Volume 2
An Online Literary Magazine
March 28, 2009


Walking on Whales' Backs


Irene Wanner


Am Basteir, a mountain in the rugged northern Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.


utside, freezing rain fell through the darkness. Alice Buchanan prayed for a clear day tomorrow. Or perhaps bad weather no longer mattered. Perhaps after almost two weeks of constant rain, a storm would be perfect for her errand. She had found safe harbor in this remote B&B on the south tip of Skye’s Strathaird Peninsula, after all, and in it, a woman who knew much Alice had needed to learn about grief.


For tomorrow, Alice had warm clothes, rain gear, and her husband’s silly Buchanan tartan folding umbrella because he warned you’d be crazy to go to Scotland unprepared, where the saying was they had three months of bad weather followed by nine months of winter. The awful climate was the very reason, he always joked, why Shetland produced nothing bigger than ponies.


As greeting that afternoon, Mrs. MacLeod had slammed the front door against the gusting wind and teased, “Came all this way for the grand weather, did you?”


Two constants had attended Alice’s mission so far: when people learned she was from Seattle, they remarked on coffee and rain. Yet here it was mid-July, barely forty degrees, and drops pelted the windows so hard, they rattled. How could Scotland’s summer be so wintry?


Mrs. MacLeod led the way to a spotless cubby hole of yellow walls and pine furniture. A child’s small space, preserved long after that child was grown and gone. Yet Mrs. MacLeod, graying and thick in the waist, still had lovely smooth skin and freckles. And her voice on the phone when Alice called to inquire about a single–lodgings for one brought half the income of a double, so were harder to find–was as caring as a best friend’s. Alice liked her immediately.


Straightaway, Mrs.MacLeod said, “Come through to the front if you fancy a spot of tea.”


Alice unlaced her hiking boots, which had lost all trace of waterproofing on the trip’s first boggy trail near Glencoe. That day was her single sunny one. Reluctantly, she wrote off misty Ben Nevis next, then Rannoch Moor, where birding was said to be fantastic, even if footing was so uncertain Scots claimed you could swim across in summer and skate across in winter. Bad weather had cut short or ruined entirely each of Alice’s hill walks since. But making do let her savor rare breaks in the clouds, when bits of open sky transformed the sea, the surface of the lochs or the rivers into a transitory blue. Besides, she loved exploring places she and her husband, Rowan, assumed they would have many years to visit together. Instead, she had brought his ashes.


Now Alice toweled her hair, glad to have had it trimmed that morning. Anonymous, relaxed in a warm salon, her gnawing grief of the past ten months dwindled. For the first time in almost a year, she was on her own, entirely at liberty. No one expected her to be the brave young widow; no one repeated platitudes about Rowan’s untimely death: barely thirty, his whole life ahead, their plans destroyed in an instant. Sympathy was driving her crazy. If nothing else, this trip afforded hope. Hope that as she fulfilled a promise to scatter Rowan’s ashes on the Isle of Skye, she might discover a new sense of purpose. Even a haircut felt like a step forward.


Alice took her guidebook and topographic map to the sitting room, which overlooked the darkening harbor. Several fishing vessels and three tour boats bucked at anchor. In the kitchen, Mrs. MacLeod hummed, a kettle began to whistle, while in the fireplace, burning bricks of peat sent warmth and a welcome flickering glow across an end table set with linen, china, and cookies. Seating herself, Alice listened to the wind, relieved to have found such comforting shelter.


Mrs. MacLeod brought in the tea things. “Will you be wanting dinner?”


“Oh, I don’t know. How much is it?”


“Ten pounds.”


She still had cheese, crackers, and fruit–lunch for today’s abandoned hike. At a pub, she’d ordered a pint of stout and a steaming baked potato stuffed with crisp, creamy cole slaw served by a barman who, with a wink, first recommended haggis. Guts, suet, oatmeal, and onions, he explained, all temptingly boiled in an animal’s stomach, served as a tepid inky blob with “nips and tatties,” mashed turnips and potatoes, which would surely put hair on her chest. When Alice smiled but said no thank you, he laughed and left her to read history by yet another peat fire.


“The full meal starts with soup,” Mrs. MacLeod offered. This tiny seaport had neither pub nor grocery. A fish-and-chip stand in a wharfside trailer buttoned up the moment the last tour boat returned each day. “Then salad and stew. Wine, too, if you like, and coffee with pie.”


Staring at the fire, Alice considered the bill of fare. She wanted to be polite, but money was short, picnics served her better, and she felt more tired than hungry.


“Helps make ends meet, you see,” Mrs. MacLeod said. “A living out here isn’t easy for a widow.”


Alice blushed. To Mrs. MacLeod, she realized, she was just another rich, thoughtless American. The rental agency had made a mistake on her reservation for an economy car, and substituted a red roadster so sporty people envied it everywhere she went. Luxurious, yes, but so vulnerable, Alice terrified herself imagining fatal accidents on the single-track roads perpetually overrun with trucks, tour buses, and sheep. After all, the Volvo had not saved her husband.


“I’m afraid I’m on a fairly strict budget,” Alice explained.


“No dinner, then?”


“Well, maybe tomorrow. Is your single available tomorrow?”




Alice had no idea what to do here for another day. Her guidebook claimed there was no reason to visit such a “desolate-looking village” other than the boat trip to a famed, scenic loch. She should not, in such unsettled weather, attempt walking anywhere alone in these mountains.


Already, she had frightened herself on that glorious fair day at Glencoe. The pocket history Rowan once gave her noted that in 1692, one traitorous clan massacred another there. Ghosts of the infamous murders haunted her as she lost her way repeatedly, so swampy and vague became the maze of muddy tracks that almost sucked off her boots. Until then, Alice had never appreciated the literal solace of stepping stones.


All her Scottish guidebooks warned of difficult going and sudden bad weather, of the need to carry map and compass, and to know how to use them, but Alice had been astonished to confront the fact that without sunshine and a distant white house for a landmark, she could well have gotten hypothermia or been stranded outside overnight on a mere nine-mile loop. Everywhere, high grass and bracken obscured the way. No one knew where she was. Nor had she seen other hikers. She never even considered taking a poncho for emergency shelter or a flashlight. As the wind rose and the temperature fell that long afternoon, she ate the last of her dried fruit, put on all her extra clothing, and still began to shiver. Who would think to bring a wool hat and gloves in July?


Today, Alice had determined to explore this bit of coast, desolate or not. She booked lodgings with Mrs. MacLeod, and from other proprietors’ disparaging comments about tourists failing to arrive when rooms were being held without a deposit, Alice understood the importance of supplemental income to rural Scots. One farmer on a tractor who gave her directions, in fact, whistled at the roadster, then opened with the line, “And what is it the idle rich are up to today?”


You wouldn’t say such things if you knew the scary state of my finances, Alice had thought, lifting her camera and complimenting the view. All her remark garnered was a scowl and an aphorism: “Aye, well, you can’t feed a family on scenery.”


Mrs. MacLeod added a piece of coal to the fire. “How long have you been on holiday?”


“A week and a half. Hard to believe I fly back in three days.”


“And where have you been?”


“Only the western Highlands.” Alice catalogued her route, making light of the bad weather, leaving out entirely the growing urgency of finding a resting place for Rowan’s ashes.


How he would have loved playing tour guide, Alice thought. Even alone, she prized the many unanticipated memories: ancient buildings, traditional work, the land. Everything boasted such long history. At the very least, Alice realized, she would return home with fresh awareness, whether for a clear trail in the mountains or the more elusive path for her future.


People here had time for each other. Or rather, they made time. Mrs. MacLeod surely needn’t keep a customer company, and that cranky old coot on the tractor rescued an unpleasant encounter simply by tipping his cap goodbye. Perhaps in places where everyone knew everyone else, good relationships required careful cultivation. Alice didn’t know; she had never lived in a small town. Nor stayed at B&Bs in the States. Only chain motels, where windows didn’t open, doors had multiple locks, and desk clerks wanted to know nothing more than her credit card and license plate numbers. She could not recall a single memorable occasion in such accommodations.


“Now, what held you on Skye for a whole week?” Mrs. MacLeod asked.


“I came to hike,” Alice replied, omitting the real reason, “but rain keeps forcing me into exhibits and museums and pubs. At a potter’s studio on the way to Dunvegan Castle, the clerk recommended the beach at Claigan instead. I’d no idea Scotland had white coral beaches.”


Mrs. MacLeod nodded. “Yes, tropical Atlantic currents temper the climate.”


Sipping her tea, Alice also recalled being amused by the free-roaming cows nuzzling the salty seaweed, as though they had come for a picnic at the seashore like everyone else. “Beware of Bull,” a crooked sign on a stone wall had warned, but the red paint was so faded, it was hard to take the warning seriously or as anything more than good advice for life in general.


She had walked for hours, the small package of ashes on her back, a burden she hesitated to relinquish. The headland rose away in lush bracken, heather, and thistle. Despite the bluff’s windswept beauty and the shore’s unlikely azure shallows, Alice held off. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but if she found nothing better tomorrow, she might drive back there.


Or perhaps farther along the coast, where she had delighted to see thriving hedges of hardy fuchsia blooming by Flora Macdonald’s grave. In 1746, Alice’s pocket history noted, that resourceful young woman had disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie as a lady’s maid, spiriting him away to Skye after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden, a wanted man with a bounty on his head. One of history’s unlikely heroes, Macdonald was imprisoned in the Tower of London, then pardoned; her husband, captured while fighting for the British in the American Revolution, also found his way home. Alice envied them their luck. The couple shared their old age, in love all those many years.


“Buchanan, now,” Mrs. MacLeod prompted. “That’s a good Scots name.”


“It was my husband’s. He spent summers here with his grandparents when he was little. We hoped to organize a reunion with his relatives, but now, well....”


Mrs. MacLeod’s eyebrows rose. “You’re divorced?”


“Widowed.” Did everyone have to be so nosy? Alice’s eyes began to smart, and she couldn’t stop herself. “Last fall. We were in the mountains. A deer stepped onto the highway. Rowan, my husband...a car was coming the other way when he swerved....”


Mrs. MacLeod drew Alice into an embrace, where she cried as she had been unable to do at home. Shock, she understood, saw her through the memorial service and the intervening months. Everyone praised her resilience; she felt she’d be letting them down to show anything less than a stoic front. Neither she nor Rowan had life insurance, though, so the house recently purchased in a flourishing economy now must go up for sale unless Alice found full-time work. Certainly, she could not afford time and tuition to finish her landscape architecture degree, friends said. Everyone agreed she needed something more lucrative and less laden with memories than continuing to run the couple’s fledgling landscaping business. Everyone seemed to know what she needed. Everyone kept telling her she wasn’t ready to travel and couldn’t possibly manage alone. And in Scotland, of all places, which would remind her of Rowan every minute of every day.


But three summers ago, camping in a high alpine meadow in the Cascades one night when they were just newlyweds, their pillow talk took an odd turn, and Rowan had exacted a promise.


“Once my time comes, Miss Alice, scatter my ashes on Skye, would you?”


She kissed his tanned and freckled cheek, brushing a strawberry-blond lock from his forehead, the skin there white from wearing baseball caps. “Scatter your ashes. What a question.”


“Seriously. Swear you will.”


“All right.” He didn’t specify where, so she asked.


“You decide. You’ll know the place when you see it.”


Propped on his elbows, his gaze lingered on Mt. Adams, a shield volcano less dramatic than neighboring Rainier, less famous than explosive St. Helens. Adams was their quiet discovery, with huge forests opened by unpaved roads, miles of trails where they loved to backpack, to pick huckleberries in the August week stolen right in the middle of gardening season’s busy schedule. They camped near glaciers that glistened in moonlight. They hiked or fished, loafed, played cards, or puttered in an inflatable yellow raft. Mornings, Rowan liked to fill the boat with water to warm in the sun, using it as a beachside bathtub when they returned dusty from their walks.


What Alice had envisioned as they made love that night was children, years of dogs and cats, fishing trips and vegetable gardens, mushroom hunts and saving for the kids’ college, movies and music, books and, inevitably, reading glasses, retirement, grandchildren.


“There now,” Mrs. MacLeod said, releasing her when an insistent scratching began outside. “It’s Tess, that old scamp. Come home finally. Do you mind a dog?”


Alice wiped her eyes. “Not at all.”


A border collie nosed into the sitting room, a graying muzzle the only clue to her age, for she herself was a bundle of puppyish, squirming enthusiasm. She rubbed her wet head against Alice’s hand, demanding attention until Mrs. MacLeod returned and said, “That’ll do, Tess.”


Giving one sidelong glance, the dog plopped herself by the hearth.


“She was my husband’s dog,” Mrs. MacLeod continued, giving Alice time to regain her composure. “And quite the one-man dog she was. She goes roving, I suspect, looking for him. These past few years, she’ll be gone for days. People call me. ‘I saw your Tess,’ they’ll say, way up this road or on that ridge. Or they give her a lift home, but she’s off again once she’s eaten and had a lie down. He ran over her once, my husband. Backed the car right over her.”


“No.” Alice studied the sleek black and white body, its shining coat, the delicate feathered legs whose paws were already beginning to twitch with dreams. “But how?”


Mrs. MacLeod shrugged. “Oh, he was in tears. In he comes bawling, ‘Kathleen! Kathleen! I’ve killed her! I’ve killed Tess.’ And we rush out. There she is not breathing. I run in and call the vet. Knowing how much my husband loves her, the vet says bring her. Bring her anyway.”


“What happened?”


“The entire fourteen miles I can hardly see for tears. My husband can’t bear to go. I’m speeding, you know, alone on that awful road you came in on. I go to the vet’s house because it’s Sunday, and he’s been watching at his windows. We open the boot and out Tess jumps, yawning, wagging her tail, and trots off. ‘You thought she was dead?’ he asked. ‘Well, of course I thought she was dead,’ I told him. ‘My husband backed the car over her.’ ‘You think she looks a wee bit better now?’ he says. Ah, men. Bless their hearts.”


“How on earth?” Alice shook her head. “It’s a miracle.”


“I’m guessing it was that big pothole in the drive. Tessie often curled up there, waiting for my husband. I was always asking him to fill that hole so guests wouldn’t ruin their cars, but did he ever get around to it?”


Alice watched the old dog’s slow breathing.


“Stay as long as you like.” Mrs. MacLeod stood. “Sleep in tomorrow and see what the day brings. I’ve an appointment in Inverness, so what I’ll do instead of cooking is leave breakfast makings. Take the boat trip.”


“Maybe I will.”


“Do. Crossing to Loch Coruisk, you often see Minke whales. And seabirds. Gannets, guillemots, Manx shearwaters. Sometimes puffins on the rocks, and usually harbor seals as well. And oystercatchers noodling in the tidepools.”


Mrs. MacLeod described the imposing Black Cuillin mountains encircling a mossy green inlet, whose towering waterfalls and magical beauty awaited if only the weather would relent.


“From the boat,” she continued, “you walk ’round a point, and the ground is soaking wet as a newborn. Moraines surround the loch, trapping the water. Coire uish means ‘cauldron of water,’ you see, and true, it drains quite poorly. Glaciers carved the bedrock smooth as skin. Huge long black humps you can hop to, one to the next. The last time my husband took me he said he felt like he was walking on the backs of whales. Fancy. You look ahead at this pod of black backs swimming in a sea of heather and heath. Whale walking.”


It occurred to Alice she was lucky to have ignored the guidebook’s advice to skip this place.


“Don’t feel guilty because you survived,” Mrs. MacLeod told her.


Startled, Alice said, “You must be reading my mind.”


“No. I remember. First the loneliness, then the guilt.”


For months, Alice had blamed herself, thinking if only we had left camp earlier. Or later. If only we’d cooked huckleberry pancakes instead of making do with cold cereal. If only I’d driven. If only that road hog SUV had had a flat tire. If only the deer had paused to browse.


“I was sitting right next to him,” Alice said, “but all I had was bruises. His parents, his family, I think....”


“They don’t blame you.”


“I must’ve fainted. I don’t remember. Just waking up after, red lights flashing, noise, green Forest Service trucks all over, something hissing. A woman with a stethoscope shaking her head.”


Mrs. MacLeod squeezed Alice’s hands. “He wasn’t alone, dear.”


“I thought that was my secret.”


“No. You were right there beside him.”


“I haven’t told anyone I was unconscious.” The old car had had no airbags. Slamming tight, the seatbelt bruised Alice’s breastbone. Heartache, she secretly called the lingering pain in her chest. “Everyone wants me to talk about Rowan’s death. Or they have sleeping pills and tranquilizers or support groups and therapists. Everyone thinks they know what I need.”


“People mean well, but in my experience, you have to find your own way.”


“Everyone said I shouldn’t come to Scotland. Especially alone. They said I should wait. For what, I’m not sure. Waiting won’t help me finish school or keep the house or run a business.”


“True enough. Waiting is safer.” Mrs. MacLeod laid another piece of peat on the fire. “Especially for a woman.”


“I have to figure out what to do. I ought to be stronger by now.”


“What an American thing to say.”


“Is it?” Alice frowned. “Why?”


“Your husband’s death hurt more than just you, dear. You’re strong to want to move on, but also arrogant if you don’t listen.”


“What do you mean?”


“Let others console you. It helps them grieve.” Mrs. MacLeod glanced at a family photograph. “My neighbors, my son. All their advice was well meant, but they about drove me mad until I put myself in their places. Then, I began to understand they needed my compassion.”


Alice longed to ask Mrs. MacLeod how her husband had died. She resisted.


“Believe me, you’ll find your way. You will.” Mrs. MacLeod paused at the kitchen door. “Now, do you want to read your guide? Would you like a lamp on?”


“No. This is nice, just the fire.”


“And shall I expect you to stay tomorrow?”


“Yes, please. I’d like to eat dinner here, too, if it’s convenient.”


“Fine. Good night, then.”


Wind rattled the windows. When Mrs. MacLeod had gone, Alice gazed around the room. By the corner armchair was a basket of knitting–sweaters and afghans–not a hobby, but skilled handwork to sell to summer tourists. Built-in shelves held cut crystal, sets of leather-bound books probably handed down from one generation to the next, and more fading photographs of a man, a boy, and a series of border collies. The last dog herself slept by the fire. A miniature grandfather clock chimed softly. On another wall, a square-rigged ship sailed an endless blue ocean.


Rain or shine, Alice decided. Rain or shine, she would honor the promise she had never expected to have to keep, bearing the small package to a shore where she could walk on whales’ backs. She would know the place when she saw it.



IRENE WANNER reviews books for publications including The Los Angeles Times, New Mexico Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, High Country News, Southwest Fly Fishing, and The Seattle Times. She publishes birding essays in Bird Watcher's Digest and short stories in the anthologies Horse Crazy and The Knitter's Gift. She lives near Jemez Springs, New Mexico.






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