This is the dumbest thing you've ever done, Robin, I lamented to myself as I peered out the train window into the driving rain, awaiting the infrequent gaps in the downpour that provided glimpses of the dark cliffs beyond. Scholarship or not, this is no place for a Nebraska girl!
Of course, I'd seen mountains before: in photographs, on TV, in movies, from the plane two days ago. And that's what I'd expected: clean, bright monoliths with sunny green slopes rising to snowy peaks that played tag with fluffy white clouds. Happy mountains. Not these brooding Scottish crags where only the deepest shades of purple and gray relieved the blackness. There was nothing of happiness there, nor in anything I'd yet seen in this somber country, where clothes and expressions matched the dismal weather – constant rain, from what I could tell. Even the flashing colors of my kinte-cloth dress seemed subdued, surrendering in sympathy to the pervading gloom. This is going to be one l-o-n-g summer.
"Pretty bleak, huh?"
The comment from my new seat mate interrupted my latest bout of self pity. I turned and looked at her closely for the first time. I hadn't expected her to speak – none of her predecessors had. I automatically examined her round, pale face but found nothing except friendliness. "Sure is," I replied, "Is it always like this?"
"Search me," she laughed, "I'm a tourist, too. But in two weeks I haven't seen the sun yet. Maybe it never shines at all."
"Oh, don't say that! I'm stuck here until September."
"Really? Are you an entertainer... or on a sports team?"
"No, on a scholarship. Or, rather, this is the price I have to pay for it, spending each summer here, studying the country and the people. 'In order that the history and traditions of our ancient, noble land shall not entirely be forgot by her wandering children,'" I quoted from the MacLeod scholarship agreement. Noting her puzzled look, I added, "My last name's MacDonald, Robin MacDonald. From Nebraska – that's in the United States."
She stuck out her hand and grinned widely, "Hi. I'm Sally Myers. From Vermont. That's in the United States, too."
I took her hand automatically, blurting, "Oh," in chagrin, "I thought... well, I'm not sure where I thought you were from. Maybe England."
"Nope, Vermont's still part of the good old USA last time I looked – although some old-timers might argue the point," she replied, adding, "Sounds like a neat deal. You just travel from city to city, absorbing Scotch culture the whole summer?"
"No, I'm staying in a small village called Killian this whole summer. Next year – who knows?" I glanced out the window and shrugged, "Somewhere wet, that's for sure!"
The conductor announced my stop then, cutting short further conversation. Despite our brief acquaintance, I felt a real loss saying goodbye to Sally, already missing the last friendly face I expected to see all summer.
* * *
I awoke next morning, my determination bruised but unbroken. My hosts hadn't bothered concealing their dismay late last night when I arrived. Well, my only chance at college was that damn scholarship which demanded I stay here, and if that meant kissing Scottish ass, then Scottish ass would be well and soundly kissed. But I didn't have to like it.
I washed quickly in the bathroom adjoining the bedroom they'd assigned me after some frantic relocating, then dressed and walked downstairs. Irate voices stopped me outside the dining room.
"Sure and they made the mistake, but 'tis us that have to deal with her," a woman whined.
"We canna send her to another house?" a man asked.
"No, I asked – none will have her. Claim they're full."
"So what are we to do? We're full, too. We canna put any of the others in with her."
"Aye, that's certain. We'll have to keep her roommates in the other rooms."
"But that means five in each!" he paused, then added in a sly tone, "Well, I suppose we could ask for volunteers..."
"We'll have none of that," the woman snapped, "Not under my roof!"
I could restrain myself no longer and stepped into the room. My hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, sat at opposite ends of a long table with five or six others, presumably students like myself – well, students, anyway – on each side. Total silence descended. I pulled out the only empty chair, beside Mrs. Wallace, and sat looking straight ahead. "Sorry to cause so much trouble," I said.
Mr. Wallace ahemed. Mrs. Wallace replied, "Sure and 'tis trouble, but none of yer doing, lass. 'Tis those daft people in America."
"I guess they didn't mention that I'm Black," I said.
There was a long pause, then Mr. Wallace answered, "No, they dinna... and why should they? What they should'a told us, ye're a lass."
I looked at my table mates then and belatedly realized all were boys. Embarrassed, they stared at their plates, even the brother, the only one I couldn't be sure was blushing. I have a small mouth and big feet – how do I manage to stuff the latter completely into the former so often?
It wasn't the first time my androgynous first name had caused confusion, but that morning set the tone for the summer. Everyone was polite, but with the boys packed five to a room, all sharing one bathroom, while I had exclusive use of a room with private bath, resentment was inevitable. I offered to swap rooms, so at least they'd have access to another bathroom without passing, and possibly even glimpsing, the very bed where nightly lay my nubile brown body (a mortal Scottish sin, apparently). But my room was the smallest and usually accommodated only three; it couldn't hold five. So we endured, with everybody else crammed in like sardines and me with room to spare.
To be fair, the rest of the household treated me well and, at least openly, didn’t blame me for the situation. I only overheard another student refer to me as the ‘African princess’ once. I probably was at least as responsible for the cool relationship as the others were.
The only person I got along with at all was Angus, the Wallace's youngest son, who worked in a nearby city and only came home on occasional weekends. He hadn't been there that first morning to witness me making a fool of myself, and he was used to sleeping in his parent's bedroom in summer, "When the Yanks invade," as he jokingly put it.
His arrival Friday night was the one bright spot in my week, although I certainly never let on to him. Knowing I avoided the excursions planned for the other students, he showed me the Scotland he knew and loved. Those weekends he didn't appear, fortunately rare as the summer progressed, were my worst times.
I did, however, grow to appreciate the country. Once the rain let up, the countryside was absolutely lovely, intensely green with scarcely a flat square meter – totally unlike my home. And the people were friendly if more reserved than those in my small hometown. My first impressions had undoubtedly been colored by my own bleak mood.
My last Sunday Angus borrowed the family car for a long-promised visit to the local castle. Engine trouble delayed us before miraculously curing itself, and the sunset faded behind as we rounded a curve and stopped beside a large rock. Angus gestured ahead; I leaned forward, craning my neck. The cliff before us rose steeply but not particularly high, maybe five hundred feet. Perched atop, looking more like an outcrop of the cliff itself than any construction of man, a massive hulk stood outlined against the evening sky. "Castle Killian," he announced dramatically.
I tried to make out the features of the dark castle against the lesser darkness of the heavens, but could discern few details, except that it was massive, composed mainly of sharp angles and bulky protrusions. Then came the light! Dim though it was, it stabbed through me like a frozen knife.
I stared, stunned. I'd always considered my Celtic surname merely some old slave-owner's proprietary brand, a vaguely shameful legacy with no relation to me until it provided the scholarship. But something deep within my soul recognized that solid outline with its one shining spot and responded with a burst of tangled emotions that I couldn't separate. There was joy and love, and sadness and... something else, something that combined revulsion and hatred and fear and anger – stronger than anything I'd ever felt.
The emotions surged through me and vanished in an instant, yet left me weak, as though punched in the stomach. I grabbed the dashboard to keep from falling into it, tore my eyes away and exclaimed, "My God! I can't believe anybody lives there."
"That they did," Angus replied, "by the dozens. Probably considered themselves quite well housed."
"No," I said impatiently, "I know people lived there once. I mean now."
"Oh, naeone's lived there for over three hundred years."
"Well, somebody's there – I just saw a light in south tower window!"
"Sure ye're mistaken, Robin. After the tragedy, the last Earl of Killian lived alone till he died. He left nae heirs and there was naebody to inherit, so empty it's been ever since."
"What tragedy?" I asked.
"Ah, ye must hear the Legend of Killian Hall – 'tis a fine sad tale indeed. The last Earl, Lord Duncan, had an identical twin brother, Fergus. Both boys went away to other countries to complete their educations. At school in England, Fergus befriended the son of a German count. The friend came for a visit, bringing his younger sister Matthildur, although everyone called her Rotkehlchen, a nickname from childhood. Fergus and Duncan – now, their father was still alive then, so Duncan wasna Earl yet – they both fell for Rotkehlchen. She picked Duncan and they soon married. Two months later, the old Earl was badly injured when he fell from his horse. A few weeks later he died and Duncan became the twenty-third – and, as it turned out, last – Earl of Killian.
"This was too much for Fergus. He'd always blamed Duncan for their mother's death: Fergus had been born easily but then his twin took several hours and she died birthing him. Fergus figured Duncan had taken everything from him: his mother, his title, his property... and now his girl."
"But why wasn't he the Earl?" I asked, "He was firstborn, right?"
"Aye, that's what was so hard for him: anywhere else, any other country, he would've inherited. But old Scots law says the second twin born is the elder – doona ask me why. So anyway, he decided to take it all. He seduced Rotkehlchen and arranged for Duncan's assassination on a trip down South.
"The morning following the planned murder, a rider brought Fergus the word – but nae the word he expected. One conspirator had turned traitor and betrayed the whole plot. The assassins had been expected and taken; only the messenger escaped, barely ahead of Duncan and his men.
"Fergus grabbed whatever valuables he could and escaped with Rotkehlchen in a currach, a leather boat. He disguised himself as a fisherman and she huddled in the bottom out of sight. They were in the middle of the firth," he pointed to the unseen bay behind us, "when a bird flew over, way up high, and dropped something which went right through the currach's skin; they sank in seconds. Now, seabirds carry cockles and mussels up and drop them on the rocks to break them, and such might have holed the leather, but 'twas nae seabird. The only witness saw a little bird special to Rotkehlchen. Punishing her for her treachery, so they say – her and her lover both.
"Fergus's body floated ashore next morning. Divers eventually recovered most of the treasure, including a brooch with a large ruby surrounded by diamonds that Rotkehlchen always wore – a marriage gift from the old earl that had belonged to the boys' mother – although one diamond had been knocked out. But her body was washed out to sea and ne'er turned up. To this day they say her ghost haunts the castle, searching each night for her drowned lover."
"What a terrible story!" I exclaimed, "Poor Duncan! He lost wife and brother in one day."
"Aye, and it broke him. He chased everyone except one old servant from the castle and they lived there alone until he died some thirty years later, the last Earl of Killian. The castle's been abandoned by all save rats and bats ever since."
Night now obscured the castle, but I knew I'd see it again.
* * *