I was eleven the first time I died.
It happened on one of those tedious excursions with my fourth-grade schoolmates.
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 kept sheep from grazing too close to the cliff’s edge. But for the umpteenth time that day, Rory Macpherson whispered ‘Yankee-whore’ so close to me that the nearest of my classmates also heard.
The adults didn’t hear a 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.
But I was a big girl. I would rather cut off my right arm than tell—especially when my dad was there that day because he was the local Ranger.
Of course, Rory divined this in about five seconds.
“So what’s up, Carrie? Did the lil’ Yankee-whore get some cock today?
“I cannae heeear ye! Did ye get some cock today, Car-rieee?! Cockcockcock … ”
Something broke inside me. I couldn’t bear it 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 at the last second and jumped over the small fence. So did I.
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. McIntyre was busy rambling on about the Highland Clearances and who migrated when to the U.S. 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 when 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. McIntyre 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’s 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 were the sea and the horizon and the shape of Raasay, Skye’s little sister island, wedged in between the two. Rare sunshine framed everything, 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 spindrifts. Up towards me.
I heard Rory’s scream before I heard my own. After that, I’m not sure whether 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 seaweed.
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 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 for almost a year.
But I could walk and even ride a bicycle again with no pain shortly after my 13th birthday. And that year, I got to ride right past the pale yellow house at Dunvegan Road, where Rory’s parents lived. What was I to do? On the two afternoons a week, I needed to be by the pier to do my share of dish-washing at Sea Foods, it was the only route. And as a newly minted teenager, you are always in need of extra money—your own money—for the clothes shops in Fort William, right? Especially if you want to avoid being labeled even more uncool than you already are.
So I had said yes when Mrs. Munroe, Siné’s mom, had asked if I wanted the ’wee job’ at her fish and chips stall. But if I ever saw a glimpse of Rory’s mother or father in the window, when I biked past, I looked down the same second. And every time I felt the question cut, like a glass shard the size of a knife.
There was an inquiry of sorts. I don’t remember anything about who or how, except that it was a typical adult thing, chaired by the Highland Council’s local Committee at the high school in Portree, with older men with grave faces walking to and fro, including the local police constable. They cleared dad of any wrongdoing and the same with Ms. Donovan. They had kept us away from the fence, and the fence had been in disrepair, it was also found. Not that it mattered much. We would have gotten over it, anyway. And dad lost his job, anyway. The only job that he wanted after he could no longer be a soldier. ‘Restructuring the Council’s services’ or something like that was the official explanation.
I should mention that dad couldn’t have caught us because of his bad knee. It wasn’t discussed much at the inquiry. But it was talked about by most other people as mitigating circumstances. It was talked about a lot. As if words could somehow create an alternate reality in which everything was all right if only you said some things often enough.
But it was not alright. It was a twisted miracle where one died and one did not, even if we both should have ended right there and then.
I mean, I should have been dead, like Rory. That’s what they said at the hospital. That’s what adults kept talking about when they thought I wasn’t listening. And not just adults …
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 halfway over his dead body, which must’ve shielded my fall somehow.
Rory died. I lived.
In the years afterward, I died inside, bit by bit. The shard cut so much away, so much that could make me 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 at the thought of eating, of giving myself something as simple as food—sometimes for several weeks in a row. And I’m unsure how often I cried all night instead of sleeping. It became almost impossible for me to be ‘normal’ with my few friends.
Even with Siné—one of the three people 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 parents. They were busy getting divorced at the time and shrinks weren’t people you just trusted your kids with so far out in the country where we lived. Even if they were available.
One evening the following autumn, mom and I were out looking for dad, again, after one of his increasingly frequent binges. Since he came home from the Falklands without his knee and without his childhood friend he had been drinking but now, he was no longer trying to hide it.
I found him in a ditch not very far from our garden. It was close to the small road to Milovaig. Dusk was coming along with the chilling sea mist, the usual island brew. But not as threatening as the brew dad had been drinking.
“Go away, Caroline.”
“I’m going to get ye home.” I approached him slowly and stopped right in front of him, so he couldn’t avoid seeing me. I felt stiff as one of the lonely road signs. “Ma said this will be the last time we go out looking for ye. If ye dinnae come home, she will leave. She means it.”
He shook his head. “She always ‘means it’. She does nae.”
“I’m afraid she means it. She has been yelling all evening.”
“Dinnae say that.”
Long shadows spread over the green hills, like tumors.
“I will say what I bloody please!” He got up then staggered and plumped back down again. He had a bottle in his hand but managed to hold on to it.
“And I will leave ye. Like Elsie. And Tim!” It was one of the shards.
Dad’s eyes darkened, like the land around us. “Ye dinnae mean that, Caroline.”
“Mom wants to go home—to America. And I am going with her.”
“Ye are nae.”
“Then stop drinking.”
“I … cannae.”
“Why?” Tears now, but it felt like I had always been crying, ever since the fall, perhaps ever since dad got home from the South Atlantic. “Why can ye nae stop? If I need ye to stop and mom needs ye to stop, why can ye nae do it?!”
He shook his head. His voice was thick now. “… The war never stops. It’s always there.”
“What do ye mean?” I made my way down the ditch. He didn’t move but he looked away.
“In war, ye can get killed or hurt just like that,” he said slowly. “There is nae point to it except what ye are fighting for. Like with Mike on his ship. But when I got home I thought there would be a difference.”
I reached for him. “Pa … ”
He drew away. “I thought … things would be good and nothing would happen again … just like that …. And yet, things kept happening.”
“Ye mean, I fell.”
He didn’t say anything, but I finally got to look him in the eyes, and I knew.
I wanted to say to him I got better and he should think of that, but then I thought of Rory and felt sick. And I felt more shards cutting again. They would always cut.
He nodded, barely. “Life is war, Caroline. Even when the war the politicians started is over, life continues to be a war. Anything can happen and destroy ye. And … that’s just how it is.”
“Nae!” I cried. “Nae!” I thought of Rory again but I had to think of everything else. I had to.
“But it is like that,” he said. “And therefore, ye are going to leave me and go with your mother to the United States.” He had now become one of the shadows from the highlands. “But it’s fine. That’s exactly how war is. Life … I expected to get hit again soon enough. But it’s okay. I will only take the punches now … It’s nae possible to win.”
“I am nae going!” I cried. “Nae if ye stop … this.” I took the bottle from him, but I couldn’t throw it away. For some absurd reason there and then, I feared admonishment.
“Ye will have to learn that, too.” My father’s voice broke. “Ye will have to learn, aye. Because ye are a soldier’s daughter and I fear for ye.”
“I have this recurring dream that ye are followed by … by soldiers, Caroline. Some of them are on your side, some not. But it’s a different kind of war. It’s life and it follows everyone, but most people dinnae want to see it.”
“Pa, please … stop. I dinnae understand. Please. Please. Stop!”
He shook his head and took the bottle again. “Go home.”
It continued for a few more years, and we tried everything, but he didn’t stop. Mom finally decided to go back to Ohio and so inevitably there came a day for the question. Who did I want to stay with?
“It is your choice, honey. I will miss you, but it is okay if you stay with dad.”
I was 16 and I remember that afternoon just as I remember the fall at Kilt Rock and the Milovaig road and one or two other things, like my first kiss and what happened afterward. All shards. They made you remember. All the time.
It was late in the year, and the highland hills outside our kitchen window were black.
I remember looking into the living room for dad, but he was not there.
The morning we left, I saw Mr. Macpherson at the train station. Rory’s father owned a fishing equipment store in Mallaig where the train departed from. I had never seen him in town, but that day I did.
My mom greeted him with distance in her voice. “James.”
“Deborah … I see ye are finally leaving.”
“Yeah. We are.”
I tried to look away, but Mr. Macpherson bent down little, mournful gray eyes scrutinizing me.
“Carrie,” he said. “We have been talking a lot about this, Megan and I. We know a long time has passed but we know it’s been hard for ye, too. And we want ye to know … we are glad one of ye survived. Ye could both have been killed that day.”
My mom held back a sob and clung to the handle of her suitcase.
I finally looked up, but I saw only shards. “Nae.”
He shook his head as if punched. “We mean it, lass. We are glad.”
“Ye should nae be.”
He pulled away like he had stung himself on a thorn, and then excused himself. Around us were the cheerful sounds of tourists chatting, the announcements from the single loudspeaker on the platform, and a few gulls circling overhead.
Now, I’m sure you are thinking, what a sad end to the story, but of course, it did not end there.
Remember, I was only 16, with my whole life ahead of me, even if I felt I didn’t deserve any of it.
But somewhere inside you, there’s always that reflex, like when you are underwater and instinctively swimming toward any light. You know you can’t do it, but you always fight even so. You can never accept that life is over for you.
So in the years that came I fought, like the kind of soldier, my dad always wanted to be, but couldn’t be himself. Even if he also fought long and hard.
His first big fight was to save his first wife from depression and when that didn’t happen he fought feverishly to start over quickly. I mean, he met my mother at a pub in Inverness three months after his marriage to Elsie ended. My mother was the eternal hippie-traveler, his ‘happy half’ as he later joked, and they ended up marrying, a year to the day after his first divorce, and Elsie went to an asylum. Another year went by, and they had me. And then in April 1982, he went to the Falklands.
I was three years old and understood very little of it all. I remember only grainy images on TV of the Prime Minister and then ghostly islands further away than I could imagine. You know, I was in wonder that there could even be islands other than the ones I knew from home, the Hebrides, and I was in wonder that dad was going there. That’s how a child deals with stuff like that, I guess.
Dad was not afraid to go. It was everything he had trained for, after all. Okay, I guess he must have been a little afraid, but he was also excited, and confident. He wanted to make a difference.
Instead, he got to sit in a landing craft somewhere waiting for action when an Exocet missile smashed through the galley of HMS Sheffield and burned up his best friend. And when he wanted to find someone to get back at for that, an Argentine sniper at Goose Green found his knee with a bullet.
But back home, I suppose for a long time dad always believed that we could be better soldiers than him. Perhaps that’s why Tim preferred his aunt to live with us on Skye.
But in the end, dad couldn’t fight anymore. He meant what he said that night on the road to Milovaig. And so he never won.
I was still very young, and I had already decided, deep down, I couldn’t win either, and yet I kept trying. I kept trying to forget and to be happy and to have friends and some kind of path that would make sense. I kept fighting.
I guess what I am saying now, so many years later, is that in hindsight I knew it would always end this way. That I would always keep fighting …
That’s the first real question of importance, no matter which Rock you fall down from. Even if people keep getting taken away from you, even if you do all the wrong things to fix it, even if you still sink deeper and deeper into the pit—even then, do you keep on fighting?
The second question—is it possible to win?
And is there any way to truly know before you die for the last time … ?
Updated and expanded 14.4.2023