‘An old man used to live close to this place on a raised beach, a chin on the west face of the island.’
Extract from New Writing Scotland 35: He Said, She Said, I Said
Edited by Diana Hendry & Susie Maguire
Published by ASLS
By Lis Lee
Baseball glove or brown owl? I flinched though I was inside my car. It was an owl, pitching sideways over caramel winter bracken. I
braked, pulled into a passing place, turned off the engine, wound down my window, inhaled ozone. Once it made me dizzy. Visiting years later, I remembered.
An old man used to live close to this place on a raised beach, a chin on the west face of the island. Blackhouse ruins bristle here, stubble on a turf cheek. The man had a pet owl. That was the craic after the burial. We hadn’t known about it until he died. Duncan Mhor would mount guard at his road end, a scarecrow wearing a hat, earflaps akimbo like a cormorant’s drying wings. His greatcoat was belted with twine and his army boots had no laces. He would adze down the hooked, fractured path from his cottage, whatever the weather and stand, staring one way then the other.
His road end was where I saw him when I drove past to my own slice of bog. Tar whelks pinned his track to the single-track road alongside a gravel bar where road menders took their break and leaned for tea.
His marshmallow house gripped hill rock with split log toenails, softened in Atlantic rain baths and long past the dryness for burning. The house wept roof slates and shed shards of whitewash. It seemed to be melting. Sash windows boxed postcard panoramas of a loch whose mouth spat rock incisors and bit the island almost in half.
Duncan fought in the Second World War and returned to become a recluse. It was public isolation. The island hinted signs of occupation in children who keeked out of doorways and men who rode tractors on never-level fields. Caravans were home to the homeless; broken down cars, windows punched out, were kennels to the kennel-less. Washing lines of nappies gave away secret women when rain held off. Herons with legs like scissors still share spring tide shores with hunched gatherers, Quasimodos turning over rocks and searching with cold, wet fingers for apocryphal heaps of whelks that might be swept up with a broom. Aye.
Duncan never married. He stopped working the croft after the war. His parents had died. Ribs of ragwort bearing a dusting of gold medals were easy in his fields. Lichen-mapped boulders huddled in low heaps, wall duty done.
A cockerel with a crow-green tail and a few toffee hens used to feed on the hill with black-faced sheep and dun rabbits on summer days. The hens roosted among wee purple ballet-dancers in a fuchsia hedge that clung with stout brown arms to a grey wall. In the old garden, rare pink montbretia poked from a sphagnum loofah. The birds perished, their foolish roost a larder for polecats the colour of badgers.
I called at Duncan’s from time to time and left him eggs from my own hens. I repaired the green wooden mailbox at the road end so that his bread and cheese, left by the travelling grocer, stayed dry and were safe from sheep and ravenous sheepdogs. They eat shit, a New Age traveller told me. I knew. If the old man hadn’t been seen by anyone for a few days I climbed the hill. Duncan never invited me in. I satisfied myself that he was upright, dressed and pink.
On a January day, when he hadn’t been seen at his post for a week, I tacked in stiff oilskins through horizontal sleet and chapped at his door. There was no answer so I pushed my way in. Duncan was slumped in a sagging armchair, wearing his greatcoat and hat. His boots lay on their sides on a cold range, rows of nail heads in the soles like a currant grin on a gingerbread man.
The room was freezing and smelled of mould. A table was frosty with used crockery. A bed in one corner was undressed, the mattress gaudy with sepia stains. A high tide of blankets congealed on the linoleum floor.
Duncan was gasping, his eyes closed. The skin on his cheek was cold as sand. I dragged a blanket over and as I was wrapping him I heard a shifting, a soft-shoe shuffle in the hall. It was an owl, set on the banister, an ill-placed piece of taxidermy with real eyes. Guano was cemented to the floor below. Chipolatas of fur, embedded with small teeth and bones, lay about.
I opened the door to the white outside and clapped my hands. The owl looped down with a dry snap, brushing my face, and for a
moment was framed like a crucifix in the doorway.
The sun shone the day we sank Duncan. The granite church was built on bedrock lapped by bog. Gravestones heeled over. Waterlogged topsoil gagged on coffins. Grass paths would rise and fall, tamped down by mourners’ feet. John Smith’s grave on Iona was just the same.
The wake was held in a neighbour’s kitchen. Winter woollens were steaming over an oil-fired range. We talked about old Duncan, Duncan Mhor, the Gaelic speaker who went to war and came back broken. Befriended an owl. Aye.
Lis Lee trained as a journalist. Her poetry, drama and prose have appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New Writing Scotland. She lives and works in Kelso, in the Scottish Borders. Her most recent poetry collection was Vanilla Summer, published by Dionysia Press, Edinburgh.
New Writing Scotland 35: She Said, He Said, I Said is out now published by ASLS priced £9.95.