The window was as large as any you have seen. It stretched out across the entirety of the living room wall, opening the room up to the wilderness of the highlands. The water spread out beneath, a mirror of grey glass, birds soaring above and within. A lone grey heron, in his feathers the depths of the sky, stood on the near edge of the water. Solitary and still. Her eyes moved across the scene in front of her.
It changes constantly. She would say, her favourite feature of the view. Like the muddied peat of the swelling hills beyond, her brown eyes drew in the light taking it back into a place deep within her.
I have been here too long.
Her small hand gripped the arm of her chair, weathered to the tone of the wood, lined as though a map of all her deeds. Fingers of fine bone, clawing, clinging on. Large sun spots, deep brown wells stamped upon her skin, proclaimed a love for warmer days long gone. For here the sun barely touches. For here the storms rule, grey and brown mixtures of earth and air, oils blended together on a palette. Here is a place of winter, of autumn and ageing. But here she could breathe. In this quiet place the evening’s silence was only punctuated by the cries of the heron, the wailing of wind as it stormed across the loch and over the braes.
The gulls took wing on the next gust. A squabble of seagulls, their cries piercing the air above the lapping waters. The air smelled of storms, of salt. Tears. Clouds piled on top of each other, grey and threatening, scrambling over each other to be the first to block out the light.
She had seen his face again in her dream. Rising long after the sun she fled from her bed of sweat and haunting memories, the screams of the sirens and the crashes of falling debris around her. Darkness and cries, the fear of aeroplane drones. Even now she sometimes freezes as the jets fly overhead. Born in the great war, a woman in the next, though her hands remained steady she still felt them shake. The heron spread out his wings. A great stretch of life, arching, reaching out to touch its edges.
I am ready.
That was the last time he would come to see her, she knew. Soon they would be together again. She picked up her binoculars and raised them to her eyes. Across the hilltops and deep into the burrows, strands of thick heather rustled against each other. They whisper to each other stories of love and sorrow, of times gone by and of times to come. The footsteps of memories trodden through the peat of this land.
I have waited too long.
She pulled herself to her feet her nightie hanging around her. There was not time to dress. Nearly a century had been borne on these soles. Cracked and yellow her weary feet felt their way slowly out into the moss, sinking her toes into wettened pillows of soft muddy green as the remnants of the rain rose around their weight.
The winds pressed from her a sob. The cry was cut short and torn away on the breeze. The gust both a whip and final caress. Salty tracks marked her cheeks, sea-borne kisses the marks of her grief. She was completely alone.
The sky filled with towers of black thunder as the storm rolled in from the loch, dark grey cumulonimbus smothering and crushing as the light fled from their rage. She cried out to no one, and everyone. Only the gulls replied, caw-cawing a howl of reflecting sorrow. The heron buried his head in his wing, shutting himself away. The air was filled with an enchanting cool as the heavier breath of summer ebbed away. An air which whispered of winter and brought with it the smell of fresh rain and the quiet promise of darkened slumbers.
The stitches she had made over the years wove in and out of her thoughts. Those made in the depths of the worst of days, when windows were blown out and the rockets howled in the night. What lives had she saved then? So many who did not deserve it. In taking his had she saved him as he had promised? How many others had been saved because of it? How he had pleaded and begged.
Do not let them take me again.
As her payment and her penance she had lived for as long as she could bear. When she fled to the solace of the silent highlands he stayed with her, always in the back of her closet, buried beneath mountains of memories and lived moments. It was the only way she could bear the exquisite pain of love and the life lost, she lived where he could not. She loved their daughter when he could not.
He would have loved this place.
She had not brought her stick, she had no more need of it. She knew the ground – this place – better than she knew her own hands. Her eyesight failed her, but her body had consumed, birthed and become the land, the hills, the peaty bogs. As the light dropped, giving way to the onslaught of clouds and the passing of the day, she made her way down to the shore. The heron was gone, leaving a space so huge she felt his absence in her soul. The darkening skies set her mind awry.
Was it not morning?
She ran her hand into her hair. It caught, tangles whipped up by the wind, by the time spent unkept. In her other, a moment captured in black and white: their smiling faces, his uniformed arm slung tightly around her waist. She looks distant, lost, as if she is trying to turn away from him. She smiles but her eyes do not. Over the years she has looked at that photo hundreds of times - the only one she had of him - and tried to search within the grain of his face to see what might have been left behind. To see what she had saved. She always came away empty.
The clouds still came. With bases thick, flat and grey as the bottoms of the landing vehicles awash on the beaches, their tops a sharp contrast of soft white-peaked merengues. A hint at a softness which they did not bring. Grey, hard, blunt, there only to inflict damage to whatever lay in their path.
On that night he had whispered fevered lines, words and breath filled with sorrow and remorse. He told her to run, run away. She had. She had not left Scotland since she arrived, fleeing the continent, running from the waves of death. Carving out a little patch of sorrowful land she had lived within the boundaries of her grief.
For too long she had questioned her choices, the promises made in the face of his loss. A child he had not known, borne away from everything, carried within her to the safety and emptiness of a tiny crofter’s home. Her daughter. Would she ever forgive her? This final night, this last choice, weighed her down as she crept further into the invading darkness. The awaiting loch came to her in scents of kelp and salt, a metallic touch in the air, the slightest smell of something… rotting apples? Her feet grazed against the rocks, the black, smooth surface both slippery and coarse. It hurt, her skin was thin and it cracked at the slightest of touches.
The water drew her into its embrace, running up the cotton of her nightdress, dragging it into its depths. Inviting her in. She sucked in her breath.
She will understand why this. Why I did that.
She stumbled, the water taking her weight as the cold squeezed the air from her lungs. Perhaps she cried out. It felt peaceful. The weight of her body, her age, her grief and the things she had done were floating away, carried from her on the black current of the loch.
What he made her do, ending it as she had, was it selfish? To save him the pain that he would have had otherwise? She knew that in doing what she did, she had saved him from them. From the death they would have given him. From the death they would have had him give others. Nothing else mattered.
She has to understand.
Her daughter had a life, grandchildren of her own, she no longer needed a mother. This was her final act. In her letter, left by her chair, were her final words.
Her story. His story. She would finally know.
The water closed over her. Somewhere in the darkness the heron cried out.