Nightmares, tsunamis of terror, had engulfed him on the New York to Aberdeen flight. But he could only dredge two into his conscious mind.
Alone in this deserted house that’s familiar but stands just outside memory. Far off voices, too faint. Not a cobweb or speck of dust. Outside, mist swirls. No landscape. Suddenly, an old dame shrouded in black. Such an Italian widow gaping at the mildewed fleur-de-lis wallpaper. Ancient whiffs. Memories? Whose? Clambering into an attic. A green parrot glares from a cage. Frantic flap. Beak gaping silence. Floorboards creaking. A stalker. Turning. Blackness.
Fir gloom. Owl drops bloodied. Twigs snap. A stalker. An invisible force shoves a gun into left hand. Trying to put gun into right hand, but arm frozen. Entering a cave; a glow of steely, purple rock with red veins. Stones crash across cave mouth. Trapped. A barefoot, old guy with straggling, white hair and curving, yellow fingernails huddles in a corner. He has hammertoes and curving, yellow toenails. He points a bony finger. The stones dissolve. Fir gloom. Twigs snap. From behind an oak, a black ballerina tiptoes. Black ballet shoes scuff. No magic. Vulgar. She holds out a green apple. It turns red. Blackness.
A wasp flew in the open window of the land rover, and settled on his left hand, breaking his gloomy reruns. Black and yellow insects filled him with loathing because they hinted at poison. In early September, a dying wasp might be swift to sting. He flicked it out the window.
The Cabrach’s thick mist was dispersing. Glancing down, he saw a sudden shaft of sun was hitting the ring on his left hand. Black onyx was, now, a snake’s ready-to-strike eye; a black burnish of bile. And its gold band was pulsating. Onyx and gold was a black and yellow blueprint. He was getting gloomy, a puppet to the nightmares.
Pulling over, he fumbled in the glove compartment for his bourbon flask. He swigged, and, as the liquid warmed his throat, he chilled out. It was an optical trick of the Scottish light. But why would that freak him? Lake mirages in the Texan desert were common. And this was Saul’s ring.
“Hey, buddy, wear my ring for protection, when you’re over in ole kilt country. Hell, what are the locals gonna think of a Yank claiming The Cabrach as his roots?” Saul had said, in the airport departure lounge.
Saul had stripped off his ring, and shoved it on his finger.
“Gordons lived in the North-East of Scotland, for centuries. The Cabrach is my roots,” he had said.
Saul had, playfully, punched his arm.
“Only the soul’s true roots, and they’re in God, buddy. A surname’s zilch. You keep on about your inherited red hair as if it was the Holy Grail.”
He glanced, again, at the ring. Still the same vile burnish. But no evil power could hold sway over it for long because the bond was mega between him and Saul. He thumped his left hand against the dashboard. What was he trying to dispel? A snake’s eye? Pulsating gold? Bullshit. Yet, something hellish was in the ring.
He started up the land rover, and drove a few meters. Out of a lingering mist patch, a golden butterfly fluttered past the windscreen, glowing with the same surreal intensity as the gold encircling the onyx. He glanced at the ring. Now, it was just black onyx and gold. Was the bourbon he had been tippling on this drive from Aberdeen to The Cabrach blowing his mind?
“You boozing too much, buddy,” Saul had said, recently.
A few minutes ago, ghostly and swirling, the mist had blanketed all. But, now, in this startling sun, he saw the hills and yawning passes of his paternal ancestors. Their eyes would have seen exactly this because Time had been protective of this wild land, had kept at bay ‘the progress’ of technology.
He already knew the main rocks of the hills were blue-grey limestone and greywacke, and a vein of serpentine shot them. He was a lover of rocks.
“Hey, buddy, do rocks whisper yarns of the past to you?” Saul had said on a dig in their final year of archaeology.
“What do they whisper to you?” he had said.
Saul’s lips had stretched into a smile. He had always admired Saul’s lips, fat and superbly carved like those on Egyptian statues or the big stone heads on Easter Island.
“A mega wage, pure gravy, Alex.”
But Saul was too staunch a Jew. He would never be after the bucks.
A flat stretch of road loomed. He switched gears. Instantly, he was in neutral. The land rover shuddered. He got into the right gear, and glanced behind. His rifle was still propped between the groceries and booze he had picked up in Aberdeen, and was, mercifully, unloaded. When a hare had shot out of the mist, a bit further back, he had felt an impulse to load it. He looked at the, now, visible sky. A Higher Power aloft? But God with his panoptic eye, or Heaven with a host of angels shaking dazzling wings, for sure did not exist. Yet, a blueprint must have been set by an amazing intelligence. He just could not put the word ‘God’ to it.
On the radio, a ‘Golden Oldies’ program was belting out a Rolling Stones hit. Music would keep him awake. The nightmares, and the constant thoughts of them, had zapped him. Were the nightmares warnings? And what had been going on with the ring and butterfly? Had he been over-boozing?
He shoved all away, savoring the months ahead. The snapshots of Meadow Cottage the owners had posted on ‘The Web’ had been interior shots with two absurd studies of weighty curtains. He had not wanted to stay in a house owned by idiots, and had leaned towards renting a cottage closer to Drywells. But Saul had insisted he took Meadow Cottage.
“It has a Broadband connection. Constant e-mail touch, Alex. We’ve been soul mates since puberty. I can’t exist without talking with you, buddy.”
He could just see Saul in a natty suit stitched up in his folks’ tailor shop lecturing to a bunch of scruffy students at the Archaeological Summer Field School in Alexandria, Virginia, and a yen to be back in his pad in Alexandria hit him. When he had turned twenty-one, his father, Murdy, had given him the dough to buy it, much to the wrath of his mother. Had Murdy cared, cut him free from Birdie? After he had tasted freedom, he had wanted Saul to taste it.
“Why still shacking up with your folks, Saul? You’ve reached the big three-0,” he had said, nine years ago.
“Get my grub twice a day from my real Jewish mama. Not got the bucks like you to swank to restaurants. You don’t need your mama to cook for you.”
“Since when did Birdie cook? Even on the ranch, when time hung heavy for her, she hired some dame to do that,” he had said.
“Well, buddy, ‘no’ to slaying my time with gal stuff like cooking and cleaning. Wanna give my all to my broke students. Get scruples Alex,” Saul had snapped.
He swerved to avoid a pothole, guilt washing over him. He was indulging in a long-time obsession to see the land of his ancestors by thumbing his nose at his job.
“You’ve let the students down, Gordon,” Rankin, the Coordinator of The Summer School, had snarled.
“I’m no magnetic Saul Cohen. None of my students will miss me,” he had said.
He almost puked thinking about his students; dorks lost in Life’s web, frittering their energy on sex, Facebook, Twitter, and pill-popping parties. But was he a judgmental jerk? Forty, a few days ago, and still unwed. Again, that nagging thought -- was he gay?
He changed gears, as he came to a hill. Why was he thinking so much about America? He had come here to find his roots. Was it because Hamish, his father’s older brother, on his only visit to the Texan ranch for many years had raved about The Cabrach?
“It’s a thrawn land, Alex. Seasons still matter. I was a toddler, when the family left, but I remember it. Your dad was born in Texas, and he’s never visited the ancestral homeland,” Hamish had said.
Had that electrifying archaeologist uncle not only birthed a yen to find his paternal roots, but also swung his career choice? Soon after his visit, Hamish had gone to China on a dig, and had bought it there of dysentery. But Hamish had given him an inkling of identity other than Texas. Without that he might have become an out-and-out Yank, as Murdy wanted.
Suddenly, a guy’s face was on the windscreen. He violently braked. The land rover ground to a quivering halt. Had he hit someone with his mind wanderings? Was his three month sabbatical going to end before it began? He could be facing manslaughter through drink driving.
He shut his eyes to regain self-control, but, when he looked through the windscreen, the face was still on the windscreen. It was glowing with a strong, whitish light, and, atop it, red hair like lava. His own reflection? Just another trick of light like the ring and the butterfly? But the face moved to the left, while his face was motionless. The face turned, slightly. A bluish cord was attached to the back of the phantom’s head. An inner dread swamped him.
He shut his eyes, again, and fought to regain self-control. It had to be a trick of the light throwing his reflection where it could not be. He opened his eyes. The phantom’s eyes, green as emeralds, green as summer grass, were those of that long ago ghost boy, who had circled his bed on the Texan ranch.
Terror flooded through him. A lightning bolt had struck.