great Turnpike.

Along the weary moorland trench,
….beside the Boluevard,
amongst the Romany, the French,
….the Breton Campagnardes,
I searched in vain; but then – oy mensh,
….the canny old canard! –
I found his old three-legged bench
….beside the Boulevard!

No more I search, but set my stall
….beside the Old High Road.
Step up, mayn her – come one, come all –
….your fortune I’ll decode.
Come, try my cards, see how they fall;
….my scrying’s à la mode:
THE MOUNTEBANK – you’re in My thrall
….beside the Old High Road.

Are things moving again?

Yes. Maybe not so much on the writing front at present, but I hear encouraging noises on the publication front. What might it mean? Well don’t hold your breath, but:

  • My collection of short stories, The Last-but-one Samurai and other stories, is coming forward for publication.
  • My novel KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE – sequel to From My Cold Undead Hand – is also coming forward. I hear that the earlier novel is to be re-launched and they are both to have an entirely new cover concept.
  • Possibly my first collection of poems from 2010, Naked in the Sea, will be re-issued.

All of this is up in the air at the moment, so…

graphic-watch-this-space

Voicebox

 

Voicebox

…..I’m not sure when I became aware of the voice, I mean really aware. I’d had the feeling that there was something going on for a while, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. No, literally, I couldn’t put my finger on it, even though I poked and prodded myself, examined myself for lumps, pressed places on my body to see if they were painful, that sort of thing. Then I realised I could hear a voice.

…..Now, I know what you’re thinking. The P-word. The S-word. No. See, I took this to a professional and, frankly, she was nonplussed, couldn’t make sense out of it. As long as I wasn’t hearing commands to dress in armour and fight the English, and I wasn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. It was ordinary, banal I guess.

…..At first it was just a vague murmuring, like I could hear someone talking through a wall. I thought it was a weird buzzing in my ears – you know, tinnitus – but though I couldn’t make out words I could tell from the intonation that it was speech, definitely speech. And it wasn’t actually in my ears as such, more like I was taking this through-the-wall stuff with me wherever I went. It shifted, but only slightly, sometimes seeming to come from my right, and then my left. It got clearer, and then it faded again as I tried to catch what was being said. Then I did catch something. Just like that, one morning, I made something out.

…..“Can you hear me?”

…..“Yes, I can. I can hear you,” I said, and instantly wished I hadn’t because I was in a shop and I said it out loud. Several people turned and looked at me, as you’d expect. I had to hurry to the ladies’ in the shopping centre and lock myself in the cubicle nearest to the wall and keep my voice down as soon as I heard anyone else coming in. This was before I realised I didn’t have to answer out loud.

…..“Good. I’m glad you can hear me at last. Honestly, you are bloody awkward in the extreme. I’ve been trying to get you to hear me for a dog’s age!”

…..“Who are you?” I asked. I was scared of getting an answer to that, and now I come to think about it that’s a question the voice has never answered. “Where are you?”

…..“Where do you think I am?”

…..That was a good question, of course. As I said, this wasn’t like the voice-in-the-head thing. It had a definite direction, a place if you like. At this moment, as I sat on the loo seat in the ladies’, the voice seemed to be coming from just below my right shoulder, at the front, behind my collarbone. And here’s the funny thing – as time has gone on, it has always occupied some place or other in my body, a definite box, a cube about four centimetres square. I can feel the shape inside me, its sides, its edges, its corners, it’s definitely there without pushing anything else out of place, if that makes any kind of sense. I know, I know, this makes no sense at all.

…..“This makes no sense at all,” I said.

…..“When did anything ever make sense? I mean really?” Something I would get used to after a while was this voice’s habit of answering a question with a question. It wasn’t all the time, just enough to be mildly annoying. And there was the one question it kept avoiding, I mean the who-are-you one.

…..I haven’t talked much about the voice to anyone except that professional I mentioned… and you. What’s more, I realised a few things about it quite early on. Firstly, I’m the only person who can hear it. I guess in that respect it is, well, at least similar to what people think of when they think of paranoid schizophrenia, but there is still this outside quality to it, a direction like I said. I know it’s coming from this cube-like shape in me, but it’s still like it isn’t. Secondly I found that I didn’t have to answer it out loud. It’s always been convenient to do it like that, of course, and that runs the risk of people looking oddly at me, but I got round that by using a set of those mini earphones with the lead running into my pocket, so that people would think I was using a smartphone. Speaking out loud means that I’ve organised my thoughts, you see. As far as I know, the voice can’t actually ‘read’ what I call my ‘background thinking’ – or if it can it has never said so – only the thoughts I actually direct at it. Thoughtspeak, if you like. Oh God, that sounds so George Orwell, doesn’t it! Sort of Big-Sister-is-listening-to-you, haha.

…..Oh yes, that’s another thing. The voice is female. It sounds a lot like me, only not quite. It can put on a ‘telephone voice’ when it wants to sound pompous, but basically if I imagine what a person would look like talking the way the voice does, it would be a middle-aged woman a lot like me.

…..However, it knows things I don’t. For instance, I went in for a pub quiz and it fed me answers on football, death metal, and astrophysics, and I don’t know anything about any of those subjects. I thought this was great, and the team I was on won everything in sight. I even thought about going in for one of those big prize game shows on TV. But the voice must have got sick of this, because after a while it started to feed me the odd wrong answer, and then a whole string of them during one quiz and I fell out with me team mates. I kind of fell out with the voice too at that point.

…..“I don’t want to be Betty-no-mates,” I complained.

…..“You’ve got me. I’m your mate.”

…..I suppose it was, in a way. For a while. When I was lonely we would have conversations. When there was nothing worth watching on the TV, I would sit in the living room with one table lamp lit, hugging a pillow, maybe sipping from a glass of wine or picking from a box of chocolates, and the voice and I would chat. I told it my life story. It seemed patient, it seemed to want to listen. I never considered that it was part of me, part of my own mind talking to me, because while I talked about my life it would listen, it would be surprised, delighted, angry, whatever, when I told it about things good and bad from my childhood. It would tell me what it would have done under the same circumstances, and that was always something totally new to me. Another think the voice would do, was to sing duets with me in the shower. I’m a soprano, a rather weak soprano, and the voice is a contralto with much better control than me. It would harmonise. I had to teach it the words and tune to some of the songs I knew – that’s another sign, I guess, that it isn’t my own mind talking to me.

…..You remember I said it moved about? It wasn’t always just under my right clavicle, it could be anywhere. I suppose it was most disturbing when it lodged in my head. I made it plain I didn’t like that, so most of the time it was somewhere in my torso. Once it stubbornly decided to stay down there. God, I don’t know why I’m being so coy about this – I don’t know why I was so coy with the voice either, after all it’s female, it’s just that I didn’t and don’t like it being down there. It just feels somehow like I’m being invaded, violated. I suppose I was and am being invaded anyway. But down there kind of brings it home to me, you see?

…..We did have some really good times, by the way. Those conversations would go on for hours sometimes, and when I ran out of things to say, the voice would tell me stories. They were good stories too.

…..But I still didn’t know the why and the who and the how of it all. Was I some kind of experiment? Was the voice some kind of alien entity? Was I going barmy? I put this to the voice and it just laughed.

…..“Why not just accept me – make the most of what you’ve got! When you were a kid, didn’t you always fantasise about having a secret friend? Well, now you’ve got one. What was your secret friend’s name? You can call me by that name if you want to.”

…..See, to me that was taking things a bit far. The voice already knew such a lot about me, I had told it things from my life I’d almost forgotten about, and some things much better forgotten if I’m honest. Now it seemed like it was asking to take over one of those things, like it was tired of just being a voice inside me and wanted to be a permanent part of me. I think that was the time it started to occur to me that the things I didn’t like about this situation were adding up. The evasions, the moving down there, the secret friend issue. One day it was telling me one of its stories and it seemed familiar, then I realised it was made up from something I had told it from my own life. Well, we had a blazing row. We’d had niggles before, but this was a mental screaming-match. Only it wasn’t just mental. I must have been yelling out loud, because a neighbour of mine knocked on my door to find out if I was okay.

…..I decided to see if I could ignore the voice. I was surprised to find that, yes, I could. It was no effort at all not to reply out loud, just a bit harder to shut down the talking-by-thinking thing, and it didn’t always work. Sometimes I relented and replied, but not as much as before, and when I got really good at not speaking to it, I noticed that it actually began to fade a little, became more muffled again. I cut it off completely, and after a while it was back to that almost inaudible murmuring.

…..The voice did try to attract my attention. Sometimes I was sure I could hear a kind of pleading tone to the sound. But I suppose I just hardened my heart. Once it tried to – I don’t know – make me feel how sharp its corners and edges were, but somehow I got the knack of smoothing them out again, as though I had a plane or some sandpaper in my head. What’s more, I found I could stop it moving about, in fact I could move it myself. I banished it to my right calf, where it remains. I can feel it there now, like a patch of pins-and-needles.

…..I got in touch with my friends again, stopped being a loner, became more sociable, went of girls’ nights out. Life became normal again.

…..Except sometimes, usually at night when I can’t sleep and I can feel that shape and hear that murmuring, I feel guilty. This has all been like falling in love and falling out again. I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish this was nothing but a story.

The Garden at the End of the World

1

“You ought to get that garden seen to. Tidied up a bit.”

I can remember hearing that said to an elderly person I visited once, when I was a child. I loved visiting the elderly. I loved especially obtaining permission to go and wash my hands, so that I had an excuse to explore as much of their house as lay on the route between the back parlour and the bathroom. I used to dare myself to open a door and look in – perhaps to a bedroom, a spare bedroom with cases and boxes stacked, a bed with a flat, level, chenille spread that looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed for years, a wardrobe with a mirror in which I could glimpse the fur coat or the bathrobe that hung on the back of the door I had just opened. I might treat myself to a frisson of fear, fancying that the movement of that coat or that robe was due not to my opening the door but to some animation of its own; or I might simply wonder when last it had been worn, and when it had moved due to the whim and will of the once-young, now-elderly person downstairs, or to that of a dead loved- or hated-one. I might, if I felt brave, walk as quietly as I could, wary of the telltale creak of old floorboards, into the room to see whether any of those repositories of the silent past – the boxes, the cases, the wardrobe – would open. Once or twice I dared to brush my hand against the black suits with shiny lapels, the gowns, to make them sway, to see them in my mind at some cocktail party or dance. I even wondered what it would be like to put on one of these man-size suits or woman-size dresses, whether I would feel weighed down and small in them, or whether I would be possessed by the dancing gentleman or lady who had worn them.

Downstairs their might be a front parlour, cold and undisturbed save for the ticking of a clock or the buzzing of a forlorn bluebottle at the window. I would look at a sea-green collection of glass paperweights with their bubbling patterns of ferns and fronds blown into them, a painting of a harbor, a fragile case of Murano figures, a row of framed photographs with their anonymous faces looking out of, and at, a world that had long gone. I would search the photographs for any resemblance to the elderly house-owner, wondering if I would recognise the eyes of a bridegroom or a bride, or the cheekbones and curve of the mouth of someone in a uniform cap. If the front parlour was curtained I would never draw back the drapes, I would let the room sleep. I would, however, press my face to any chink that allowed in the green light of the garden beyond…

Everywhere in an elderly person’s house was still and cold. The kitchen, where the tap dripped, smelled of hard water and the day before’s cooking. The dark hall always had angles and shadows, the plaster head of a jester leering from the wall, a painting where a patch of threatening sky lowered over top-burdened trees and the figures suggested in a bottom corner were too small before nature’s enormity. A door I passed by on an earlier visit might turn out to be a broom cupboard, and the handle of an antique vacuum cleaner might tumble out to fall against me with a clatter.

“What are you doing?” such might be the words called to me from deeper in the house, or “You took your time!” when I arrived in the back parlour. But more often nothing would be said.

2If I had found houseplants my absence would have been stretched out longer. On finding an Aspidistra or a Meyer lemon, a Clivia or a Kalanchoe, or a Christmas cactus, I would use my fingertips and my lips to navigate and explore it. I would dare to move a pot slightly so that a plant would face more towards the echoing greenery outside; I would gently lift a vine of trailing Hedera and reposition it, draping it over a chair-arm or along the narrow top of a folding table. I would whisper to it – just a gentle hiss of breath in harmony with the leaves’ rustle as they caught and brushed against a man-made surface – I trained myself to feel the slight trembling of each plant, convinced myself that it was the beating of some life-force, or a coded language. I would whisper back, “I know, sister. I know.”

3I liked the silence of the elderly people I visited. Grown-ups in their prime might have taken it for vacancy. I took it for serenity, and equated it with the silence and serenity of their houseplants. Outside the French window, through which an elderly person gazed, there was always a garden that was more ocean-scape than domestic. The little light that fell on the elderly face would have the green of the laurel or the rhododendron that pressed close to the window, the green of the overgrown grass and the dandelion leaves, the green of the moss-covered York-stone flags, the green of the trees beyond. The elderly person was a submariner to me, looking longingly at the emerald light, wishing to be part of it, the only reminder of their life on the surface being a dancing little rainbow when the shifting sun caught an imperfection in the glass. Where other children would have become bored and restless, would have mithered for a glass of orange squash or a jeely piece or to go out and play or to go home, I sat, and loved to sit, as long as the elderly person was content to have me there, content to have me share their closeness to the unruly garden, to the ocean-scape that formed a barrier between them and the noise and bustle of the world beyond. If the window was open, and the breeze that came to us did so in the same measure as the movements of the leaves, so much the better – we would both be alive to that other world, the garden world, we would share but say nothing.

I have remembered all this recently, though my childhood visits are decades in the past and I myself am not too far away from the age of those whom I visited. Well, let’s say I am closer to them than I am to my vanished childhood. It may well be that the envy I once had for the elderly’s serenity and solitude brought me to this house in which I now sit.

There is a loch that suits the metaphor ‘an arm of the sea’. To the south of it sits an equivalent arm of land, one of the more westerly of Scotland. The two arms stretch out, as though willing to embrace, but blindly missing each other. On that ness, on the shore of that loch, sits my house. The brae behind it is close enough to shelter it from the gales that sweep in from the South-west, but low enough to allow sunlight. The higher hills on the other side of the loch often break the winter weather from the North. The loch itself traps the warmth of the Gulf Stream. It is an ideal place for a garden.

It is all the more ideal by there being little chance of a visitor by land. The nearest track peters out half a mile away. A few visitors come, or rather did come, by boat. The temperate conditions here mean that exotics thrived – a marvel this far north – and that drew a handful of tourists to the little jetty. I never minded too much their wandering round the garden’s sparse gravel paths, well to the front of the house, so long as they did not wander too close and disturb my privacy. There was a tin nailed to a fence-post for their donations as they left, and Alastair who owned the little motor-launch that came up from the Lochmore Hotel would regularly leave me a cut of his fares. But Alastair was old, and when he died no one took on his business. If I needed word from the world, or supplies of something, I had a rowing boat of my own which I could scull down to Lochmore. But if living in this house with its garden has taught me anything it is that I don’t need much from the outside world. If I have needs at all.

4It really is remarkable how the garden has repaid me for allowing it to be wild. I have learned, sometimes by trial and error, what fruit, what berry, what exotic nut or seed can be eaten; what sap can be tapped and distilled; what leaf or shoot is palatable and nourishing. The garden has allowed me to take sparingly, to re-seed, to re-plant and to husband what I do not need, spreading it to rot down and feed. Every day has been one of learning and coping, and I have become lean, also – I like to think – wise and serene like the elderly folk I knew in the past. I became self-sufficient, or rather the garden and I became sufficient to each other.

It came as a shock, then, when I heard a loud “Hullo?” from outside. I thought I might have been dreaming, or heard the limb of a tree creaking, or the bellow of a stag and mistaken it for a human voice. But no, there was someone here.

Robertson, he said his name was. A reporter from Glasgow. I didn’t ask how he had reached my seclusion. How he had breached it.

“I am right,” he said. “It is you. You know, people have been saying for years that you had died. You left all your fame – maybe notoriety is a better word, eh? – you left all that behind you and disappeared. My, my, this really is the end of the world out here!”

“It is about as remote as one can be on the mainland.”

“Your house is difficult to spot,” he said.

“So much the better.”

“I mean,” he went on, “it’s pretty much camouflaged by the ivy or whatever growing up the outside – that green against the green of the trees and bushes. I gather you haven’t been seen at Lochmore for some time. How have you been living?”

“I get by.” I explained to him as sketchily as I could how the garden sustained me, how we sustained each other, how the garden produces nourishment to last me all year long. He wanted to know whether that was all; he doubted that anyone could live a purely vegetarian lifestyle on that basis alone. I confessed to him that, no, one couldn’t, and that I had foraged the loch shore for shellfish, being careful to leave more than I take – my principle whether it be fruit, fish, or flesh. “Some time ago I took down the fence that surrounded the garden. I destroyed – nullified – the boundary between the cultivated and the natural. Broom and heather and fern penetrated the garden. Hardy azaleas and apples and strawberries colonised the wild. I let my jetty rot, fall, and be covered with seaweed. I let my maritime exotics explore the shore on their own. Once a deer fell, just outside my back door, and I had a season of meat, before the garden overgrew what was left of it.” Beyond that, I confessed, I relied upon the tumble of the wild garden through my French window – the apples, wild raspberries and blackberries, beech nuts, nettles for soup, the mushrooms that could be eaten without harm, though some brought fierce dreams to me.

“You always had a unique way of seeing the world, with or without hallucinogens,” said Robertson, with a mocking grin. I began to hate him. “What was it exactly you did, again? What was it lost you your place and your reputation in the world…”

“I disremember,” I said, but he ignored me.

“The ethics of your experiments were questionable, to say the least. The ‘science’…” I could hear the quotation marks around that word as he spoke it. He said it again. “The ‘science’ was roundly contested, disputed, denounced as pseudo-science. The fact that your assistants didn’t know what you were doing until it was to late. The unexplained…”

The unexplained what? Did Robertson ever finish that sentence? In any case, what could there be to explain? How could I, how can I, express that deep, vein-deep, consciousness-deep connection between the plant world and the human that my theories had proposed and my experiments had explored? Robertson had cited ethics – I know, I know, the debatable area between the hunger for knowledge and the morality of how to satisfy it has always been a dense and contradictory jungle. But this had been much more than knowledge – my grail had been the essence of being, the marriage feast of nature, the triumph of sap and blood! The child-me had born the adult-me, the person who was part mystic, part scientist, the person who dared, who reached out…

How long is it since Robertson came here? I don’t know. I have ceased to ask what time is, anyway, or to consider the ticking of a clock when seasons are the only real and relevant measure of time – and they circle round and round, again and again, in a garden where the end of the world is its beginning, and the beginning its end. Robertson never left, of course. He sits opposite me, where he sat when his last sentence trailed away, and when his last breath failed. I can make out his eye-sockets, where new foliage has grown through. I can see the shape of his shoulders, his thighs, his knees under the waterfall of green that has seemed to flow through the French windows, left standing open to the garden since before his coming. What stopped his words, his breath, the flowing of that red, oh-so-human sap in his limbs? The blood-metal of my rusty secateurs that are lying beside my chair? The purity of the sap in the cup that has fallen beside his? The stifling of nature’s motes and spores borne by an insistent breeze through the open window? “I disremember, I disremember,” I repeat to myself in a whisper; and the garden whispers back to me.

Somewhere in the house there was a muffled and distant crash – how long ago was that? – which I thought was probably the old chimney, weighed down with creeper and rocking in a stronger-than-usual gust, falling through the roof. No matter. What could it matter?

It is as I said – I leave, or give back, more than I take from nature, from the garden. And now I give to it my childhood memories, the look, the feel, the name of the precious houseplants that exist only in my head. I give the Red Shamrock, the Crassula ovata and the Sago palm, the Lemon Cypress and the Dracaena Marginata, the Peace Lily and the Rhapsis excelsia. I give the knowledge I uncovered as an explorer of the symbiosis of plant and human. I leave it all here, giving it all back to secrecy to this garden at the end of the world. Is there a beginning in this end?

Is there? I do not know, I do not know. The tumble of nature has blown in dry leaves, husks, dandelion parachutes and Spinning Jennies, dust and scents, grey light and emerald green. It has ceased to give me sustenance. But there is no more need for sustenance, there is only need to give back to the genius loci of the garden. The Green Man? Mother Nature? Whatever. It has been a mystery, it has always been a mystery, but now I hear the wind, I hear the rattle of those dead leaves, I hear the sigh of leaf against evergreen leaf and the answering echo from the ruined cave of my house. And at last I understand the language, I hear with utmost clarity what is being said. There is a torque of ivy pinning my wrist to the chair arm, but why would I want to move? A tendril – at last, at last! – brushes my cheek. It is the touch of a lover.

5

©Marie Marshall 2018