A cloudless night, the waters calm, stars clear: she will load the skiff. The sea, flat at first, will whip when the sun begins to make herself known. By then, Isobel will be on open water.
“No place for a girl,” her father said, decades ago.
She’d stood on the shore, watched him go. This time, toes in the water, she will look up: Ophiuchus lowering, the night preparing to depart. She will mark the brightest of its stars. Alpha Ophiuchi, Rasalhague, from the Arabic, Head of the Serpent Collector. Her father taught her how to measure from them, so that she would know where she was in the world. When she was small, he pointed them to her from the shore, then from his own boat. Later, he made her navigate, but never on her own. Before the stars, her mother had whispered the legends of the land to her—the ancient tales of the Morrigan, Queen Scáthach of Skye, of fairies and queens, warriors and goddesses. After her father pointed the constellations, though, she cared only for the truths of the skies.
Looking skyward, she will remember her father’s whisper: Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, connected to the Asclepius, the physician who learned from the snake how to heal so well as to bring the dead back to life.
* * *
Of course, she doesn’t know what she’ll do on that cloudless night a year away yet; she’s still trying to shed the past as she climbs in to the one-way hire car. Barely out of the car park at Glasgow Airport, she rolls down her own window, presses her glasses tightly to her face, lets her long, graying hair curl around the outside of the car. She tries to avoid thinking of her children; she tries not to feel she is running away from home.
Not so very long ago, she’d thought this would be the sort of thing she’d do with her husband. The children were nearly grown, then. She had begun imagining the house empty: she and her husband would become adventurers again.
It’s been three years since he ended their twenty-five-year marriage. Four children, a house, two dogs, a cat, a scatter of bicycles, kayaks, all split in half, one way or another. He handed her a note and walked out the door.
In the car, she sighs. Isn’t this an adventure? So she’d been half right. She looks down at her hand. Three years and the mark of his ring is still there. I’ve done right by the children, haven’t I?
As she rides along, one of her children is doing a summer study in Greece. Another, a university dropout, roams the California coast. One hunches over a desk, taking summer school to graduate early, as Isobel would have done at that age. The eldest is racking up debt, doing her second post-grad. She’d be sitting on her own somewhere. She might as well go where she wants. Mightn’t she?
She has sold her house, set off for the other side of the world, near where she began. Just for the summer, she said, when she started looking for holiday lets. Then she found herself, pen poised over the lease agreement, asking for longer. She got a year, fifty-two constellations, likely including over a thousand millimeters of rain and 128-kph winds.
Isobel thinks of the wind and rain as she hurtles round the curves towards the Kyles of Lochalsh. Over the hump of the bridge, onto this largest island of the chain and the closest to mainland Scotland, her heart and stomach churning, she drops the car at the designated spot, fifteen miles from her destination. In her younger years, with a decent pair of trainers, she’d have run it in a couple of hours, slugged down a dark pint at the end. She can still cope with the pint.
Backpack snuggled against her body, she turns down the sheeptrack; she high-steps across the moor for the last of it.
Outside the cottage, later, at waters’ edge, she bends her body, folds forward, closes her eyes. The clippers buzz. Hair falls to the pebbles. Silver strands lift to the wind, float out on the waters. The wind nuzzles her head. Above her, the moon rises. On the sea below it, a skiff.
Sink the shovel into black soil, heave up a huge clod, turn it; repeat. There is no full-service supermarket on the island. A garden’s the trick—root vegetables and lettuce. Never mind that this should have been done in the spring, she’ll try, here under summer skies. There’s only herself and she a wee thing again after all these years, the robust times of pregnancy and the clinging weight after now gone. She stands, smoothes her skirt over her hips.
Did she really hate the extra pounds or was it more the look in Andrew’s eye she wanted to shed? He didn’t mind the extra bra size that came with it. She rests on the shovel; recalls her struggles with those last ten pounds. She laughs at her younger self.
The skiff catches her eye again: wooden, likely handmade. Clinker built. She can tell, even from this distance.
She takes to watching it from the kitchen window. On the third morning, under a full moon, a man makes for it, hair like a sheep’s, unshorn for too long, beard similar, limbs like an Irish wolfhound, gangly and looking as though they might act on an impulse of their own at any minute.
He is in the water, waders sloshing, by the time she reaches the pebbled beach. Scorpius in the sky; her father’s voice in her head: the little scorpion, sent by Artemis and Leto to battle Orion. The little scorpion, beating the mighty hunter, ascending to heaven.
Here, so far north, the end of the scorpion’s tail and stinger rest out of sight, below the horizon. Isobel turns landward, spots the croft, white in the moonlight, hunkered further back than her cottage, as though it is hiding. If he came from there, he would be her next-door neighbor. Her only neighbor.
In her former neighborhood in the suburbs of Atlanta, with its winding cul-de-sacs, meant to look like quaint country roads, the neighborly thing would have been for his wife to come over with a pan of brownies or a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps his wife doesn’t bake. Perhaps it isn’t the custom here. Perhaps he hasn’t got a wife.
The pebbles press against the soft soles of her feet. What must she look like, there on the shore, stubbly head, skinny white legs sticking out under her skirt? She folds her arms.
He climbs into the boat, lifts oars, looks up when he is seated, settled, ready to take the first pull. She waves. The oars hover above the water. A gull calls. The oars move back, sink in. His body leans back. Pull. Her father, in the pond at Mull, on holiday. “Pull, girl. Have you any muscles in those arms at all?” She rubs her bicep, makes for the cottage. When the sun is fully up, she returns with a blanket, book, knitting, a flask of tea.
By the time he rounds the corner into the bay, the wind has picked up, the sun gone behind the clouds. Still, she keeps on her wide-brimmed hat. Likely, she doesn’t need it with her at all, here near the top of the world, come as she has from so much closer to the equator. There, finely grained sand burned her feet at the height of summer. Searing rays reached into skin, feeling as though the veins, even, burned.
When her children were small, they spent weekends at the coast. She scrimped to hide small change from what her husband allocated for groceries; secreted the children away to the sea while he went for boys’ weekends in the mountains. She wanted them to know the expanse of water. One on her hip, three behind, ducklings with shade hats flapping as they ran behind her, skin coated in SPF 95. She felt as though she was wrapped in Clingfilm, suffocating.
Now, in the little bay, pebbles under the blanket dig into her bum. She smiles, sits straighter, knits another row. Her book lies face down, spine broken. The tea is long finished.
He wades in, a herd of fish on a huge hook, held tight. She’s reminded of a boy she loved in college: a fly fisher, tickly bearded, on the fast-track to drop-out, standing at her door, a shining trout, with staring eyes, in each hand.
“Can I take you to dinner?” the boy asked. He drove them to a campsite on a trail just north of town. He tossed foil-wrapped potatoes into a fire he’d already built, dressed the fish. They ate with their hands. Two weeks before the end of the semester, he stuffed his decrepit Mazda full, except for the passenger seat.
“Come with me.”
She shook her head, went back to her books. Another year before Summa Cum Laude and a ring on her left hand.
When Charlotte, her eldest, was three, the same boy arrived at her door, a trout in each hand, again.
“I’m married,” she said.
“I heard. Does it kill your taste buds?” He reached them forward. “I wanted to make sure you’re happy.”
She nodded, ignoring the clench in the gut. He kissed her cheek. “Hope he likes them.” His dreadlocks bounced as he made his way to the car.
She buried the fish in the freezer. Her husband found them months later.
“Why do we have trout?”
“They were a good deal,” she said. She felt a flush begin, cleared her throat.
“You know I hate trout.”
She took them to the beach, built a fire, tossed in potatoes, ears of corn. She ate one whole herself, fed her daughter small bites of the other.
Now, she squints at the huddle of fish. She’s forgotten all that swims in these waters. Perhaps she should have done some more research before she packed up her house, stepped onto the plane. Too late now. She smiles.
The man hesitates on the shore, looks up the hill, then glances towards her. He turns in her direction. Slowly, she rises. Her hand floats up as though to take off her hat. She remembers her shorn head, lowers the hand, extending it when he is within reach.
“You’re not from here,” he says, glancing at her bronzed skin.
“I started here,” she says. “Near enough. Just been away for a wee while.” As though she’s been on holiday. For thirty years.
“Aye,” he says. His eyes measure from under eyebrows like caterpillars, the hairy kind the children were afraid to touch in the back garden.
“Nice catch,” she says.
“No bad,” he says. “You must be the new tenant. For the summer?”
“For the year,” she says.
“Aye,” she says, feeling the sound of her childhood in her mouth.
“A whole turn?” One of the caterpillars arches.
“Longest I could get.”
He extends his hand. His fingers, rough and damp, wrap round her still-smooth ones.
“Archie,” he says.
“I’ll see you again, I’m sure, between now and the end. Particularly if you sit on the shore all the morning.” He turns, the fish still over his shoulder. Ten shining eyes stare at her as he moves away, feet lifting a little too high with each step over the stones, fish patting him on the back as he goes.
She removes her hat; she is rubbing her stubbly head when he glances back.
* * *
Long ago, her father hunched over a hull one grey winter day. Sawdust in his dark hair made him look older than his time. At four years old, she approached the boat, his first. He looked up, hands still on the hull, his dark eyes meeting hers. She reached for the smooth wood, closed her eyes. She sniffed, and then leaned forward, tongue out, tasted. He laughed. She opened her eyes, found him beside her. He lifted her, then, and carried her inside.
“I’ll let you help on the next one,” he said, setting her down by her mother.
His teacher, Michael, came, when it was ready. She followed as they carried it to the shore, small toes gripping the pebbles. The men pushed the boat, waded in after it. The sea lapped at her feet, cold. The men climbed in. She thought her father might come for her; she thought of wading in after them, farther than she was allowed. She stood still, whispering his instruction: no higher than your knees. She had never disobeyed. The dress her mother had knitted for her clung to her pale legs. Her father lifted one oar, then the other. He pulled.
She stepped out of the waters when he rounded the corner out of sight. She made her way to the workshop, damp feet gathering sawdust as she padded. By the time she entered the kitchen, her feet looked like two small fish, battered and ready to be cooked.
They lived at a lower latitude then, farmlands and hills like gentle green waves rolling away from the sea, the scents of seaweed and shit mingled. In childhood, she fought the urge to wrinkle her nose or pinch it closed. She might have given in to it except she hated the squawking of the ringletted girls in her class who did those sorts of things. Later, it became one of her comfort smells, reminding her of the solidity of land as well as the wideness of the sea, the latter her preference. Nourishment for body and soul.
As she grew, she began to want to test the waters, alone. “That’s no place for a girl,” he repeated. He used the voice reserved for immutable decisions.
She reminded herself that he allowed her everything else: the making of bait, the careful attachment to the hooks, the casting, the reeling in. He’d leap, though, if she seemed to struggle. From the shore, on her own, she’d hauled in a couple of large fish, bigger than her father’s usual. She’d gasped at the sight of them there on the hook, pulled them close, sunk fingers into them, held firmly as she pulled back the hook, released, threw them back.
Side by side, they scraped the scales, gutting the insides, blood running, heads in a pile, removed because her mother feared the eyes. She stood beside him at the grill, helping if there was a large batch on. But he’d never, ever given her control of the boat.
“A tide could catch you. A rogue wave. A wake from one of those arsehole speedboats, a storm. And look at you, a lovely wee thing. How would you ever fight it?” He’d kissed her head. “I would never forgive myself.”
Her father’s work moved them three thousand miles, across the ocean, to a town hundreds of miles from the coast, craggy hills rising, mountain streams burbling down. He put his boats in dry-dock—they’d be back in a year, two at the most.
Isobel took to the rivers, learned the flies, bought her own waders with money earned from her job at the mall. At first, the rivers felt small, constrained. Land, rising steeply on either side: another voice, limiting where she could go. It was the only water offered, though. Joy took her by surprise, growing in her with each step as she learned to read the river. These close waters offering multiple paths. When she discovered trout huddled under rocks, she felt as though she’d been made privy to a long-held secret. She loved being out, alone, deciding how long to rest in one place, when to move.
Her father hated river fishing. She’d heard him groan about going up the Spey with friends. Still, she talked him into joining her once, a hot day too early in the season. He thrashed in the water, not used to being the vessel itself, unable to glide as she did.
It wasn’t until he died, fifteen years after they moved, of a sudden heart attack, that she discovered that he’d sold the boats to pay for her college. A second death: no chance, then, to run her hand across the wood her father had worked, to hold him again in this way.
On the island, a windy day in September, skirts billowing, she passes an angler on a rocky promontory. He casts, waits, casts again. She notices the familiar tightening of the back muscles. Her own back tenses. She walks on. Sheep graze amongst the hummocks of grass.
She finds an out-of-the-way edge of shore for the first go. Only one tiny fish is tempted. Back it goes. The next day, one worth keeping. She braves the more popular spots, nets a few one day. They bounce over her shoulder on the way home, as if to say, “Well done, you!”
No matter which direction she comes from, she finds herself compelled to stop at the center of the bay before turning up the path to the cottage, to face the boat. She imagines the feel of the hull, the oars within to pull her to the open sea.
She casts from the shore before dawn, not there in the bay but at the edge of a promontory nearly a mile from the croft. She stops at the second decent-sized sea trout, looks skyward, finds Pisces.
Two fish, tails tied together, who helped Aphrodite and her son Eros escape the monster, Typhus.
She casts again, catches a third. Plenty. One for supper, two to freeze. Both fridge and freezer are tiny, barely the space for the ice trays, which she has removed to make space. She never picked up the habit of ice anyway.
Rod in one hand, bucket in the other, fish gathered on one hook, she steps back. A mist settles. The particles expand, become drizzle. Moments later, they turn to engorged drops of rain. Soaked, at the edge of the water, she tilts her head, sticks out her tongue, becomes self-conscious, pulls it back in. Might he be watching?
In the cottage, she puts the cleaned fish in the fridge and freezer. Goosebumps rise all over; she draws a bath. In it, she has to bend knees high, scrunch to submerge her head, stubble now starting to regrow in the direction of something like hair, though it will be a long time before it is long enough to float out around her as it used to. She imagines herself a trout in the waters, free. Her younger self hadn’t known the difference between nourishment and false lure; she’d bitten at the bait: the cut of the hook in her lip, the haul into useless air, gills flapping, struggle futile, collapsing in on herself. If she’d been deemed too small, been lucky enough to be thrown back in, would she have been wise enough to resist a second time?
In the dark before an unseasonably warm March dawn, she sheds her sheer skirt, leaves it in a jumble with her boots and socks on the pebbled shore as though they’ve been removed by a lover too carried away by the moment to place them neatly. She slides herself into the wetsuit that Charlotte insisted she bring—her skin, having returned to its original pale, seems almost luminous in the moonlight. She wades out to the boat. She tells herself she does not care if he catches her. She can swim away.
Rain begins. Fat drops land on her head, arms, shoulders, softly and each with enough volume to make it seem as though they might bounce before bursting. The rain comes harder and faster. At the edge of the boat, she holds out her arms, open to the sky and sea; she closes her eyes. Cool waters dot her eyelids, the tip of her nose, her lips. She opens her mouth, catches drops on the tongue, swallows. She reaches out until she feels the solidity of the hull. Varnished wood, smooth and wet, down the side, all the way from one end of a strake to the other. She stretches her palm below the surface of the water, runs her fingers down across each ridge of overlapping plank.
Isobel lifts her hand from the water, runs it over her shaggy hair. Taking in a deep breath, she opens her eyes but does not glance at the shore. In she goes, sitting in the belly for only a moment before stretching herself flat. The rain slows, then stops, the air still humid, wrapping around her. She drifts within herself.
A wave rocks her. She opens her eyes but resists the impulse to sit up, check that the boat is tethered. Hasn’t she watched it rest here for days on end, safe? In the sky, Eridanus. Phaeton taking over his father’s chariot, unable to control it, scorching earth and heaven. Zeus striking him dead and casting him to earth.
Her arms tense, biceps aching, a haunting sensation that accompanies the memory of tiptoeing out of the house on one of the rare nights her father went on another man’s boat.
They had been out together that afternoon, she and her father, the skies and waters smooth, like blue ice and them in a sliver of warmth above. They’d nearly been lulled to sleep waiting for a bite, bundled as they were in winter gear and that day, too, unseasonably warm. Not a word said in the reeling and gutting. He let her row home. The oars slid into the water with the merest tinkle, gliding through. A few clouds gathered outside the kitchen window as she stood beside her mother, peeling potatoes. The air remained still.
Her father scraped back his chair after dinner, rubbed his tummy, a paunch beginning above the belt, balanced by long legs and broad shoulders.
“Lovely. Thank you, ladies,” he said. He tucked his chair under. “That’s me away to Billy’s, then. We’re out early. Away up the Spey.” He shook his head. “I’ll never understand the call of closed water. However.”
In the wee hours, Isobel lay awake, thinking of the boat, left near water’s edge for her father’s convenience. Sometimes after these river trips, he took to the sea before he even came into the house.
A Friday night. Her mother would have her one long lie of the week; Dad not being there, Mum would make it a good one.
Perhaps the slight whip of wind just outside the front door should have been warning enough. Or the stumble on the pebbles, knee scraped, warm blood running. She wiped the stream with her index finger, licked it clean, pushed the boat, jumped in, looked skyward, read in it the preamble to dawn. Isobel made comfortable her hands on the oars, pulled, too happy to note that her progress might have been a little too easy.
Her father had taught her well how to read the skies. She could navigate her way around the whole of the northern hemisphere if need be.
He’d never taught her how to read the water. Why would it have occurred to her that he’d let her pull only when the waters were with her?
When she rounded the corner out of the bay, she faced the hump of rising sun; she took a few more strokes. She hadn’t brought pole or bait. It was her intent to be back before anyone knew she’d been gone. A fish would only have been evidence against her.
She pulled in the oars, leaned back, closed her eyes, and rested. When she opened them, a scant five minutes later, the landscape had changed. She spun around in her seat to be sure what she was seeing was right. The hump of Banford Head, below which she’d closed her eyes, was now well behind her, the curve into the bay far back indeed. She brushed hair from her face, stuck in the oars, pulled herself breathless, paused, turned. Had she made any gain at all? She turned forward again, hair blinding her. In the pause while she tucked her hair into her jacket, the boat lost its small gain. Her arms ached. She gauged the sun. Hours before her mother would waken. And then why would she think Isobel would go for the boat? Another day before her father would come for it.
If she let herself drift with the tide, how far would it carry her before it turned? She continued to pull, afraid to trust the water, afraid to trust herself.
The trawler found her red-faced, tear-stained, blisters having formed and burst. Her arms and back burned within her slicker and jumper and skin. She pointed homeward, words seeming impossible. They weren’t necessary. The fishermen knew the boat. One of them climbed down and in with her.
“Your dad’ll have warned you about this?”
She nodded, eyes cast down.
“You’ve to read the waters, girl. Make them do the work for you.”
He rowed her to the wide entry to the bay, climbed back up to his trawler.
The wind had stilled. The tide had begun to turn.
“You’ll be alright now.”
The larger vessel idled as she rowed. She felt the eyes on her as she pulled to shore, dragged the boat up, wiped her blood from the oars.
In the house, the clink of her mother’s coffee cup landing in the kitchen sink greeted her.
“Hi Mum. Just going for a bath to warm up,” she called, taking the stairs two at a time.
The water, still and small and safe around her, held her shame and her secret. Decades later, in the skiff, she feels it all again.
Overhead a gull calls. She closes her eyes again, rocks. When she opens them, he is at the edge of the boat. He sets his gear in the boat—enough for both of them. Silent, he reaches for her hand, pulls her to sitting. He climbs in. He casts off.
When the first bite comes on her line, he leans towards her. She pays no mind, plays out the line, reels in. The pole bends and straightens; her spine moves with it. She finds it hard to root herself, bum on the seat, bare feet in the bow. His hand rises. Her lips turn upward, very slightly, as she plays out the line one last time, shifting her body just enough to block his help.
The creature, a feisty few pounds, rocks the boat when it flops in. Archie nods, turns, casts. His marker bobbing, he looks again in the bucket. He looks at her. She hesitates, one hand on the hook, the other pinching bait, as though she’s twelve again, digging her hands into a bucket of worms. The only girl who would lift one out, never mind pierce the soft flesh with the hook; the only girl who sat beside Jimmy Davis and Patrick Dunn as something other than spectator. They had not so much as a nibble that day. Bored, her girlfriends went away, giggling down the path. They said she’d wasted her time. And she’d got disgusting worm guts on her hands. What boy would like her after that?
In Archie’s boat now, hook in hand again, she meets his eye. Stillness in the middle of the wide sea. Bait the hook. Cast. The warmth of his back at hers, barely touching. Feel the bite. Play out the line. Reel in. Five times, then Archie turns shoreward.
On the pebbles, he faces her. “Next time, just wander over when you want to go.” He slings his fish over his shoulder. “You might not have to wait so long.” He ambles away, limbs once again looking as though they might set out on a journey of their own.
Dusk: over a small fire by the shore, fish sizzles. Her buttery fingers pick it apart. Licking clean the last finger, she thinks she senses him behind her. Toss the bones to the fire, pull the shawl tight, face the flames.
Dawn, with a sky of orange and pink. Shepherd’s warning, her grandmother said. The drover’s daughter. Sailor’s warning, her father said, scrubbing a hull. Son of a North Sea cod fisher. She trudges to the croft anyway, sodden earth squelching. Light sneaks out under a sliver of gap at the bottom of the door. The buzz of the saw rides out after it. In the breeze, she stands, hand raised to knock. The saw stops. The air stills. The sky opens. As her hand meets the door, she feels his tug on the other side, moves with it.
Sawdust, varnish, metal, sweat—the familiar scents. She wants to sit, cross-legged, bum in sawdust, breathe. She wants to lie naked in it, rub the shaven particles across her body, make herself a seaworthy vessel. Tiny wood flakes settle in the light between them.
“Can I touch her?” she asks.
Hand on raw wood. He tells her he is a builder, was a hobbyist until his wife died. She feared the water. This is why they chose a croft so far from the shore.
“Imagine,” he says. “Growing up on an island and being afraid of the water. She squeezed shut her eyes on the ferry to the mainland for our honeymoon, huddled in the hull on the return. Never went to the water again.”
When he was four, he built his first boat, a miniature, of course. He sailed his teddy away in the bay. “They became engulfed in the first tiny wave. I cried, on the shore, sloshed in to try to help.”
“Your teddy,” she says.
Outside, the redness in sky has dissipated.
* * *
Two mornings later, she steps down to the shore, casts in one pebble. The world is silent, except for the whisper of the sea. She turns and tiptoes to his door, hesitates there, her hand aloft.
“Come,” he says.
From the corner, she watches. Without asking, she lifts the broom, begins to sweep, the shavings revealing the grey stone floor.
When he has finished, he steps outside. “Not a day for it,” he says.
Replacing the broom in the corner, she sets out for home, gathers her gear, drops a line at the first spot. Fresh fish for brunch.
She bakes a round of wheaten bread, her grandmother’s recipe; the nutty scent of the grain trails behind her in the still afternoon air. She leaves it on the doorstep, knocks, firmly, walks away, does not look back.
When she goes again, he hands her varnish to hold.
“My father let me do this,” she says. “When I was wee.”
His eyes shift. He works on, fifteen minutes, half an hour, an hour, more. The scent of his sweat rises. She breathes him in.
“What else did he show you?” he asks, at last.
She tells him, in chronological order, with ages. At four, the sweeping. Five, holding the varnish.
“At ten, he caught me stroking the lathe. He sent me to my room. Shouted about the danger. He woke me a week later, though, at three in the morning. Took me down. Held my hand in his as we guided the wood through.”
As she finishes the list, the wind picks up outside, rattles the windows as though it wants in. He waits to speak until the sky has finished her turn.
“Everything.” Except the sea. She helped him build, and then watched her father and the boat float off. A little like children. Or husbands. The closest she’d come was when she had been a vessel herself—swollen, round, sinking into water at the last, midwife at her side, her husband in the corner.
Seven pounds, nine ounces, the first, a lassie. She’d been afraid, at first, that she might not know what to do with a girl.
Nine pounds, two ounces, the second, a boy (what her father wanted).
Over ten, the next. Same again.
And then the last, arriving early, four flopping pounds. Another lassie.
Isobel holds all this to herself there in his workshop, the wind rattling again, her face flushed in the cold.
He steps close. Lips on her forehead. His white hair electrified as his hands cup her cheeks. Her hands hang loosely at her sides, oars at the ready.
She works beside him for the rest of the boat. When the client pulls up, a fat man in a Range Rover, from the mainland, the south, she imagines him rowing the boat out to his yacht. Archie and Isobel hold hands, watch the vessel go.
She orders wood, varnish, the lot, online. As she gathers her supplies, she does not allow herself to imagine what she will do if he says no. She carries all of it, piece by piece, to his croft. When the last of it is there, she knocks, even though they are beyond that, now.
When he opens the door, the skies are clear. Heather climbs the hillsides, purple bells in full bloom. He stands, feet planted, legs wide, hands on hips. His tufty hair lifts in a drift of breeze. She waits for him to look up, holds his eyes when he does.
“I want to build it on my own.”
“Course you do,” he says.
She thinks she sees a slight clench. In the moment, she attributes it to his thinking about the loss of his space and the use of his tools for the time it will take her.
He checks on her as she goes.
When it is finished, he helps her carry it to the water. She pushes it out, leaves it at anchor beside his.
When she wades into the waters that night, she recalls his eyes on her through the long months of building, guiding her without touching, allowing her to make it perfect.
A breath in as she makes her way to her creation. Above her, a cloudless sky. Her skiff faces the shore, her cottage, Archie’s croft, the mottled pebble bay, tufty grass, rising hills. If his long limbs or any other part of him have had an impulse to journey out and check on her, he has resisted: a gift of understanding.
She hears her father’s whisper. No place for a girl.
Her body replies. Mark the moon, Polaris, the horizon. Climb in. Let the boat settle, haul in the anchor. Sink the oars into the waters. Pull. Out and out, around the curve of the bay. Herself and the wood and the waters, under the moon and the stars, on the wide sea.
Heather Marshall is an author and creative writing, literature, yoga, and mindfulness teacher. Her fiction and creative nonfiction are published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies in the US and in Scotland. Her novel The Thorn Tree (MP Publishing) came out in 2014. She has recently completed a second novel manuscript that explores the impact of secrets, the healing power of land and story, and themes of adoption, identity, and sexual orientation. Originally from Scotland, she now lives in Greenville, South Carolina. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s probably hiking, traveling, or plotting a trip. You can find out more about her at heathergmarshall.com.