I was eleven the first time I died. And it’s okay, if you hate me for not having told you before.
Forgive me. I know I should have talked about it, just a little, about what happened back then.
But I couldn’t. I mean, I’ve been fighting so damn hard to try to forget, to move on. But each day I think about … what if I had opened up a little more, been a little more honest with you about what happened to me?
Then maybe you’d not have … Maybe you’d have understood that I knew how you felt – that you weren’t so alone as you thought. And then maybe I could have helped you in time …
It happened on one of those excruciatingly boring excursions with my 4th grade school class – way back when in bonnie, bonnie Scotland.
(Yup, fantastic fucking Scotland – and I never understood why you were so fascinated with it. I mean, maybe it was because you’d never actually lived there yourself? It’s like that for most people.)
Anyway, it was a very beautiful summer’s day.
Both Ms. Donovan and my father had expressly forbidden us to venture past the tiny fence which was designed to keep sheep from grazing to close to the cliff’s edge. But for the umpteenth time that day Rory hissed ‘Yankee-whore’ so close to me that the nearest of my classmates also heard.
The adults didn’t hear a damn thing, because my father was busy impressing our young substitute teacher with all the intimate details about why so much moss could grow on those 50 billion tons of lava that the Atlantic had puked up at the dawn of time in order to make Skye.
Yes, that Isle of Skye: Third largest tourist magnet of Scotland – after Glen Coe and Nessie, of course; rainy clammy foggy 300 days a year; inhabited by third rate artists in self-imposed exile, rowdy fishermen and one or two ministers straight out of a Lars von Trier-movie. My home.
Home of the ‘Yankee-whore’.
But I was a big girl. I would rather cut off my right arm than tell – especially when my dad was there that day, just because he happened to be the local Highland Ranger because of some freak accident of fate. All of this Rory of course divined in about 5 seconds.
“So wha’s up? Did the lil’ Yankee-whore get some cock today?
“I cannae heeear you: Did ye get some cock today, Car-reee?!
“Cockcockcock … “
Something broke inside me. I couldn’t bear if it went on. I had held out all winter in school, while Rory and his gang had done their best to make each day their private version of hell for me.
So I threw myself at him. But he slithered aside in the last second and jumped over the small fence. So did I. (Excuse me, the ‘Yankee-whore’ jumped over the fence.)
As I told you the first time we met, my birth name is actually Scottish through and through; Scots Gaelic in fact. Dad insisted. So did mum. Easy for a woman who in those carefree flower-power days had fled Cleveland’s desolate concrete and her strict Senator father and exchanged both for a home-made dream about the ‘romantic highlands’.
At 11, I hardly knew what ‘Yankee’ meant. I think our history teacher had mumbled something about it in his class the week before we went out to gawk at lava formations. Mr. McKinley was busy rambling on about the Scots who died in the US Civil War and I was busy sending small, curled-up paper-notes under the table to Siné, so I’m not 100% sure, but it was probably in his class we first heard it.
I have since found out that the word ‘Yankee’ possibly derives from a word the Cherokee Indians had for white people – eankee – which means ‘coward’. But no one knows for sure. During the US Civil War it had become a derogatory term for people from the Union (no matter their ethnic origin, as Mr. McKinley also stressed so passionately). Since then it just became derogatory slang for all people from the US of A.
Until that day, I had only been to the States twice and I had never lived there.
So it didn’t make an awful lot of sense. But according to the devil logic of children who molest other children, it probably just had to hurt enough?
While I chased after Rory, dad shouted something after us. But all I really heard was the waterfall of scolding anger and sharp adrenalin roaring through me. And of course Rory:
”Why can ye nae catch me, li’l whore? Did ye fuck so much ye cannae run anymore?”
I yelled back that I would indeed catch him and make sure that he never ran anywhere again.
My wish was fulfilled.
I remember that it happened the exact moment after I had just managed to strafe the backside of Rory’s coat with my fingertips. In front of us was the sea and the horizon and the shape of Raasay, Skye’s little sister island, wedged in between the two. Everything was framed by rare sunshine, just like a beautiful painting.
It was a very beautiful summer’s day.
And then Rory suddenly wasn’t there anymore.
And in the next split second it was already too late.
I was running too fast as well, like him. The crack between the rocks was tiny – but not tiny enough for a little girl not to fall through. And none of us saw it in time, because the long, stingy highland-grass grew around it, and because we were too busy chasing after one another. I guess we thought, we were still far enough away from the edge of the cliff itself? Maybe we also believed we were kind of immortal, like most children do?
But suddenly the sky was spinning around so I could see it under me. Then it disappeared again and changed into pointy, black rocks which came rushing up through frothing spindrift. Up towards me.
I heard Rory’s scream before I heard my own. After that I’m not sure, whether or not it was his scream or my own that I heard.
And then I didn’t hear anymore, but tasted … something. I think it was blood and sea-weed.
I can’t remember exactly when the blackness closed itself around me. Sometimes it feels as if it has always been closed around me, since I was a child, and as if I only just discovered it after the fall, after that day. Perhaps something had waited for me there at Kilt Rock, since my first day in this world? Waiting for me to come and discover the blackness? Sometimes it feels like that …
For a long time after the fall only the blackness existed. Then disembodied echoes began taking shape in it:
She should’ve been dead.
We have to operate – now!
At least we can operate. She was luckier than the boy.
In my case, ‘luckier’ meant that I broke my bones in 14 different places and was in the intensive care-unit for over a week. They had me flown by helicopter all the way to Glasgow because they weren’t sure I was going to make it, if I stayed at the small hospital in Portree. But I made it. And then there was the training; like being whipped every day in almost a year.
But I became able to walk again. And the year after the fall, I got to walk past the yellow house at Dunvegan Road, where Rory’s parents lived. What was I to do? It was a very small village, and the two afternoons a week I had to go down to the pier to do my share of dish-washing at Sea Foods, it was the only way. And a newly minted teenager of the female of the species is always in need of extra money – her own money – for the good clothes shops in Fort William. Especially if she wants to avoid being branded even more uncool than she already is.
So I had said yes when Ms. Munroe, our neighbor, had asked if I wanted the ’wee job’. But if I ever saw a glimpse of Rory’s mum or dad in the window, when I walked past, I looked down the same second. And every time I felt the question cut, like a glass shard:
I should have been dead. That’s what they said at the hospital.
And perhaps I would have been dead, if I had been chased by Rory and not the other way around? The rescue team found me lying half-way over his dead body, which must’ve shielded my fall somehow.
Rory died. I lived.
But in a way I died as well. And this is what I should have told you.
In the years afterward, I died inside, bit by bit. The shard cut so much away, so much that could make me really, really happy before. In the end there was almost nothing left. It was so bad the first year after the accident that I would almost throw up by the thought of eating, of giving myself something as simple as food – for several weeks in a row. And I’m not sure how many times I cried all night instead of sleeping. It became almost impossible for me to have fun with my few friends.
Even with Siné – who was one of the three people or so who still wanted to have something to do with me, now that I had become ‘weird’. But it was as if she, like all others, gradually became a stranger to me. And that just made me even more frightened. But I didn’t know what to do. Neither did my folks. They were busy getting divorced at the time and shrinks weren’t people you just trusted your kids with out in the country, where we lived. Even if they were available.
Siné held out the longest but in the end our friendship had deteriorated to some strange, cramped duty that didn’t feel natural. When I finally did move to the States, with my mother, I knew that Siné would not answer my letters. But now it doesn’t matter. If I ever see her again, I’m not sure I’d want to.
So, as you can see, Lin, my notion of the ‘romantic highlands’ differed a lot from that of my mother’s – and maybe from yours. For me the clammy rain, the loneliness and the ever-present after-taste of blood and sea-weed in my mouth were very real feelings I had, inseparable from the land. It’s not your fault. I should have told you more about it, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to forget.
Forgetting was part of my fight. The fight to succeed in life – with education, work, love, all that. Despite the shard that would poke at me now and then. I think I have fought quite well so far.
Maybe because I have inherited a little bit of the legendary stubbornness of my father … But was that so strange? I was desperate, and when I finally started in high school in Cleveland and my mum did send me to a shrink, it didn’t really make a difference.
The shard was lodged too deeply. So I had to take care of things myself.
And. I. Bloody. Wanted. A. Good. Life.
A normal life.
I almost had it.
Of course, I never really was able to get the shard out completely. It seemed to have splintered and I couldn’t find all the small pieces, but I found many and wrapped them in … something; something that made it possible for me to be kind of happy again, with others – friends, at university, guys, even a little bit with my mother. But most of all with you.
Perhaps it was because I had felt – somewhere – somehow – that we were alike, even though it didn’t show on the surface. What was it you called us?
I was the ‘Captain’ – the handsome, resourceful, top-marks girl.
You were … always the alien with fake pointy ears; brainy but outsider. But I was an outsider as well, because I didn’t really fit that well in anywhere.
But we fitted with each other, in some strange, wonderful, crazy way. And then you did something … something shouldn’t happen between friends like us. Something that couldn’t happen …
What I had to learn, Lin, was that the shard inside me wasn’t just my business. It wasn’t something I had the right to wrap away, because I was afraid or ashamed that you’d discover how weak I really was. It wasn’t even something that made sense hiding, maybe out of some misplaced rationalization that you were more fucked up than I was and therefore it would have been ‘wrong to lay even more on your shoulders’.
Not if I really was a good friend, someone who’d always be there to help in need. Because maybe you would have recognized it, if I had told you about it? Maybe you would have realized that in some strange way it fitted with some of your own splinters?
And then maybe it would have made me able to hold on to you, before you decided that you were completely alone with your shard, that no one could help you, and that … you didn’t really deserve help. Because ‘you weren’t worth it.’ And it was just a matter of time until I – and everyone else – saw the ‘truth’. Or whatever insanely painful conclusion you had arrived at about yourself, hiding it from all of us.
Maybe it could have made a difference if I had told you all about that day at the cliffs and the time after. I should have risked it. For you.
I was the ‘Captain’, right? And the Captain is supposed to be fucking brave, isn’t she?
As I shut the door to the cemetery I notice that grayish clouds gather in the horizon, and I wonder why it’s always the problem with gravestone flowers that they are planted too late.