By Helen McClory
The road had narrowed, cutting single-track out across the moorland. Mrs Sabine walked a bit ahead. She was leaning on her stick, printing crisp circles in the mud. When they came back this way, Kilea thought, these would be the markers to guide them home. On either side was only the wildness. Vast, still, in the quiet morning. She took it in, or tried to; the clouds shredding and reforming high above the bare rocks, and the shallow flushes, greener dips in the land, surrounded by rust-coloured flats of bog myrtle and spiked grass, cotton tufts and stunted willows. On the right, the landscape opened out into stretches of small silver lochans, bright wide puddles and ditches of water. An inland sea, with now and then a reedy, treacherous island no human foot could land on.
A mile, two. Sun and rain in turn. Along the lochans, Kilea could follow the whole lives of nymph-insects – crawling up their stems, they changed, into mayflies, and water boatmen, and dragonflies. Dancing together for a while, then dying, in their pairs, on the still surface. A car shushed towards them, from the far side of the moors. They had to step onto the damp grass at the roadside as it passed. The girl could not understand how a person could live out there, so totally alone. No lights from the last houses could make it over the rising stones and overhangs. A dark full of unnumbered sounds. The hum of wings, falling droplets. She thought of a new word learned – desolation, that fit. It meant a sundown place, where branches bending in the wind make more noise than your own breath. To Mrs Sabine she said it would make her afraid, to come out here at night. In wartime, all the island would have had to be unlit, the old woman told her. Try to imagine it. Kilea thought of the lost and wandering people trying to find their way home, from their shuttered shops, from their blind harbour boats. It would have been difficult, the old woman said, but not so difficult as it might have been. The people, most of them, would help each other, and it was easy enough to know where you were over the familiar ground, even if your hand couldn’t see your face. And there was nothing to be afraid of out here, only stubbing your toes.
A shaggy black cow stood ahead of them, braced in water. It licked its nose, tilting its head in greeting. Animals, Kilea thought, they were not afraid of the dark, they could smell changes in the weather and never got lost. Knew their exact place in the world, their part in the ecosystem. Chemicals churning in the soil, to make the grass grow for the cow to graze on, water turned safe for it to drink. The circle never goes wrong. But how to be part of that? For her, there was only the sense of something being out of sight, always ready, coiled. And one day she’d make a wrong step, it was waiting for that. One day. The thing on the rock had said. No one else knew it though. How close it was lapping against their legs.
A peewit called, sharp, lonely, eep, eeepit. Crying for its name. The old woman was walking slower now, pushing on the stick for longer. She held under her arm a wicker bag clinking with jams and patterns for the people they were visiting. Kilea would be allowed to see the contents when they got to the house. Mrs Sabine’s friend lived there, with her husband and their little son. The son was at the primary, Kilea might have seen him. He had a big cousin living in the south, about her age. The husband kept a restaurant, but business was difficult, long hours. He made very spicy food, and the locals did not care for it. Popular style in the city though, so it would catch on, eventually.
Mrs Sabine arrowed with her stick – right over there, a few minutes and they would be at the door. But a second to rest, she said, waving at the midges fretting at her nose. Kilea, not tired at all, walked on three more steps, four. The house and barn stood on a low hill above the edge of the lochan, apart but obviously belonging together, two good friends in argument.
The waters were a mirror. On the surface just ahead of her image, a second house, with a tail of smoke from the chimney. Something was odd though. Then she knew - in the stillness, the tumbledown barn wasn’t there. Not a trick of angles, and the light was strong. Three water boatmen raced each other to the reeds, ruffling the water. Tearing the house, the hill, her own face. What was left: only the smoke. A thicker drift … and the barn had reappeared on the water, burning.
Mrs Sabine called. Time to carry on. Kilea looked again and saw without surprise the surface had changed again; house and barn reflected together, just as they were on the slope. What the changing was, she couldn’t say, and the old woman had a second wind, now half way up the meandering path to the house. Kilea followed slowly, tramping between the white marker stones. The glint of the water slid away below the tussocky grass.
At the doorsteps, Kilea stood with one foot higher than the other, swinging her arms. Mrs Sabine had already knocked, someone was coming. They waited. Kilea tried to work out if she liked this place, if it was a bog-people home, or a house where real people might live. The garden was nice - a children’s slide and other outdoor toys set out on the flatter part of the lawn. Dandelions poked their soft clocks through gaps in the metal banister. She bent down and pulled one up, blew on it as hard as she could. Four puffs, meaning it was four o’clock. Not quite yet, Mrs Sabine said. In the Alps, did she know there were villages that used dandelions another way, making a sort of honey, a syrup really, stewing the heads with sugar. How would it taste? Kilea couldn’t decide – it couldn’t be bitter. And it would have to keep the same bright yellow colour; suspended in it, petals and slow bubbles.
She threw away the plant, put her hand on the house wall. It was warm and moved, adjusting to her touch. She could feel traces of vibrations; moments in the stone, deep like honey sealed in the wax of honeycomb. People moving about. Schie. Those who had lived happily, and stayed, souls tied to a good land. The barn was something else, rising behind her in a shapelessness of nettles and mouldy wood. She wouldn’t look, shutting out of her mind whatever might be there. Not wanting to think of fearful things, the lure of water and damaged places.
A big, black-haired woman flung open the door and pulled them inside.
Helen McClory is a writer and reader raised on the isle of Skye and lowlands of Scotland. Her first novel, Kilea (from which this is an extract) centres around the life of a mysterious, possibly second-sighted young girl and is set on a northwestern Scottish island similar to Skye. Both Helen's fiction and non-fiction explore the immigrant experience, psychogeography and the interior lives of strange women and girls. She is a staff writer at The Female Gaze, a reviewer at PANK and blogs at schietree.wordpress.com.