Short story X

Slowly, the man picked his way through the tortured landscape. It was not easy for him to make progress, with water encroaching at every turn, ground often unreliably soft and wind squalls whistling down from the surrounding hills. The sun, hanging low in the pale winter sky, was slowly being obscured by a grey veil. Suddenly, a metallic roar exploded through the valley ahead, and the dark grey shape of a fighter jet screamed past. The man sank to his knees, his hands tightly pressed against his ears. Not until the echoes of the apparition had subsided, and only the sound of the wind remained, did he stand up again. He drew a shuddering breath as he surveyed his surroundings. The sun had practically disappeared behind the clouds, and was on the point of setting. The man decided to press on to the bothy he knew round the next corner. But when he did turn around the inlet protruding across his path, the scene was not what he was expecting.
Nothing was as he was expecting it to be. Only the two gable-ends of the house remained, and the rowan tree. There was to be no shelter for the night, and the weather was closing in. The winds ruffled the pale yellow grasses and painted ever changing patterns of wavelets on the water. "It can't be", he mumbled, slowly collapsing on the large rock in front of where the door used to be. One or two layers of bricks remained of the walls, and the wreckage of the roof rendered the inside of the building unusable for shelter. The light slowly failed, and the man, in desperation, put up his tent for the night. A little more relaxed, he watched from his slightly elevated position as the metal grey reflection on the loch faded into the night.

Darkness slowly descended from the east, with the mountains in the middle distance last to lose their luminosity. The moon rose, but was barely visible through the haze that had already been building before sunset. Sighing through the grass, the wind ruffled down the hillside and whistled through the remains of the house. The moon disappeared from sight, and not long after, spits and spots of rain drifted in on the wind. The man quickly put up his tent in the lee of one of the gable ends, beside the stunted rowan tree. It had been there since the house was built, so many years ago. After spooning up some cold baked beans, the man retired for the night. The rain was now hammering down on the tent sheet, and the wind had risen to a crescendo of gusty howls. It was enough - to send the man to sleep. Enough for him not to notice that strange light.

Within an infinitessimal space of time, the light grew blindingly bright, flashed upwards and with a booming crash lit up the surrounding area - a light that remained.

Something had changed.

The two gable ends of the ruin had been rejoined by a roof and walls with windows. The light came from the east, where the sun just peeped over the rim of the hills. Words echoed in the man's mind. "Until the breaking of the day", but their significance was lost on him as he only managed to take their meaning literally. Still in shock at the vast change that had taken place in an instant, he sat on a large boulder, watching a woman leave the cottage with a large basin. She went down to the shore of the loch nearby, whilst some children almost fell out of the door of the cottage to start their play. A cat jump into a window and started to preen itself. The family dog, eager to start its day, catapulted itself outside and ran around the children. The woman, whilst washing clothes at the lochside, called to the children to behave themselves. The man, watching from a distance, just knew they wouldn't, and smiled. The picture of family bliss was completed, when a small boat approached from the loch, a man jumped out, kissed the woman, and went ashore. "And the shadows flee away", crossed the mind of the observer, and a shadow did seem to pass over the happy scene.

Observing the scene from a little distance, the man felt that there was some familiarity to him. Maybe not from his own memories or direct past. He found himself sitting under the rowan tree, which spread its branches over his head. It wasn't the shadow from the tree that was spreading out. It came from round the hill that backed onto the cottage, as a rider on horseback appeared. As he alighted, the gloom appeared to deepen. "Mr Macleod," the rider said, addressing the head of the household. "A message from the Castle. Can you read?" There was a sneer in the last question. "Obviously not," the messenger added before the other man could even reply. "You're behind with the rent. You haven't paid for a year. You know what that means." The other man still did not respond, but his face turned ashen as the implication sank in. What also sank in, like a knife, was the scorn as the errand rider added, in Macleod's own language, the phrase: "Mach a seo!" It was an order to get out. "In a week from now. Understood?!" The messenger imperiously strode back to his steed, obviously relishing the power he had over others. To the observer, the desperation of the situation was reflected in the scene, which had become virtually colourless. The sun still shone, reflecting dully off the fishknife that the head of the household wielded in the direction of the messenger. Unaware of the mortal danger he was in, the man put his foot in a stirrup - the reflection of the sun bounced towards the observer, and before the movement of the blade was complete, a blinding flash obliterated the scene, leaving him in complete darkness. The deafening thunder echoed among the hills roundabout as the wind howled among the two gable ends and through the branches of the rowan tree. The man sat bolt upright in his sleeping bag, gasping for breath after the nightmare. A final rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, leaving the steady patter of the downpour. No other sound remained.

The drumming of the rain slowly relenting into a soothing patter. The man finally managed to push the scene from his dream to the back of his mind. Something was still nagging him, though. Was it just a dream, or real history? It could never have been real, maybe something within him reacting to the injustices that had been visited on the people of the valley, many, many years ago. Slowly, he reclined and sank back into sleep. The sound of the rain faded from his mind, and it was replaced by that of a voice. A woman's voice.

The smell of fresh grass, of spring flowers and of smoke, permeated into the man's nostrils. And when he glanced up, daylight appeared to light up the canvas of his tent. Groggy with sleep, he crept outside, to be greeted by broad morning sunshine shining straight into his eyes. Something made him glance to his right. He was not surprised to see the cottage standing there; but that wasn't the only thing that was wrong. The door was ajar, hanging partly off its hinges. The wail of the woman's voice, which had echoed through his dream, persisted. Wisps of smoke rose above the roof, and only the beams remained. "I told you to get out", a harsh voice rang out. Her reply was an unintelligible screech, as she lunged for the man who had just destroyed her home. Two others restrained her. Her other half lay on the ground, prostrate and unconscious. The dog lay lifeless on the ground, but the cat was nowhere to be found. "Now, off you go. Right?!" The menace was unmistakable. The two henchmen bundled the husband on the cart, to lie between the two children who looked on in profound shock. One of the men jumped on the front of the cart and crashed his whip over the horses. The others remained behind - but their actions were shrouded by the billowing smoke of the burning house. The greyness covered the observer's entire field of vision, and turned to black.

Had it been a dream? The man was looking out of his tent, but there were only stars in the sky. The rain had ceased, and a decrescent moon was rising over the hills in front of him, reflecting off the loch.

Disturbed by the dreams he had suffered, the man decided to sit out in the cold night air. The rain had now moved away, and the moon hung low in the east, inexorably rising. It was not bright enough to outshine the constellations, which were also in their never-ending cycle. The wavelets from the loch broke on the shore, and in spite of the distance (a hundred or so yards), the sound was quite audible. Because there was no other sound. The wind had died right down. A white line crept up the sky from the southeast, a contrail of a transatlantic flight, just skimming the edge of the moon. The stillness was palpable, and quite soporiphic. Having banished the horrors of his nightmares, the man crept back into his tent. He took a swig of the now lukewarm tea from his thermos, nibbled on a biscuit, then lay down in his sleeping bag. He glanced outside one more time, this time out the other side of his tent. The mountain to the west loomed up, blocking out the stars in that direction. The stars of the big dipper swung low over the hill, pointing towards the Pole Star. And it was from that direction that the shooting star appeared to come. It shot down to the northwestern horizon - and exploded in a silent ball of light.

Dawn broke over the loch, with a mild breeze ruffling the surface. The wind sighed in the branches of the rowan street beside the two gable ends, or was it the rowan itself sighing? Under its spreading branches stood the tent of the man, who had been encamped there overnight. It was mid-morning before he awoke, having had to catch up on missed sleep. As he emerged into the blazing sunlight, two walkers emerged from the valley beside the hill to the west. As the man finished his morning ablutions, they walked past the ruins. "Morning!", came their greeting. "And a lovely morning it is and all", the man replied with a friendly wave. "Mind if we join you?" "Not at all", and his arm swung round to motion to the big boulder beside the cottage. He put his kettle on the primus cooker and proceeded to brew some coffee. His visitors took out their own mugs, and a conversation sprung up about the surrounding area. "We've come over from the States, one of my ancestors was removed from this patch". The man's mouth fell open.

The wind rustled through the leaves and branches of the rowan tree, mingling with the voices of the three people who were exchanging stories of their family connections. The midday sun winked in the little bay of the loch in front of the ruin beside the tree, when another walker appeared, this time from the east, along the shoreline. "Morning all", he too called out to the group by the large boulder. The man offered him coffee, on the condition that he too would use his own mug. As the three explained their mutual interest in the location to the new arrival, he appeared to grow increasingly ill at ease. A shadow drifted past, a tufty cloud borne of the increasing warmth of the day. "You see," he finally said. "I too have come here because of a family connection. Not the one you three all share. Not a bloodline. But blood does come into it".

An uneasy silence hung around the group of four, standing outside the ruined cottage. Only the wind, rustling the leaves of the rowan tree, made a sound. Finally, the man spoke up. "It's no use harking back to the past," he began. The last arrival looked up. "Yes, it was your ancestor that threw ours off this patch." The others turned round. "It was our ancestor that scratched yours with a knife." A cloud drifted across the scene, but the sun soon returned. "However, we're now more than a century on, and there is no point harbouring such old grudges. It won't turn the clock back, and by the way, who wants to live here now?" The man gestured around. "I mean, you're five miles from any road, ten miles from the nearest village, and they had a way of life that has died with them." The others nodded. "Yes, evil things happened here, that perhaps should not have taken place." The man extended his hand to the last arrival, whose ancestor had been responsible for the eviction, back in the 19th century. "We can't forget the past, for it has made our future. It has made US. Without the eviction, none of us, as we stand here, would be alive today. I suggest we be friends".

The sun sank to the western horizon, behind the mountain. Down at the loch, the two gables and the rowan tree remained in splendid isolation, the rowan continuing to tell its story to the wind, and the loch reflecting the fading light. Twenty miles away in a town pub, four people raised a glass to a new future and friendship.

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