CAITHNESS AURORA by Lesley Heiser

 

I. Ancient History

The tiny place that bears your name is at the northwestern tip of Scotland. The area has been populated for millennia, but, in 1437, our clan invaded and defeated the men of County Caithness and settled on the edge of Sandstone Bay.

Today, the bay is acclaimed for surfing. It is known for nuclear particles in the sea. The nearby nuclear facility has been shut down, but I wonder about the half-life of the spillage—if the particles give off color and if they are illuminated, if a surfer feels or does not feel a nuclear particle that attaches itself to her throat or face.

Your name is not only associated with a village. It is also the name of the wizard who, according to folklore, lives farther down the coast. His cave is the largest in Britain. The sea sweeps in but the recesses hold freshwater. Lord Reay is said to be a trickster who has had dealings with the devil, but by day he paints the cave walls. Like you, he cannot be pinned down.

 

II. Possible Etymologies of Your Name

Reidh, a flat place, Scottish Gaelic

Ratha, a fort or enclosure, Scottish Gaelic

Ra, a boundary, Norse

Ra, the yardarm of a boat, Norse

Vra, a nook or a corner, Norse

 

III. Meditation

Today, you live with your fourth or fifth wife in the Appalachians. You have spent the second half of your life angry with my mother and, except when you briefly yearn, with my brothers and me. You blame us for the loss of your largest chiefdom, which you built with, for, and out of us, and which you expected to keep.  

These past few years, you have struggled with prostate cancer. These past few months, you have been dying. But you are still you, and I know that you remain open and curious. I imagine you, your dark hair white, your tall frame bowed, removing your shoes at Sandstone Bay and walking along the water’s edge.

I want you to know that your village is a living place. On YouTube, I have seen the puffins gather. I have seen the intense nighttime stars. I have seen the Caithness Aurora undulate in yellow and green over the water.

I can’t promise you I will go there in person. I really don’t want to. It would cost too much carbon. It would cost too many dollars. And I fear the whole place might appear too bleak, like a projection of some sadness about our family that I no longer feel.

 

IV. Layout

The graveyard in Reay has an aisle for our clan, a reconstruction of part of the old kirk (church), with one wall featuring three cut-off bears’ heads, “a buck’s head erased between two hands holding daggers,” and “a lion rampant.” I imagine that, when you die, some avatar of you might appear and run its hands over this surface as, back in Ohio, you enter the golden tunnel and your whole life rushes by.

The remains of the Bronze Age settlement and the Viking houses and burials evoke my mother. Humans developed protowriting in the Bronze Age, just as she wove tapestries of words in her marriage to you. Did you ever read her poem about the Vikings? “And the word on the wind was Valhalla.” She also published graphic poems, and, in one, towers of “darkness” were broken up by white lacunae in which floated the word “help.”

I love what I have read about the Stone Circle in Reay Village. I think I will claim this feature as my own. When it was surveyed in 1872, seven stones stood. When it was surveyed in 1907, five stones stood. Since then, it has been downgraded to a “supposed stone circle,” several large stones that are only sometimes “uncovered by drifting sand” with “some embedded, others knocked over and broken, and others removed for the building of dykes.”

No one agrees on what stone circles were for. Today “circles of stones” are associated with women and New Age rites. But men carved the stones out of quarries and transported them. They grunted and suffered as they stood them under the Arctic Sky.

There are two types of roundhouses in your village—the stone ones from 3,000 B.C. and the wooden ones from 1,000 years later. The forts evoke my brothers, defending themselves against the memory of your chaotic, tumultuous rule until this day. Rubble of the stone buildings still exists, while the wooden ones are down but visible as crop marks in aerial photos.

 

V. The History that Seemed to Mean Most

At the Battle of Culloden, Highlanders and others were forced to stand and wait for the British government army to arrive. Bonnie Prince Charlie, of the continent, the author of the battle, was there to claim the British throne for his Stuart clan. But after two thousand of his men fell, and as the survivors were hunted down, he made a cowardly escape. However, later—even after England retaliated, making Gaelic and the clan system illegal—many Scottish people still regaled him as a hero.

I couldn’t read your thoughts when you stood on the battlefield with me when I was ten years old, but when you lifted your hand to your forehead and cried, I felt embarrassed for us both. I felt how you identified with the prince or his conscripts or both. I felt how you did not disdain the battle itself.

Immediately after that, you moved us to America, where you entertained your own ideas of glory. Do you remember when you invited a younger woman over while my mother and I were doing dishes? Your eyes were starry as you introduced her, stood by her lanky frame, glanced at her below her piles of black hair.

Her name was Mary Stuart, you said in amazement, the common name of Mary Queen of Scots, perhaps the greatest heroine in Scottish history.

You two disappeared into the pool. I pictured you swimming, the palms rustling, the white egrets watching. My mother and I exchanged glances. It was too terrible to talk about. When you came in dripping wet, you went up to your room, leaving Mary to make small talk with us as if you were a good person and she was doing nothing wrong.

 

VI. Last Appearances

When I contacted you for your eightieth birthday, you were astonished. It had been fifteen years, and you wanted me to apologize.

It made sense. I understood that you weren’t satisfied with my healthful pre-birthday presents of turmeric, green tea, and cranberry juice, which I had delivered to your home along with novels by two young women, which I believe you rejected.

And while I didn’t apologize, I hung on. I wanted to see if you had softened. If you had achieved what I felt was a good perspective.

But you denounced my mother. You said I was her acolyte. We had two rounds of conversations that devolved until I could hear each of our voices falling apart.

In Scotland that summer, I sent you photos as a goodbye. You got to see your mother’s former cottage, the loch on which we had rowed as a family, a blue heron on the River Ness. You liked them, you said, but you wanted one more thing.

You wanted me to reunify you with your older son. When I said I could not do it, not explaining that he dislikes you, you chided me.

“I don’t know how you can’t help us,” you said, as if your lack of relationship with him was just a missed beat. “A father and his son,” you concluded.

And we ended with those words sounding between us.

 

VII. Coda

I don’t know why your parents named you Reay. I’m sure it was your father’s idea.

Perhaps he considered his forbears “great.” That idea was important to him. When my younger brother was a baby, I slid a photo toward my grandfather of my brother dimpled, exuberant, and incredibly cute. I smiled and laughed and waited for my grandfather to concur on all the adorableness, but he spoiled the moment, saying, “Maybe he will be a great man.”

Some men take the idea of history and do with it what they will. They use glimmers of the past to falsify. They encourage hegemony down the patriarchal line.

One summer when I was three or four, my grandfather took me behind his house to find wild raspberry plants. We sat on a log and ate, and my grandmother came out and took our photo. In the picture he is massive and smiling in his brown-checked shirt and tie, and I am small and short-haired clutching wildflowers.

But you were his firstborn son. I imagine how elated he was to have had you.

One day, he held you up to the light. He lowered you and kissed your cheek. His father had worked for the railway, he was a civil servant, but you were vital, you were at the beginning. He chose you a name like a blade.

 

 


 

 

Photo used under CC