By Kathleen Sands
Corporal Higgins stalked through the late-summer bracken, lifting his knees high, crushing dead plants under his boots. What were his orders again? Oh, right. Take the boys home. He glared at the sheep in the nearby field, daring them to return his gaze. They were ugly enough with their long black faces and slitted pupils but they added insult to injury by growing too many horns, three or four or more, the ewes as well as the rams. Devils. Without breaking stride, he swept up a stone and hurled it at them.
A small sound from behind: “Da, don’t hurt them. God wants us to be kind.” The words of his dead wife in the voice of a child.
Higgins turned to see Iain struggling through the brown growth, lifting his knees high in imitation of his father. No sign of Wattie. “Where’s your brother?”
Iain stopped and looked around. “Wattie! Where are you?”
Higgins marched on, irritated. Couldn’t trust them to walk in a straight line from hither to yon. No kind of soldiers at all. He bulled through the thick leaden air, tasting sulfur.
“Da! Wait up. He’s squatting.”
Higgins stopped and spat and turned. Wattie grinned at Higgins across the distance while Iain did up Wattie’s pants. Or was it Wattie doing up Iain’s pants? Higgins closed his eyes, trying to clear the haze but it was still there under his eyelids. Forced his memory: Iain wore a brown jacket, Wattie a green. Iain had dark hair, Wattie russet. Iain wore a flat cap, Wattie a bare head because he’d lost his cap somewhere along the way.
Opened his eyes. Iain and Wattie, his sons, stared at him. Right. They were returning home from Robina’s burial. Yes. The black devils were just stupid sheep. He reached his hands out to the boys. Iain paused but Wattie ran to him, grabbing both hands and stepping on Higgins’ big boots with his little boots. The sinister brassy buzzing in the air quieted, and Higgins reached to pick up his baby son and hold him, laughing, high up in the air.
Iain came up close and waited his turn. After flying Wattie and setting him down, Higgins crouched and smiled at his elder son, big hands weighing down small shoulders. He could smell the boys’ sweat and his own. Feral, disturbing. The three walked on, hand in hand, not speaking, pink-faced, following the white sun, hot, hot, hot.
A few strange larches, conscious and watching like everything else, crouched in their own shade. Man and boys sat, leaning against trunks, removing boots and socks to air sweaty feet. From his gearbag Higgins took a flask and handed it to the boys, who gulped down the water before stepping off to a nearby burn to refill it. Watching their white shirts smoke and flash in the sun, Higgins weighed the full whiskey bottle in his hands, feeling its promise. He’d bought it in a moment of revenge after the burial, the boys dallying outside the pub. Had not opened the bottle, for to smell was to taste, and to taste was to drink. He wouldn’t drink—he was done with all that—but the heft and slickness of the bottle allowed his heart to remember the old soft peace.
Back in the Punjab, he’d lost consciousness for nearly a whole day after an ammunition box had fallen on his head while he unloaded a supply wagon. A month later, after noting the memory lapses, irritability, and confusion, the army doctor recommended discharge and told Higgins he must never drink alcohol again. And he hadn’t. And he wouldn’t. But he’d be good and God-damned if his own wife’s death wasn’t the perfect occasion for buying a bottle. Just to hold. Just for strength. She’d left him with the two boys to raise on his own. Left him. Left him.
On their way back from the burn, the boys stooped to look at something on the ground, no doubt some dead beastie. Since his mother’s death, Iain had become interested in mortality, always on the lookout for cockchafers and damselflies that had slipped the bonds of life. This time it was a limp lapwing, its irritating pee-wit stilled forever, its prideful crest bedraggled. “Throw that bloody thing away,” Higgins ordered, donning socks and boots and standing to resume the trek.
“I want the feathers, Da. Just the green ones. Please?” Iain’s voice wheedled.
“You want a clout upside the ear. Come along or I’ll make you come.” Higgins began to walk, not looking to see if either boy followed him. Their faces were giving him trouble at the moment, appearing and disappearing in odd places—peeking out from the undergrowth, staring from the faces of the black sheep, flashing darkly against the bright sky. He knew these were only imaginings. He’d lived with such for years now. The voices were more disturbing, laughing, scolding, singing, muttering. Those he wasn’t sure about. They might be imaginings—everyone said they were—but why might they not be real? Voices could be real without you seeing who did the voicing. Could be God, the devil, Robina, his sons, Sergeant Gowk, Lieutenant Gobshite, no telling. No point in listening if you didn’t know who was speaking, but you can’t shut out sounds the way you can sights. No lids on ears, more’s the pity.
He slowed, pretending to scan the metallic sky, and glanced back. The boys were following sullenly, Iain holding the dead bird behind his back. Higgins sarcastically called pee-wit, pee-wit and pointed at it. The boy tightened his mouth and his grip and kept plugging along. Higgins smirked and turned away. Let him have it. He’ll get tired of carrying that smelly carcass soon enough.
They walked through the bracken, through the afternoon. No clouds, no breeze. No real rain for weeks. Higgins thought of weather like this as Indian, not Scottish, but here it was. The day was bright, bright, bright but with flashes of darkness around the edges. The distance looked like a photograph, flat and still. He screwed his face up at the stench of the dead lapwing and looked around for the boys. Iain stood behind, holding the corpse, looking for Wattie, again nowhere to be seen.
Higgins bellowed and both boys came running. He caressed the bottle and closed his eyes. Even just the feel of it distanced the black dog that had trailed him for years, the cur of confusion and fear and anger. He felt the bastard fall back a little.
The boys caught up with him. He held the bottle out to them and shook it, smirking. Iain stepped back, his hand on Wattie’s shoulder. “Da, you promised.” Higgins laughed at the bigger boy’s prissy expression, just like his Mam’s.
He waved the boys to follow him to an old stone wall standing in the middle of what was once a farm and now was nothing. Crouching in the wall’s shadow, Higgins closed his eyes. Back in the Punjab he’d lived on whiskey and tobacco. The local drink was vile and the bread was worse and the veg were boiled up with so much spice it was like they’d been harvested in Hell. Whiskey and the odd wandering goat made up his chow and enough it was when facing those Pashtun warriors if he didn’t want to lose his breakfast before, during, or after a battle. Those savages had no concern for their own lives. They fought with all stops pulled out, howling and running down the mountain with no discipline whatsoever, looking forward to death and Paradise with all those virgins and eternally flowing rivers, the poor desert bastards. He couldn’t have gotten through those years without the water of life. The bottle weighed in his hands, the promise of peace.
Iain stood, eyes to the ground. Raising his head but not looking at his Da, he walked along the ruined wall and sat, plucking only the green feathers from the bird’s underside. After wrapping the feathers carefully in his handkerchief, he set the bird down and dug a hole in the earth with a flat rock. He laid the dead lapwing in the hole, smoothing its remaining feathers, and used his rock to scoop the excavated earth over it. Setting the rock aside, he tamped down the earth with his hands, frowned at his unavailable handkerchief, and wiped his hands on the back of his pants.
Watching this ceremony, Higgins remembered the old Pukhtoon woman at the Malakand Pass battle, her toothless face wrinkled like a late-fall apple. She had fought day and night alongside her men, twenty hours straight, dying with her sword in her hand. By God, that was a soldier. He had wanted to make off with her sword when they dumped her corpse into the pit with the others, but that pleasure went to another yob.
A tug on his sleeve. Higgins blinked into view a short soldier, a brown-uniformed Gurkha. If a man says he’s not afraid to die, he’s either a liar or a Gurkha. Higgins laughed and offered his old ally the bottle.
The Gurkha released the sleeve and spoke in Iain’s voice. “Da, where’s Wattie?”
Higgins looked around and fixed his eyes on a dead branch lying a few feet away. No trees nearby, no stumps even. They were in a field that had been a field forever. The branch had appeared out of nowhere. Higgins squinted at it, waiting for a clue. When his sleeve was tugged again, he pointed and said, “Where did that come from?”
Iain or the Gurkha followed the finger with his eyes. “Don’t know, Da. Where’s Wattie?”
Higgins began to stand up but changed his mind. “You find him and bring him here. We need to get on.” The mechanical light impersonating the sun was at four o’clock. Tea time. Drink time. The bottle was full, unopened.
Iain hesitated, then set out, calling his brother’s name. When he returned, his hand on Wattie’s shoulder, Wattie’s face a huge grin, Higgins had removed the coiled utility rope from his gearbag. He beckoned to the green-clad imp that might or might not be Wattie, and the imp came forward.
Higgins turned the Wattie imp around, lifted its jacket, and tied one end of the rope to the back of its braces. Meanwhile the imp spoke in a voice like mist that Higgins had to strain to hear. “Where are we going, Da?”
Higgins couldn’t speak while concentrating on the rope. He had to finish tying the other end to the back of Iain’s braces before he could say, “Home. I told you. Home.” He couldn’t risk losing his baby son a third time.
Wattie twirled, winding the rope around his middle, dancing up next to his brother. He began his unwinding journey away before saying, “Will Mam be there?”
Higgins turned his head, tears prickling. He couldn’t go through all this again. The child had no understanding. He could stand at attention through his own mother’s burial and see death itself in the decaying lapwing and still think Robina would greet him at home.
Iain pulled on the rope, gently bringing his little brother closer. “Mam won’t be there, Wattie. She’s in Heaven.”
Wattie tipped his head up to look at the sky. “I want to see her. Let’s go there.”
Higgins stood, grabbed the center of the rope, and jerked the boys forward. Iain stumbled and fell on hands and knees. Higgins gripped the back of his trousers and jerked him upright. Nose to nose with Wattie, Higgins bellowed, “She’s dead, you numpty! You’ll never see her again!” He walked, hauling on the rope.
Behind his back, the boys walked, reaching their hands together. “We’ll see her in Heaven,” Iain whispered.
Wattie’s teary eyes turned to his brother. “When?”
“Soon. She’ll put on the light.” Robina had always left a lamp burning in the front window. Whenever Higgins lost track of time or place, after he crouched all night behind the barn hearing the voice of God or Lucifer or Major Nimmo hurl the names of his sins at him, he needed that lamp to find his spot in the world again.
“Shut up that whispering!” roared Higgins. “March!” The three moved forward at a military pace, the boys taking two and three steps to every one of their Da’s. When one or both stumbled and fell, Higgins kept hauling. The boys adapted, not speaking, stretching their strides, lifting their feet, watching the ground sharp-eyed, keeping the rope slack between them so if one went down he wouldn’t take the other with him.
They walked and walked in the heat. Higgins smelled himself, his own bestial sweat, his own evil. Or perhaps he’d infected everything around him and this was now the smell of the whole world.
Higgins stopped and turned. The two imps he’d captured—what were they? “Name yourselves!” he roared.
The imps stood and stared. He roared again. The bigger said, “It’s us, Da. Iain and Wattie.” The smaller said, “It’s us.”
He’d frighted his boys and was ashamed. Crouching, he dropped the rope and held out his arms.
They stood like stocks.
“Come to me, boys.”
They didn’t move.
Higgins sat on the ground, head in hands, feeling his head clogging up with tears or mud or concrete. The bottle weighed in his pocket.
The boys came and sat on the ground facing him. “Don’t cry, Da. We’ll be home soon.” Iain unwrapped his handkerchief from around the green feathers and wiped his father’s face, then rewrapped and repocketed the feathers.
“She’ll put on the light for us.” Wattie’s little hands patted Higgins’ knee.
Higgins kept his face covered with his hands until fear of blindness seized him. “Getting dark. Let’s go.” He grabbed the rope and charged, hauling the prisoners along, singing a vigorous battle song at a brisk marching pace. What was coming out of his mouth sounded wrong but he kept singing to drown out the other voices.
Then they were over the last rise and into the marshland. Down there was the Gullet, huge and deep and full. Almost home. Higgins stood, legs trembling, but couldn’t sustain a stance, so he sat. The boys ran up and crowded next to him, all watching the gloaming. No pink tonight. Low black hills behind the Gullet, topsy-turvy in the watery flatness. Woods beyond. Shaggy horizontal clouds, gold-bellied and black-backed, tilting low and fast across his eyes. Sky pale yellow to green to blue. On the far side of the Gullet the ruins of Niddry Castle, roofless and forlorn.
Higgins sat, bent at the waist, arms crossed low and pressing in, trying to calm his belly. “What did your Mam tell you about passing by the the Gullet?”
Iain and Wattie recited their litany. The assailants: Powrie with his iron claws and iron boots, eager to dye his cap scarlet in your blood. Black Donald, whose goat-hooves you’ll see too late to know him as the devil. The tempters: Charming tarrans, the spirits of unbaptized babies who appear as underwater dancing lights, enticing you into their domain. The Green Lady, holding out her arms to you like a loving mother.
Higgins half-listened. Tales for children, mother-told to keep them away from the old quarry. Submerged for generations, it was deeper than anyone now living knew. Black even on the brightest day, crowded by the hulking yew and larch grown up after its abandonment. Sixteen miles around, the size of Loch Ard, but no footpaths. No roe deer, barn owls, or capercaillie among those trees. No perch, pike, or trout in those waters. A place that swallowed all life, all light.
Robina had been one of those mothers. When she and Higgins and the boys had visited old family in the cemetery, she’d insisted on going and returning by road, the long way, instead of cutting through the fields and passing by the quarry. Now she was buried in that cemetery herself and couldn’t stop him from training up his sons to be men.
“Aw, that’s just women’s blether.” He stood and balanced himself before stepping off toward the quarry, tugging the boys on their rope. “I’ll not have jessies for sons.” He led them squelching through the bog, over the spongy turf, and down the slope. They all lifted their knees higher than ever, crushing heaths and mosses, nostrils filling with the gamey reek of peat. No longer was the light concentrated low in the western sky. Now it was dispersed throughout the vault in star-flickers and below in glow-worm pulses. The haze thickened on the ground until those flickers and pulses were all that was visible. Higgins steered through the murk by footfall, eyes trusting feet to find the way.
Wattie’s foot went through the sopping peat and he fell on his face, halting the train. “Da!” said Iain. “Stop for a minute. He’s all wet and crying.” He pulled out his handkerchief, the precious green feathers falling into the muck, and wiped his brother’s face.
Higgins blew out a long breath, blinked at the light-flashes, and sat, his back up against a dead elm. Almost home now. He’d carried out his orders despite the Pashtun hellions. Despite Robina’s abandonment. He’d have a sip to celebrate. Just a sip. Just one. The cork-suck sound, the decayed-moss scent, the bitter heat of the peaty smoke—even before his lips touched the bottle, the old quiet engulfed his mind, a mist into which vanished confusion, anger, and sorrow.
Calming his brother’s panic took Iain some time. He helped Wattie pull his foot—slowly, slowly—from the sucking mire, boot and sock lost below the surface. Wattie looked at his feet, at his brother, at his nodding father, and back at his brother. Iain, too, observed Wattie’s feet and shrugged. Steadying himself on his brother’s arm, Wattie removed the remaining boot and sock, flung them down, watched them follow their twins to the underworld, and laughed.
The boys stood hand in hand, the rope binding brother to brother, and stared out into the hazy dark. No separation between earth and sky. Stars reflected in the Gullet, confusing the eye and mind as to up and down. Faint lights pulsed and wavered. Fireflies, mushrooms, snails? Tarrans, the Green Lady, Mam? Flashes flickered off the surface of Da’s glass bottle as it moved hand to mouth, hand to mouth. The lights glimmered white, red, green, blue.
Wattie tugged Iain’s hand. “There’s yellow!” The color of Mam’s night-light.
Iain sighed and closed his eyes. So tired. “We have to wait for Da.”
Wattie tugged. “No, now! Da can come in the morning. I’m hungry!” He opened his mouth wide to show how much he could eat.
Mam wasn’t at home, but bread and cheese was. Dry clothes. Their own beds.
Da was snoring now.
No footpaths, but the way couldn’t be that hard. So close. Iain softly unwound the rope from around Da’s wrist. He looped the slack between him and Wattie, slid the loops over his head to rest on his shoulders, and took his brother’s hand.
They glanced at their sleeping father, then began their walk among the flickering lights toward home.
Corporal Higgins stood in the sentencing dock of the High Court of the Justiciary in Edinburgh. Posture at attention, eyes caged, he maintained military bearing by counting the panes in the windows. The bottom sash of each window held nine full rectangular panes and six half-panes, fifteen total. The top sash six fulls and four halves, ten total. The fanlight one hemisphere, five fans, and five arcs, eleven total. One complete window, thirty-six total panes. Fifteen windows, five hundred forty total. Sum it again: The bottom sash...
A black crow in a sheep’s wig sat up high, pronouncing. The face didn’t look like Major Nimmo’s, but the voice pronounced like his voice. The crow rejected the defendant’s plea of not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility.
... nine full rectangular panes and six half-panes, fifteen total. Higgins tried to remember when he had seen this room before. It had no tables or chairs, just pews, so it wasn’t the regimental dining hall. Maybe he’d been been married here, or maybe this was where the boys had been baptized. Without turning his head, he cast his eyes from side to side but couldn’t see Robina or Iain or Wattie. Stared front and tried to remember. Where were they?
The crow or Major Nimmo pronounced that precedents for the diminished responsibility defense set by courts in England had not been incorporated into Scottish law. The defendant’s discharge from the army because of traumatic head injury was a military decision irrelevant to the adjudication of this court.
... one hemisphere, five fans, and five arcs, eleven total . Of course they were at home. Where else would they be? He’d join them as soon as he was released from duty here.
Particularly heinous was the tying up of the small boys before throwing them into the submerged quarry to drown. Except for this aggravating circumstance, the jury might have recommended mercy. The court might have agreed. Did the defendant wish to speak before sentence was pronounced?
... five hundred forty total...
Did the defendant wish to speak before sentence was pronounced?
Higgins blinked. What was his duty, to speak or not? He waited for clearer orders.
Major Nimmo put a black cap on his sheep’s-wool wig.
Higgins smirked and covered his mouth with his hand, pretending to cough. Six fulls and four halves.
The black-capped sheep opened its mouth. “Patrick Higgins. It only remains for me to pronounce upon you the last sentence of the law. This sentence is that you shall be taken from here to the Calton Hill Gaol and there be kept in close confinement until this coming Friday, when you shall be taken to a place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. May God have mercy upon your soul.”
This sound of finality cheered Higgins, and he saluted.