The best part of it all

I again got the impression that people were looking at me strangely while I was sitting on my backpack and looking outwards over the green stretch that was the Orkney plains. Way off in the distance, I could see a thin strip of sky that faded into white from cool, sharp blue. I was perched right along the edge of a thin winding trail that led through easy hills and ripe green fields of short grass. It wound through small valleys and through the cuts in the landscape, and between the clefts layered upon one another I could see off in the distance and the mountains looked satisfying so far away and crisp. Looked about as different from the place I had come, New Orleans, as anything really could.

The sun was shining and the smoke from my cigarette was wafting in front of me. The man hesitated as he approached. Had I not previously felt noticed, had I not already received the impression that I stood out in some way in the place I was in, I would have assumed that the odd expression that suddenly arrived on his soft, unassuming features was from my smoke curls polluting his tonic afternoon air.

I glanced back at him and tried to smile a thing so slight that it could have been imperceptible. I hoped to show him that sense of place and belonging that lends itself to a sort of inner peace, some peace that relaxes your features and then radiates outwards onto everyone around you, not so much in your words or your actions but in the folds of your skin around your eyes and your mouth. It’s a look that people like to see when they walk by you or see you somewhere, a stranger or otherwise. But sometimes I feel so at odds with everyone around me that I can’t muster it and my face stays waxed and I never have a chance to pretend anything. I felt strange there when I thought about it and I had for a day or two since right before I took the ferry over and that lady called me Lorne. I asked her what she was talking about and she looked so frazzled back at me, so put off by my simple presence there that I probably looked off put too, and she walked off real fast when I started to speak. But I didn’t think on it too much after the fact.

The man walked by me without saying anything so I kept smoking and looking out. It was a real nice day and I felt pretty okay, I had been sleeping well outside in a large field and I liked the food out there. I had been off on my own away from home for a while, probably almost a month at least, and I hadn’t been traveling with a friend since the first weekend when I split up with my buddy I had come over with. We both had these ideas about doing whatever we wanted to do when we got across the pond, and then our plane landed and we got out and stayed together for a few days before realizing how difficult and really absurd it was to travel with someone else when our only plan was act on every impulse and do whatever the hell came to mind. So we split pretty quick. He’s probably in Spain now, by way of southern France and the eastern coast down there. I bet he’s knee deep in red wine and paella at this point. That’s something I think I could count on. I had vague plans of going down that way myself way off in the future I knew had to come sometime.

I wanted to move further west and closer to the shore before the sun set so I hiked up my backpack and kept smoking my cigarette. I veered off the trail and walked down the low incline towards the sun and that thin strip of white way off in the distance, which was right above the mountains that were over the shore and across the water down westward and to the south a ways.

Eventually the incline leveled out and then got flat again before it started to rise up under me. I was walking at a good clip and mostly looking down at the grass moving and I was breathing deeply. Usually when I’m walking real well I do that, just look down, and sometimes I watch the big veins on my arms and try to spot the blood pumping. My blood’s strong when I’m walking quick and I can feel it, and it’s always so tight in my chest and right behind my eyes that I want to feel it in other places too, like it means something.

I saw an old blue bus parked on the side of a hill so I walked over to look in it just to see something on my way. But before I even got up to it I heard some chickens or something like chickens rustling all about inside so I steered off and avoided the whole thing altogether. I used to live in a small room on the corner of a real busy street, and I remember how it felt to have people always walking by and looking in, whenever I had my blinds pulled up or had flipped the slats open. And I don’t mean lookin’ in a strange way or anything, just regular old lookin’ in, something to do. But I figured that since I didn’t really ever appreciate it and that I didn’t have any real reason or particular interest in walking by and looking in the bus that I would avoid the situation altogether and move on.

I was still walking and feeling steady so everything felt all right to me that afternoon. I really liked how everything about that part of the earth was so serene. It all moved so gracefully, like something real old that was never in any rush to get anywhere anymore. But I could see signs of struggle from back in the past in some places, even right around me, and off in the distance everything seemed to be moving a little faster, so it all felt all right and it was nice to be where I was. And I knew it then too, I really did, which seems to me now the best part of it all, of anything really.

By the time I was ready to stop walking I could see the ocean off the coast out there some ways below me and I remember that the water looked real black that day. Just dark, for whatever reason, the light or the tide or something that made it the way it was. But it was nice, because the water was all black at the bottom of everything I could see, and then off to the southwest over the Pentland Firth a ways the mountains came up all soft and dark brown, and then they got lighter until eventually the tips reached that same strip of white sky which I liked so much that finally turned blue and circled up and over behind me. Straight out west and up to the north I could only see the world curling so the strip of white stayed flat across the ocean, and up north somewhere that white strip probably turned to snow and ice.

So it was all there, dark and light and whatnot and it felt okay to me. And it felt okay to me too that the day was getting on and I was close to town and it all looked real pretty and everything. I don’t usually notice the way things look unless there’s really nothing else going on. But I seem to really appreciate it when I do accidentally take in how beautiful things are, because I remember a lot of nice days I’ve spent alone and they come in all easy and focused when I think about them still.

By the time I got into town it was getting dark and I saw a lot of yellow lights on inside houses and everything looked warm and soft, and I felt for a moment that the houses were a part of the land, small and unassuming and everything, and I thought about the potatoes I had eaten for breakfast many hours earlier that had been flat and wholesome and filled me up smooth and easy. I realized then I was hungry as hell so I smoked a cigarette and walked and started to think about finding a bite somewhere to eat. I was thinking that it would be all right with me if I could find something I didn’t have to pay for.

I heard a man playing the guitar and singing loudly so I walked towards the small hut it was coming from. I knew the song, or maybe I just thought I did—it was some old folk tune, almost haunting, real simple and circular. Sounded a lot like something I would have heard before. Anyway, this guy was doing all right and it seemed nice to me, the way his voice sounded and the accent changing it a lot, and it came through the window sounding pretty darn okay. I stood outside all still and it was dark by then and I liked listening to the man sing. I hadn’t really spoken to anyone in a while and it seemed to me then like a good idea to knock on his door and strike up a conversation. I was interested in hearing his voice when he wasn’t singing, so I could see if it was always so thick. He was sitting there through his small wood framed window and he looked friendly enough. Must’ve been near his mid twenties, broad shouldered with thick, red-brown hair.

When he stopped singing I walked up and knocked stiffly on his door. The wood was thick and it sounded satisfying when I put my knuckles to it, so I did it real quick one more time, and I heard him stand up and then the door opened and he stood there holding his guitar by the neck with his left hand hung low on the doorknob. He looked at me and his face changed, it got all slack and his mouth was lower than it had been when I first saw it through the window. I lost my words when I saw the way he looked at me so we stood there staring at each other for a moment that seemed to stay put in time or something.

“What are you doing here?” His face had changed again and it looked both shocked and angry all at once, like I was pissing on his doorstep and he didn’t know whether he should laugh like an old buddy or punch me square in the jaw.

“I just heard you singing and it sounded like maybe you’d help me out, if you could.” The anger slipped off from around the corners of his mouth and moved out near his eyes and now he looked more than shocked and even a little scared.

“Who are you?” His words all sounded stuck together.

“My name is Richard Wallace. I’ve just been passing through little towns around here and moving around for a while by myself and I thought maybe you could help me get around, and maybe even if you had a little food that would be all right with me.”

“That’s, well, I don’t know. Come inside.” He moved outwards and swung the door open a little more and I stepped in past him and set my backpack down underneath a coat rack that wore thick wool shirts and carried two felt hats. He looked over at me, still surprised, I think, by the way I looked. It seemed that around this area most people I had seen were surprised by the way I looked.

“I’m Nathalan. I live here with my Mother, but she’s down south across the firth visiting her sister. I don’t think you should stay long. But I have some food and maybe even some advice about the land around here that you can have.”

“That will be fine. Thank you, Nathalan.” He walked off and I followed him through the small living area with a wooden table and some wicker furniture. In the corner there was a wood stove that was dark and empty and next to it there was a small pile of logs shaped like long pieces of pie.

“Have you ever had clapshot before?” It took me a moment to understand him.

“Just a few days ago I tried it for the first time. An old woman I got to talking to on the ferry brought me back to her house and served me some and it was real okay. I pretty much like potatoes any way whichever they’re made. “

He stood with his back to me moving around dishes of food and I walked over to his guitar and looked at it and held it. The wood felt old and the strings looked well played.

“Can I play this guitar?”

“If you want to.”

I laid it in my lap and it felt even better than it had in my hands, and I played a few chords and felt it out and everything seemed all right to me and I even forgot for a moment the way he had looked at me when he had first opened the door, and the way the man on the small walking path and the woman a few days earlier had responded to my presence. After a while I looked again at the guitar and noticed that it didn’t say anything on the headstock and that it had no name or tag of any make or company.

“What kind of guitar is this?”

“My grandfather made it in the forties. It’s been in the family.” He turned and walked towards me, holding a thick white porcelain plate covered with a pile of clapshot and a few dark sausages. He set it before me and I put the guitar down on the chair and said thank you. He sat down across the small table and I started eating and realized how hungry I was and how far I was from home and took note of all the people that had given me things. It seemed to me that everything he had given me, the song and the food and the warm yellow light, was more than I had earned and I knew it, which really didn’t feel so bad when I thought about it. The food was warm and filling and I didn’t need to say anything to Nathalan, and that was all right by me. Silence always sounds different when it’s a natural kind of thing.

“This is real good. Did you make it?”

“My mother made the potatoes and I made the sausages day before last. I’m glad somebody’s eating them before they get thrown away.” He had moved slightly while I was eating and now he was facing a little to my left, and he looked above my shoulder into the outside.

“I get the impression that folk around here aren’t used to getting too many visitors.”

“It depends on the season, I’d say.”

“The first lady I met on these islands was real friendly, invited me over to dinner even, to her little place in the middle of nowhere. She was pretty old. Talked my ear off the whole time, couldn’t do or say a thing to make her stop. I don’t think I ever even told her my name, she was so busy talking. I’ve been staying on her land at night though, and that’s all right by me. I like the land up here.”

“She’s probably lonely. There’s not much to do when you’re old.”

“I guess, something. But other than that, I’ve been getting funny looks. Even you looked at me strange when you first saw me.”

He kept looking out the window and didn’t say anything, so I went on.

“Who’s Lorne?”

“What did you say?”

“Lorne. Who is Lorne, is what I said. Some lady called me Lorne, first person I saw coming into town the other day, before I even said word to anybody. And when I went about explaining myself to her she took off all strange like, scared or something.”

“Well. I’d say if you’re wondering who Lorne is that the answer to that question is mighty long. Only Lorne I know hasn’t been around for some time.”

“Do I look like this Lorne fellow?” I ate some sausage and waited for Nathalan to stop staring out the window and start talking to me.

“Some might say.”

“Would you say?”

“I might.”

“This ain’t too big of a town, is it.”

“Fits me all right.” He watched me take the last bite of potatoes. I chewed and then went on.

“Why’s everybody seem so put off when I come around?” He hesitated. I was mostly just trying to make conversation. The lines around his mouth were coming back ever so slow and his face was getting harder.

“You look just like a man that nobody has much wanted to see for a while. Things have been better for some time, people stop thinking about things they don’t see anymore. They see you, they start thinking about things they’d started to forget. I did, for a moment there. Least until I heard you talk. There’s not much to say past that I guess.”

“What did he do that turned folks off so bad? Where’d he go to?” My food was finished and I could tell that I was starting to overstay my welcome.

“He did some things to some people, and said some things to some other people. Then he got to leaving. I think maybe you should get to leaving yourself. It’s a nice, quiet place up here, some would say. I would, even.” I nodded, folded my napkin and put it up on the table next to my empty plate. The food was good and hearty and everything was fine with me right then, so I stood up tall and felt content in that small place.

“Thank you for dinner. You have a beautiful guitar.”

“You’re welcome, and thank you. I’d say I like it myself.” I stuck my hand out curtly, and he stiffened a little before reaching out and shaking it. He nodded and turned around, carrying my empty plate into the other room. I picked up my backpack and opened the thick wood door. The air outside had gotten cooler and it felt good when I stepped through the arch and closed the door behind me. It was black outside.

I walked back the way I had come and the yellow lights of the town grew smaller and the hills got bigger for a while before it got flat again, and I was full of food and felt just fine. I smoked a cigarette and walked back towards the nice woman’s plot of land that must’ve been three miles or so south east. I knew if I just bee-lined I’d get there one way or another. There was a big dirt road that cut the island in half running north and south. She lived to the south right off the road, near the ferry landing. I couldn’t miss it, and I wouldn’t miss the walk if I could.

I’d heard some American folks talking about the Orkney chasm on the ferry a few days before, but I hadn’t thought much of it since then, and really I’d almost completely forgotten it when I came up on it in the dark. The ground beneath me started to drop real steady and kept falling faster. So I stopped walking and focused my eyes ahead of me and realized that the ground fell out not even five feet away, and that I’d almost walked right into a huge hole in the middle of a field. Shit, I thought, that wouldn’t a been all right.

I turned back and got myself steady on some flat ground. I walked around the thing and it really looked so strange to me. Just this big hole in the middle of it all. Right there, deep as nothing, black as black. I looked back to where I’d come from and I could still see the lights from the town where nobody wanted me and then I remembered Lorne and all that, and I even thought about him for a minute. Seemed to me right then that it was all real clear, that Lorne had just fallen right into this thing and that’s why nobody thought about him anymore. Seemed to me black enough to hide him.

For a moment I wondered what Lorne had done to make everybody feel the way about him that got them looking at me the way that they did, and I wondered how much I really looked like him anyway. But those thoughts didn’t last too long and I looked around and noticed fireflies blinking at me all over and especially down inside the chasm. Looked kind of like a little town down there, Lorne’s town, yellow windows winking at me and whatnot, inviting me to join. But I felt real fine up top above the black hole on my own, looking down on the flashing bright spots of yellow-green and smoking my cigarette, and I was glad that I hadn’t kept walking and wound up at the bottom of that thing. I set my backpack down and sat on it like I always did when I wanted to sit somewhere. It felt okay to me, that place, and I liked the land even if the people that lived on it didn’t like the look of me. And the silence sounded real nice even though I didn’t have the option of a conversation to contrast it against. I knew just how fine that night was then too, I really did—and that seems to me now the best part of it all, the best part of anything really.

 

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  1. ROGER SAYS: THIS IS BLAST NO. 3 | Roger Presents: - June 15, 2012

    […] difficult part is recognizing this while you are a part of it. James Weir‘s story, The best part of it all, reminds us to remember this. It also reminds us to watch where we are […]

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