©PKA & Thelma Lumpkin
BY THELMA LUMPKIN
"Three-twenty A.M… the witching hour… no point in trying to go back to sleep… could make a trip to the john… too much trouble… damn neck… stabs me every time I turn… hmmm… funny noise… seems to be coming from the TV… no… from the window next to the TV…”
She stares at the window, seeing only the vague glare of the small three-over-three panes. Strange kind of windows, two small ones close together made to look like one. Years ago for sport, trying to crawl out one of the windows to get to a lower roof, she felt like toothpaste being squeezed out of the tube. Well, anyway, it was a sure thing that no one was going to be able to get into her room from that lower roof. Not if they weighed any more than 110 pounds.
Fear and apprehension were not her style, not until she moved to the country from the city. A friend of hers, a country person, had told her once that there were country people and there were city people, and you had to know which you were because they were not interchangeable. Flying in the face of folkloric advice, she, a city person, had moved to the country and was naively surprised when the nights became, not exactly fearful, but somewhat discomfiting. Was this what her country friend was talking about?
Hmmm… there’s that noise again. Kind of a swishing noise. She can barely hear it. Maybe she’s not hearing anything at all. Maybe it’s the wax in her ear, or her hair rustling against the pillow case. That’s probably it.
The country is so damn quiet. There isn’t a sound, no animal noises, no tree creaking, no people sounds, nothing. Almost makes you want to hear an explosion or something, anything to break the silence.
Maybe that’s what the swishing noise is, something she’s imagining to fill the silence. She’s a writer after all, and that’s what writers do, isn’t it? They write what they imagine, which means they imagine things, right?
He’s standing quietly in the shadowed corner of the room, hands low, clasped together, fingers entwined. He watches her as she turns away and nestles herself under the down quilt, pulling it up over her exposed ear, sighing as she closes her eyes. He waits. Dressed in black with a long flowing coat, black hair curling down over his shoulders, he is a shadow within a shadow. Softly, he moves out of the shadow and into a shaft of moonlight.
Silver blue flows over his face, alabaster white, slim and beautiful, full lips, deep set eyes, dark eyebrows, high cheekbones, straight slim nose, wide jaw, firm chin. He smiles at her as she nestles into the soft bed. How long he has waited for her in the shadows, watched her at night as he’s watching her now. Imagined her dreams, dreamed them with her in dreams of his own, longed for more, anguished over his imprisonment, tortured by thoughts of never being set free… to be… with her.
The ticking of a clock breaks through the silence. He can hear her breathe, firm, even, soft. He tries to catch her breath and breathe it in. She sleeps, and he will wait another night in the shadows. He unfolds his hands, lets his arms drop to his sides. With tilted head, he gazes at her small sleeping figure. She hardly disturbs the lie of the covers over her. He will watch her sleep again tonight, another of many nights since he came that first night. It seems so long ago. Was it a month? A year? A few weeks? She had said his name, and he saw her smile at the sound of it.
There is a rustling of covers. She moves in her sleep from one side to the other. He can see her face now, peaceful, placid, remote. She is somewhere else, not here. Watching her and knowing that she is somewhere else saddens him. She is beyond him where he cannot reach her. But he will watch because he cannot do more. She murmurs. He tries to hear her words, but they are only sounds. She whispers, and now he can hear words. Suddenly, still sleeping, she says his name.
He’s free. He leaves the shadow of the corner, walks without sound, almost floating, his long coat billowing out in whispers. He stands next to the bed, bends so that he can see her face.
“Ah am here,” he says.
Her eyes snap open. She sees the figure beside the bed, and she knows who it is.
“No,” she whispers. “This is not possible.”
He nods and bends on one knee beside the bed, resting a hand on the quilt close to her.
“Aye,” he says, “’Tis the one thee hae named. Ah hae waited fur thee to call.”
“Waited?” she says. ”Waited where?”
“Waited here,” he says, “in the shadows.”
“Here? Here in my room?”
“No other,” he says.
She sits up bringing the quilt with her, trying to think and talk rationally.
“How long have you been here?” she says.
“All mah life, dear one.”
“This is crazy,” she says in a mutter to herself. “I must be dreaming. I’ll wake up in a little while and have a good laugh over this.”
“Nae, dear one,” he says. “Ah hope thee will nae laugh except fur joy.”
With an outstretched hand, he stands close to the bed.
“Come wi’ me, mah bonnie quine,” he says. “Woods thee daur?”
“Wait!” she says. “I wrote that. I wrote that somewhere. What’s going on?”
“Aye,” he says, “thee wrote once, and now thee write more. Come.”
He offers his hand again, and incredibly she sees herself turn aside the covers and put her hand in his.
What is she doing? This is insane. She’s dream walking, sleepwalking, not walking at all, dreaming this whole thing. Effortlessly, she slides out of the bed, and he takes both her hands, guiding her from the edge of the bed into the curve of his arm. If this is a dream, she says to herself, dream on. Oh please, dream on.
Where they walked, how long they walked, she has no idea. Her house is far behind them as they walk in silence. She has questions to ask him, but she says nothing, not wanting to break the spell, if that’s what it is. Has he charmed her into a mesmerized state? Is she mesmerized? No, wait. This is a dream. That’s it. She’s dreaming this whole thing.
Suddenly, it’s foggy. The fog wraps around them, dampens their clothes and hair. She glances at him. His face glows in the moist air. He is so beautiful.
They have stopped walking, and he turns to her, knowing that she has been gazing at him. “Do thee know me now, mah bonnie quine?” he says.
She stutters and stammers, not wanting to say the truth or the lie.
“Nae matter,” he says.
He bends closer to her and touches his fingertips to her cheek and her lips, and a tremor passes through her.
“Are thee cold, dear one?” he says.
For some reason, her voice fails her, and she shakes her head. Finally, words come pouring out. “Who are you?” she says. “What are you? This isn’t possible. None of this is possible. I’m awake now. I know I am. Things like this don’t happen in the real world!”
She turns away for a moment, looking at nothing, trying to clear her thoughts, hoping to reground herself. Maybe she just thinks she’s awake. Maybe she really is sleep walking, sleep dreaming, sleep whatever.
More fiercely than she intended, she looks at him again. “But I can’t believe you. You are a fiction. My fiction. I made you up. You’re not real. I’m making you up right now as we’re standing here… I’m… You’re…”
She stops, staring into his face.
He gently crosses her lips with a softly placed finger, and with his arm still curved around her waist he points to a distant darkness on the horizon.
“Mah islain,” he says, “the one thee call Eynhallow. But it is Hildaland. Mah Hildaland. Will thee come with me, mah bonnie quine? Will thee let me show thee mah Hildaland? ’Tis nae o’ what thee wrote.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Close yur eyes,” he says, drawing his hand lightly across her face, and when he tells her to open them again, she is standing in a sunlit field of flowers, her night shirt turned into a long flowing dress, the tang of salt air in her nostrils, the familiar island breeze playing with her hair.
There is music coming from somewhere. A mandolin and a recorder. He stands a short distance away, his back to her, his hands clasped together. It seems as though he is looking skyward. She hears singing and realizes that he is singing with the distant music.
“I remember that song,” she says to him.
The singing stops, and he turns to her. “Ah hae sung it tae thee before,” he says, “when we jinked on mah islain. Does thee remember that?”
He gathers her into his arms, and there is no time for an answer. But she does remember.
The Orkney Islands, those bits of mystical dirt flung from some huge hand across the angry waters of the North Sea, camping on one bleak abandoned mound in that waif-like group. She had danced with him on the ocean-washed sand to the song he was singing now. It was all in a story she wrote a long time ago.
They dance as they danced before, and she floats weightless in his embrace. But there’s something wrong. None of this is real. Titillation. That’s what it is. Titillation. It will end when morning comes, or when she wakes up– if this is all a dream– or when she gets tired of dreaming. This could be some kind of game or trick of the mind that she conjured up from some old folk tale. But why is it so real? And what, what is he? Who or what is she dancing with?
His voice is low in her ear. “Thee are worried, mah bonnie quine,” he whispers. “Let me take yur worry. Gi’ it all tae me. Do nae worry, dear one.”
They have stopped dancing, and she droops in his arms. He holds her more closely and smooths her hair.
“When forst Ah saw thee, dear one…” His lips rest on her cheek, and as he speaks the soft movement of his lips against her skin chills her “…Ah knew thee was another’s promised. Ah did nae care. Ah woods abide in yur shadow fur as long as thee woods allow.”
Gently, he takes her hands and holds her apart from him, his eyes wide and dark.
“Thee are on mah islain now,” he says. “Here, ah can gi’ thee anything o’ yur desire, anything in the world. Tell me what is yur want, mah bonnie quine. Let me gi’ it tae thee.”
Her lips part, but she says nothing. Instead, she takes his hand and walks through the flowers toward the edge of the island, to the restless water, the Eynhallow Sound with its roosts, its wild currents.
“How did we cross these wild currents to come here?” she finally says, then quickly adds, “And where do you go when you are not here? And why did you bring me back here, to Eynhallow or Hildaland, as you call it? And what…?”
His laughter is thrilling to her. In this moment, he is the most beautiful person she has ever seen. Head thrown back, hair tumbling across his face.
She is… She can’t say it. She will not even think it.
Thankfully, he interrupts her thoughts. “Dearest one,” he says, “Ah hae sommat forgot that thee are o’ a literal classification. Tae thee and yurs, things must add together in neat packages. Always, ye are in need of the logical, that which do please the mathematical sense o’ order.
“Ah will tell thee many things, my bonnie quine, but Ah canna tell thee some things. Does thee know, dear one, what brings a bit o’ green from a seed as brown as dirt? Can thee tell what the sunlight is made o’. What puts the brine in the great oceans? And does thee care, dear one? Does thee care? What will change by yur ken o’ those things that are and always will be whether thee hae ken o’ them or nae?”
Having no answer, she risks one last question. “Where are you when you are not here?”
He says, “Ah will tell thee since thee hae ask’d, but thee may nae be fond o’ the answer.”
“Tell me,” she says.
Taking her hand, he leads her to a sheltered cove, and they sit on the warm sand with their backs against a rocky ledge. The selkies– small seal-like creatures, age-old inhabitants of the Orkney Islands– fill the shoreline, rolling their slick bodies to move among one another and make feeding trips into the swirling currents. Noisy and perpetually on the move, they are the same color as the sandy shore, and from a distance they give the illusion of undulating mounds of sand. Their ongoing barking occasionally builds to a communal uproar that starts and stops for no understandable reason.
Farther along the waterline, a small group of ragged shaggy sheep left behind by island farmers long gone, graze on kelp pulled from their rocky anchors and cast on the shore by rough waters. Following the tangled line of seaweed along the high water mark, the sheep browse together single file, moving along as they try to eat their fill.
“Ah will tell thee in Sassenach, yur American English,” his voice changes, “since once you told me that my Gaelic was incomprehensible.”
When have they talked before? She has no time to ask yet another question.
His jousting smile fades, and his eyes darken as he turns away. “When first we met, you and I, you were Cadhan Macomber’s woman. The Farmer of Thorodale, he was called. He was old. Too old to have a young pretty wife and saddle her with three sons he made with another woman who had to die to break free of him.
“I saw you at the ebb every day, your dress knotted up to make a pouch for whatever you could scratch out of the wet sand or pull off the sharp rocks; clams, limpets, conchs. You waded in the rough water to find them, and the spray twisted your hair into ringlets and clung your clothes to your hips and your breasts.
“I could not stop from waiting for you to come and watching you move through the swirl of the roosts, struggling to keep your footing while the currents pulled at you and the briny spray burned your eyes, and I allowed only to watch.
“One day, I wanted more. Waiting and watching were not enough. I called your name, and you turned to me as you stood in the currents, your face damp from the spray, your dress floating around you, twisting in the currents, your hands full of sand and pebbles. I went into the water to stand near you.
“You smiled, and I took your hands and washed away the sand so that I could hold them close and soothe the scratches made by shells and stones. When I held your palms to my lips, I smelled the sweetness of your youth and felt the warmth of your heart. And you did not pull away. We stood together in the roosts and did not see who it was on the shore.”
“No,” she says interrupting, “that was not me. That wasn’t me at all! Married to someone named Cadhan Macomber? Never! Scrabbling around in the ocean for… I don’t even know what those things are! I never heard of a Cadhan Macomber! Why are you telling me these things?”
“Och!” he says, retreating to Gaelic. “Ah hae upset thee, and Ah am sorry, dear one. ’Tis only what thee hae asked me tae tell.”
The crash of the surf fills the void left by his turn to silence. The boiling cross-currents– the roosts– erupt in waves that come from every direction at once, colliding in bursts of foam and spray that cloud the air and send sea birds scattering high above the fury.
“Ah will nae say more if thee do nae wish,” he says.
She can see that she has hurt him with her frankness. Well, why should she care? And why does the truth– her truth– hurt him anyway? Why should it matter to her that she has hurt him? But it matters.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Tell me the rest. Please, tell me all of it. I won’t be upset. I want to know the story. Who was it that we didn’t see on the shore?”
“’Tis nae a story, mah bonnie quine. ’Tis what was long ago when thee were Grace, and Ah had nae need tae hide on mah islain, but…” his playful smile comes back “Ah will tell thee more in yur tongue, yur Sassenach.”
Standing against the wind now, his long coat flying and whipping around him, he reaches for her, helping her to stand. Holding her close away from the salty spray, he opens his coat and wraps it around her. It seems to stretch easily enough for two. Still holding her close, he says, “Walk with me, dear one.”
The selkies lumber and roll away as they walk through groups of them, fishing done, bellies full, time now to sun and rest on the warm sand. A few bark and try to follow the walkers, but not for long. They drop back among the others and burrow down to grunt and nap.
“On the shore was Cadhan Macomber,” Twithen says. “He saw us in the water together. What thoughts grew in his brain about us, I do not know. A jealous old man he was, and so full was he of self-doubt and loathing for others who come by friendship and love more easily than he that he drove away any chance he might have had for those cherished attributes to grow in himself. Won you unfairly, he did. Paid your father a fine set of oxen to have you warm his feet and sew for his three sons.
“When he saw us together, he came at us in such a rage that I knew he meant us serious harm. My boat was dawdling on the shore, pulled up close enough on the sand for us to reach it quickly. I gathered you in my arms, your wet skirts trailing on the water, and in a few steps we were at my boat. I set you in and pushed off, my oars gathering great volumes of water with each pull. We were well beyond reach by the time Macomber was at the water’s edge, but he waded in after us anyway, useless as he must have known it was. He stood with the water slopping around his great rotundity, fists shaking in the air, shouting threats of revenge on us both.”
For a moment, Twithen seems to look into the past as though at a movie screen. Watching him, she senses the vividness of his thoughts. His story has nothing to do with her, yet she wonders. Had she once been the woman called Grace? Is that possible? Almost immediately, she can’t believe she even allowed herself to think the question. His story is of another world, another time and place. It’s folklore, the folklore of the Orkney Islands. She’s written about it. She knows the story, and it probably stuck in her head. It has no relation to reality. And yet…
“Macomber’s revenge,” Twithen is saying “did not come quickly, but it came in the fullness of all the wrath he had stored, and it fell on many who did nothing to warrant it.”
He is silent for such a long time that it seems his story has ended, and she touches his arm and asks what Macomber did in his rage. He stops walking. By now they have reached the west side of the island, and the sun in its demise is leaving a bloody trail that spreads across the horizon in smears and swashes.
“I was fearful that Macomber might hurt you if you went back to him, and so I rowed to Sanday Island and stayed there with you all day until I could be sure that Macomber was gone. Then I left you there and started out for Hildaland– your Eynhallow– to warn the others, my friends, about Macomber, but the roosts were against me. I fought against the deadly currents until my arms were ’most pulled from their sockets, and finally by rowing in circles through all the distance between Sanday and Eynhallow was I able finally to pull up my boat on the Eynhallow shore.”
He is silent again, but she sees so much sorrow in his face that if she were to say a single word it would be an intrusion. She waits.
“I saw it from the water’s edge,” he says. “The green, the beautiful green of Hildaland was burned black. Charred salt and crosses were everywhere. And then I saw my friends. All of them lay together as though in communal rest, as I suppose they were, in a manner, all of them dead with crosses laid on their faces. And there he was! Macomber! Scattering more salt on the far side of the island to kill the evils, as he thought we were.
“Something caught his eye or his ear, and he looked up. He knew it was I standing there looking at the destruction he had wrought, the murders he had committed, and he came at a run brandishing his crosses high above his head. From the far side of the tumbledown stone walls, remains of the Celtic church what lost its worshipers from the typhoid, Macomber came leaping and clambering over the rubble like a mountain goat. But one of the bodies lay apart from the others, and Macomber was on a track straight toward it.
“I like to think that it was no accident that Macomber did not see the body. He ran headlong into it, and I wonder yet if my dear dead friend had come to life just long enough to catch Macomber by the heel and cast him head first into the foundation stones.”
She sees that his eyes are moist as he turns past her to watch the remnants of the sunset, the last orange sliver, slip away into its dark pocket.
“It should have been,” he says as he watches the western sky, “should have been a battle-won to be rid of Macomber, but now you were Macomber’s widow, and his sons would claim you all the more to care for them. What was I to do now to be able to see you, walk with you, hear your voice speak my name, feel your warmth against me?”
The darkness of the Orkneys is like no other. Where sky and water meet becomes black meeting black. There is no horizon line, no line that determines what is sky and what is water. It is the inside of a snow globe painted in shades of black, the contours of clouds and surf distinguishable only by the texture of the strokes.
“I brought you back to Macomber’s sons,” he says, taking her hand and walking again along the shoreline, “and left you in the midst of their clamor, all pulling at you and holding to your skirts and begging for dinner. It was as I had thought. And I saw you no more, not ever again, until now when you called my name.”
His story puts her in a turmoil. How do you end a dream? How do you stop sleepwalking? How do you even know what it is that you’re in when things that are happening seem so real, but you know you can’t believe them? How do you not be drawn into a– she hesitates to use the label– a fantasy. He interrupts her turmoil.
“My boat is not far from here, dear one,” he says. “My day is done, and I will leave. Will you walk with me, let me have you for these last steps? Will you watch until my boat slips over the edge, chide the smoothness of the channel that makes easy my goodbye, mourn the emptiness of the ocean, wish for my return?”
He reverts to Gaelic.
“Ah will be on the water, adrift on the tides from now until… Think o’ me and Ah will stay close by. Say mah nam, and Ah will come.”
There is a small rowboat at the water’s edge, its nose jammed into the sandy shore of Eynhallow– his Hildaland– the square stern bobbing in the spent residue of the roosts. Still wrapped in his greatcoat, she has no thought now of who or what, why or how. He lifts her into his arms, cradling her as he might cradle a child, burying his lips against her throat, gently kneeling in the sand to lie with her there.
“Will thee call mah nam again, mah bonnie quine?” he says. “Ah will be nae but shadow until thee say mah nam.”
On the cool sea-washed sand, he covers her with himself, warming her, tasting her breath, returning his own. She feels no weight as he holds her close and closer, enwrapping her in an embrace that binds them together full length as one and floats them through space and time, in darkness, then in light, so tightly together that she cannot tell where one ends and one begins until she opens her eyes and sees that he is leaving and then he is gone.
Daylight comes through the sheer curtains on her windows, blanching the corners of her room as though to prove his absence. A loneliness cramps her stomach. How can a dream be that real? She had felt every moment of it. She had lived it all. He was here. He must have been here. But the conviction ends with a question mark.
Turning away from the windows to drift in a half-sleep for a few minutes more, her legs move across something scratchy and cool. She reaches into the bedclothes and brings up as much as she can collect in one hand. It looks like… it seems to be… this is not logical… it seems to be sand, beach sand.
She hears his words again, his quiet request. Will she? Will she call his name again?