By Stephen Thom
Unst, Shetland Isles
The woman drove and the old man slept beside her. The single-track road was dotted with passing-places. Hemmed by fields. Beyond them cliffs dropped away and water glistened. Giant sea-stacks rose like ancient maritime totems, white-caps frothing at their bases.
Skibhoul Stores. They pulled into the petrol station forecourt. The woman stroked the old man's shaven head until he woke, spluttering. Wind stung their cheeks as they emerged from the car. She held his arm and guided him over to the store entrance.
The bakery section. Rustic fare: bannocks, water biscuits and oatcakes. The woman filled paper bags. The old man stood beside the counter, sniffing and blinking. The attendant watched him. Stared at the faded, spiderish tattoos on his knuckles.
The woman moved down the aisles. The attendant coughed.
'Cold night,' he said.
'Pinnishin,' the woman nodded, looking round. 'But he does like his paper. And his oatcakes.'
The attendant looked at the old man. He was drooling. His neck was twitching, sporadically and softly. He looked back down the aisles. The woman had a large pile of stuffed brown bags inside her basket.
'He certainly does,' he said.
The barn was nestled in a copse at the end of a long dirt track. The old man slept in the car. Wind rustled the treetops as the woman slid a key into the padlock.
The interior stretched up to a peaked gambrel roof, locked in place with heavy wooden beams. Clumps of moldy hay littered the floor like collapsed, plague-riddled scarecrows, and sharp links of chicken wire mesh unfolded over wooden cells to the left and right. Behind these makeshift screens, men, women and children lay on mattresses.
The woman walked down the centre of the barn, shaking the brown bags.
'I have oatcakes.'
Faces pressed against the wire. The woman approached a cell. She placed the paper bags down and shrugged a backpack from her shoulders. The young woman on the other side of the mesh eyed the bags.
'Medication first, Linda,' the woman said.
The young woman held her hand out through a circular gap in the links. She accepted a tablet and a bottle of water.
'You have to work tomorrow, Linda,' the woman said. 'You have to come home tonight.'
The young woman's eyes lit up.
'Work,' she slurred.
The woman knelt down amongst the hay. She passed oatcakes through the gap.
'We will migrate again,' she said. 'Would you like that? The second gate. There will be lots of work to do.'
The young woman ate fast, cramming oatcakes into her mouth.
'The second gate,' she said, crumbs falling from her lips.
The following week, the attendant looked up as the bell above the store entrance tinkled. The woman walked in. The old man tottered beside her, clasping her arm. The woman collected a basket, placed a newspaper in it, and wandered off down the aisles. The old man lingered by the counter. His fingers worried the edge of the wooden partition separating him from the attendant. His neck jerked.
'Two sides,' he mumbled. The attendant placed his phone beside the till and leaned over. The old man's lips smacked.
'Two sides of a black hole,' he breathed.
The attendant swallowed. He heard a soft pitter. Saw the piss stain running down the old man's trouser leg. He bit his lip and stood up.
'Excuse me, miss, I - '
The old man screamed.
Somewhere further along the shore, a small girl wearing a wooden deer mask splashed through the surf. She had been given a knife, but she did not know what to do with it. It hung by her side as she kicked fizzy rushes into the air.
Foam licked at red stones. The spray lapped and retracted, leaving a constantly renewing white trim at the skirt of the beach.
Sarah took the joint from Paul. She held it awkwardly between her thumb and forefinger, and laid back on her elbows as she exhaled. It had taken two and a half hours to walk here from the car park at the old NATO station on Collafirth Hill. Slogging over shattered granite blocks and scree. They'd loosed mini-rockslides skittering down a steep gully at Kettligill Head. But it was worth it.
Da Lang Ayre. A mile of red granite shingle spread around them. Red cliffs cleaved from the hillside. Stars milked from the inky gloom above. And peace. There was not another soul on the section of beach they'd chosen. Just the spume of the surf, the cawing of distant gulls, the crackle of the joint as it hit the roach between her lips.
She flicked it away. The crisp air was a balm. She closed her eyes and felt movement beside her, sand shifting.
'There's people coming out of the water.'
She turned. Paul was kneeling and staring. Her head swam softly. Wind flicked at her hair.
'I hear dee,' she smiled.
Paul frowned. He scratched at the lobe of his left ear. She followed his gaze. Her hands played with folds of red gravel.
Two dark shapes were cut from the rolling water. They grew taller as she watched. Paul was standing now. She felt spots of rain on her forehead and felt the change in atmosphere. She wanted it back; the peace, the ease, the weed-swirl. She wanted to say this is strange, how funny.
What a strange time to be swimming.
She struggled up, kicking over her beer. Suds dissolved into red dust. Her head felt heavy. Little dots played across her vision. The cliffs hemmed them in and for a moment the sprawl of beach felt like an oppressive pit.
Two people were coming out of the water. Their clothes were dripping. One was further ahead. They heard wet slaps on the shingles. Saw glints in the dark. Paul grabbed her wrist when they saw the deer masks. The knives.
The car stopped on a lonely stretch of road. Green fields rolled away on either side. A woman dressed in a brown ankle-length tunic and a woollen hood stepped out. She opened the boot and removed a large wooden cartwheel. The wind played with the frills on her hood. She closed the boot, walked around the car, leaned into the passenger seat and hugged the driver. Heaving the cartwheel up to her chest, she stepped over the shallow fence, and walked across the field.
Soon she came across throngs of people clad in robes and tunics. Four tables were arranged in a rectangle on the grass. Cartwheels were laid side by side around it. Trusses of straw were propped at intervals around the tables. Men and women dipped the straw into buckets and attached it to the cartwheels.
They worked diligently and rhythmically as the summer sun beat down upon them. The wheels were thickly swathed in straw. Not an inch of wood was left in sight. Children scurried around, laughed, pressed curiously against the working figures.
Women gathered the girls from the attentive group and led them down the steep slope of a nearby hill. The girls skipped and chattered.
The men remaining at the tables inserted poles through the centres of the wheels, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. They gathered up the remaining straw and used it to make torches at the top of tall sticks.
Each man selected a straw-covered wheel and carried it to the edge of the hill.
At the base, the girls danced and whooped. A man in a white robe raised his arms, palms facing up to the sky. A single crow circled above him, tracing great loops as if to pull time and space apart; stretch, elongate it and say: here, here is how time is, not this wretched thing that shrivels and strips until you pass your sovereignty over to a toxin, an object, a thing, a place outside of nature.
The robed man dropped his arms.
The men set fire to their wheels. They set them rolling.
There were loud cheers far below. The fire-wheels streaked, blazed down the hillside; searing, proleptical discs; a coming harvest; ancient ways; new ways; separation; separation from the grind; love; original love; original sin.
A creep of light unpicked the night. The thrum of the helicopter descending further down the beach drowned everything.
Bain knelt by the body propped against the cliff. The frame had slumped to one side. The skin was a mottled blueish grey. The lips were two fat blue worms. The cut across the throat yawned like a smile.
Gillis stood further off, jittery and stamping in the crisp morning chill. Paramedics and officers knelt around the girl. He scoped the cliffs. Sirens flickered amongst angular trees far above. A host of uniformed figures were tripping down the narrow gully, groping and flailing at one another. Barricades - sections of rusty metal fencing - were erected, and striped yellow tape crisscrossed the area; overused, lending a skewered carnival image to proceedings.
Bain's grey hair was tousled by the rotating blades of the air ambulance. He lifted his jacket over his head to form a wind-block and lit a cigarette. Gillis was traipsing towards him. He blew out smoke and nodded. The girl was screaming behind him. Everything was muddy and indistinct in the whir.
'She says they came out of the water,' Gillis coughed.
Bain was silent. His right eye twitched. The mylar blanket being folded over the girl sparkled in the early morning light. A group in hooded white overalls approached the body by the cliff, crossing the red dust like seraphic visions on a broken alien landscape. Gillis gestured.
'That's Dr. Burns. Director of Forensic Medicine.'
'All the bigwigs in,' Bain clucked.
Gillis shuffled. Scarves of smoke threaded past him. He sniffed.
'They've notified the criminal investigative branch. They're sending out... '
Bain glared at him.
' ...specialist detectives.'
Bain lingered on specialist. He turned it over in his mind. He pictured four specialists crammed into bunkbeds in the cabin of a NorthLink ferry. He shook his head. Chased the image away. That would not be the case.
The white overalls tramped past, their boots fitted with elasticated covers. They gathered round, and a sheet was unfolded over the body. Others were busy erecting a small tent above the inert figure. Bain walked away from the cliff, kicking at loose stones. He clasped lines of yellow tape.
'Why the fuck is there so much of this? We're not wrapping a present.'
Gillis swallowed. He nodded solemnly at a paramedic rushing past. Bain sighed and pointed among the tape. Indentations in the granules. Furrows. Black smears on red.
'Drag marks in the sand. Heavy concentrations of blood at intervals of around every three metres. Consistent with a body being dragged. Someone... people stopping for a rest.'
Gillis nodded and bit his lip. Bain crushed out his cigarette and moved down the beach. The girl was on a stretcher, being ferried over to the helicopter. She was still screaming. Bain flapped a hand towards the cliff.
'Skinny guy. The implication is clear. Folk dragging him can't have been that physically strong.'
He knelt down. His trousers rode up his ankles. The tide brushed the shore. He ground the balls of his palms into his eyes.
'This is the worst thing I've ever seen,' he whispered.
Gillis turned. The helicopter blades shredded the sound around them. He caught fragments of the sea, radios, sirens, screams. Present screams, the memory of them, the scream of the blades. The heavy whir distorted and bound these clips into a hallucinatory aphasia.
The white-sheeted body at the base of the cliff was was a totemic gauntlet guarding the doorway of a impenetrable red wall. Gesturing lifelessly at paths spoking away from his figure. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.
The air ambulance lifted, dipped, lifted.
'Out of the water,' Bain hissed.