Broadside #28 (Fall 2012 / 12.22)
An extract from Rust and Stardust, a novel
Weeks slid past as I helped Mum in the garden, washed the dishes, and ran my fingers along the spines of books without pulling them off the shelf. Dust motes had a new and previously unappreciated beauty; hours could be spent finding logic in their movements. My legs were numb from sitting in the same place and my fingertip was numb from rubbing at the scar across my cheek. I felt distant from my body, like I was floating above it.
I spent entire afternoons perched on the bathroom windowsill, watching the slow chug of tractors in the fields behind the house. Clouds of birds shadowed the machines like ducklings following their mother, gorging themselves on the grubs churned up by the blades. I got so used to the mechanical grumble and avian screeches that when the fields were all ploughed I felt a sense of loss, of awkward silence. My ears hummed.
Sometimes, passing a window, I’d see a glimpse of the man from the house of dogs, the colours of him all blurry and bright like an overexposed photo. I’d rush to the glass and stare out, but was always a second too late. Then something outside the window would snag my eye – the lazy swoop of a bird, a shambling hedgehog, a china-blue sky patched with woolly clouds – and I’d feel like that was why I was supposed to go to the window in the first place. Like the man had wanted to show me something beautiful, and that was the only way he could get my attention.
One morning, out in the garden pegging sheets to the washing line, I could swear I saw him: a cloudy silhouette, slipping between the clammy sheets like a pantomime villain. I held my breath and tried to make myself invisible. The sheets were only long enough to hide me to the knee, and I wished I could float so that my feet wouldn’t be visible. I crept to the edge of the material and looked around it, faster than a blink. Nothing but grass and sun and the damp gleam of cotton. A bee’s buzz hummed at my ears.
I could have tiptoed to the edge of the next sheet and jumped out from behind it.
I could have unclipped the pegs so that the sheets concertinaed to the ground.
But I had already seen what the man wanted me to see: inching along the top of the clothesline was a tiny green caterpillar. It moved in a steady throb across the line, each joint lifting in turn like a Mexican wave. It couldn’t have crawled all the way up there, not in the few minutes since I’d hung the sheet. The only way would be if a bird had snatched it for an afternoon snack, then lost its grip at just the right moment to deposit the caterpillar on its damp tightrope. It was an act of perfect fortune.
I finished hanging up the sheets, careful not to jog the caterpillar from its perch, then scooped it onto my finger. The tickle of its movement repulsed me for a second, but I examined the green-yellow diamonds on its back until the feeling passed. The pond was just beginning to scum over with green; by mid-summer it would be carpeted and reeking, the water underneath a brownish soup. I watched as beetles made peepholes in the algae then dropped back into the depths, then tipped the caterpillar onto the stones around the pond, making sure to point its face toward the water. The caterpillar did an about-turn and started pulsing off across the grass. It was in plain sight of a skyful of birds, and I could see from the beetles that the pond was a haven for beasties. I picked up the caterpillar and put it right on the edge of the stone, so that a single wriggle would take it into the water. It stretched its body up and over the lip of the stone, then headed for the grass again. I sighed at its stubbornness, its determination to die, then picked it up and threw it into the middle of the pond. The ripples throbbed smaller and were swallowed by the algae.
One minute, two minutes, five minutes – no caterpillar. There was no way it could have big enough lungs in such a tiny body. I realised my mistake, but by then it was too late.
I’ve visited the Isle of Skye, off the west coast of Scotland, only once. It was for a Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) party, so I spent half my time there drunk and the other half hung over. I remember the smell of log fires; the tilted hulls of fishing boats at low tide; a chill deep in my bones; looming hills speckled purple and green; a pub with its walls painted red and shiny like appleskin; night-driving, everything so dark that the headlight beams seemed tiny and golden as coins.
The island made such a huge impression on me that I have set three short stories and a whole novel on the Western Isles, despite the brevity of my visit. It’s no exaggeration to say that I am obsessed with the islands – and yet here I stay in my Glasgow flat, two floors up, landlocked. The nearest islands are only a few hours away, but I don’t go. I don’t need to, because I go back to Skye every day in my imagination. But maybe, every day, I’m getting further from the real island.
Even now, making the list above, I have to wonder: do I remember? Or do I imagine? I’m no longer sure what was really there all those years ago, and what is part of my stories. Did I really see that fat fishing boat with its round red belly and boxy white head, its windows polished to invisibility? Did I really stand on the north cliffs, watching the whirlpool rage against the rocks? Did I wade knee-deep into the ocean, sure that I could see all the way to Cape Farewell?
No, no, no. I only imagined it.
I have explored these islands in my mind for many years, and now I’m scared to visit them, for fear that the reality will overlay the shaky blueprints of my fantasy. I want to have both: the island in my mind, and the island on the map, because I don’t know which is more real to me.