Short story XVIII

Quietly, the mist wafted around the pinnacles. A deep drop lay beyond, hidden in the fog. Reducing visibility to near-zero, it coalesced into droplets on the winterbrown grass. It lay flat, flattened by a now-melted blanket of snow. It had been early for snow, winter was not yet on the calendar. But fallen it had nonetheless, sending autumn fleeing for the south. Nothing else moved. The last month of the year loomed.

The sun rose, without warmth. Sailing west, low in the southern sky, casting long shadows from the mountains. Like a dark, unvarying ribbon, the road snaked across the landscape. The bracken, green in summer, had yielded to autumn in browns and yellows. The water cascaded down the waterfall, where it had been but a trickle in that dry summer. Some of the water splashed from the rocks onto the roadway, as it snaked and curved down the steep incline. The parapets marking the edges, and lending a false sense of safety and security. As the daylight failed, the moon rose. Slowly, whatever warmth had been around quickly dissipated into the cold, early winter air. In the water on the roadway, the molecules slowed and allowed themselves to be arranged into the hexagonal crystals of ice. Soon, a black sheet of solid ice lay across the tarmac. A trap, unseen, unnoticeable. Waiting to be sprung.

"Nah, don't go out at this hour". The stars twinkled over the top of the nearby cliff. The roadway glistened with false promise, but hidden threat. "It's well past midnight, just stay over". The door slammed shut, shutting out the light from within. No one had come out, and the vehicle remained empty outside the house. From within came noises of the fire being poked up in the grate, another bottle being opened and a CD playing on the stereo. The trap remained unsprung.

A little later than the previous day, the sun pushed the darkness away west. Its rays caressed the hillside, turning the six pointed stars of ice back into glistening drops of water. Dangling from the brown tips of deadened grass, to quietly drop onto the ground below. Soundlessly to be absorbed into the spaghnum moss below. The wind, which had blown up the hillside in the night, imperceptibly lessened and finally dropped altogether. Quietly, the moisture coalesced in mid air, taking the brightness out of the day. Fog. The door of the house opened, and the guest shivered as he made his way to his vehicle. With some trouble, he started the engine and drove down the road. Oblivious, he passed the trap on the hillside. The stream gurgled over the rocks, splattering the road surface. The wheels briefly carried the water in the tyre tracks, then carried on downhill. The sea thundered away west - but the fog shrouded all.

Music throbbed in the air, pulsing out of the windows. Dancing figures, obviously enjoying the occasion of the party, celebrating with wild abandon. Wine, beer and spirits flowed freely, but nobody cared. Freedom was something worth celebrating, and that early December day signified just that. Clouds had long since dissipated and the stars shone brightly. As the midnight hour passed, Orion rose to the southeast, his bright belt ascending the heavens. Stepping outside the hall, the woman lit up her cigarette and filled her lungs with smoke. Her boyfriend shook his head in disapproval, but knew better than to spoil the occasion with a spell of nagging. The air felt bitterly cold, and the stars appeared to be dimming ever so slowly. "I can give you a lift down the road", he suggested. "When you want to go home". She smiled, basking in the warmth of the occasion. The chill of the winter night was lost on the two lovers, caught in each other's embrace. A few hours later, the car stopped at the little house, half a mile short of the winding curves where the trap had once again been set. A sheen of ice, hidden from the light of the rising decrescent moon, covered the roadway. None would pass there that night.

Dawn once more broke, chasing darkness away with arboreal ponderousness. The sun rose over the eastern mountains, but now as if through frosted glass. Wind rose from the same direction and soon, grey replaced red in the morning sky, and soon, large drops of rain began to fall. A few at first, but rapidly increasing in intensity. Through the curtain of falling rain, the familiar shape of the island ferry hove into view. On this early winter's day, not many joined it for its short journey to the mainland. Two figures stood on the quayside, holding close for a minute or two. Their separation would be but for a few days. Or so they thought.

The wetness of the day lessened as dusk loomed, and just as the sun dipped below the horizon, it sent one ray from the west, from under the receding canopy of grey. Darkness fell and so did the mercury. Rolling down the island main road, the car passed the now empty cottage. Its occupant would return at the weekend, but her lover had to return to his own home, for now. The road dipped down into the familiar series of twists and turns. The trap was once more set, glistening beguilingly in the headlights. Suggesting water. Misleading. It was ice.

No car emerged at the bottom of the hill.

The phone rang out at the cottage near the beach. No reply. One of the neighbours, at work in a nearby croft, heard the ringing for about the fifth time in an hour and decided to nip across. The young man who lived there was evidently not at home, also born out by the absence of his small red car. The cold fog swirled around the fields, completely shrouding the scene. The neighbour went inside, but found no evidence that its occupant had returned from his visit the evening before. The fire was out, the stove unlit and the house freezing cold.

The fog hung around all day, a hindrance to search efforts. But nobody spotted the one sign - a missing stretch of fencing where the small stream from the cliff above cascaded under the roadway and down to the sea. The fencing was rickety at any rate, and other bits of it were missing as well. Also, those driving up the road would not notice it, and those coming down had to concentrate on the curve their vehicle had to negotiate. By four o'clock, darkness was falling. The last rays of the sun caught on a smooth surface, lying in the stream, well below the roadway. Out of sight of the searchers.

Amidst bright December sunshine, the little ferry docked at the island pier. In floods of tears, the young woman walked off the ferry ramp and was quickly escorted into a waiting vehicle. "I last heard from him when I reached the mainland", she sobbed. "I know he would stay on at the cafe until the evening. He had promised to call me as soon as he got home, but he never did". Ten minutes later, she was dropped off at her house, and a friend went inside with her. A few moments later, the two walked up the road towards her boyfriends' home, a mile and a half away. "It's been right foggy here yesterday", the friend commented. "You can see all the droplets on the old bracken." The young woman was not interested in the weather, though. After a few minutes, the road dipped down, and entered the winding descent towards the sea, a mile distant. The surf thundered away, a slow, throbbing noise. The familiar vista opened up - but it was lost on the two women who were making their way downhill. "What's happened to the fencing? What are those tracks---"

A day and a half. That's the length of time the car had lain in the little ravine below the road. When a team of rescuers had managed to make their way to the location, no signs of life remained. Gingerly, the body of the driver was extricated from the wreckage. Black ice was blamed for the accident, as it had been frosty that night.

A year went by.

Like an unseeing eye, the loch stared up from its bed among the rocky outcrops surrounding it. A long line of people could be seen, labouring up the hillside, carrying parts of a wooden bench. When it was assembled near the shore of the loch, a small plaque was affixed which read "Honesty". The group shook hands, some hugged and all shared a dram from bottles that some had taken along.


Postscript: this story is loosely based on the account of a real road traffic accident which claimed the life of Eigg islander Brigg Lancaster in 2003.

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