“We find ourselves in odd places at various times, and for a brief span we link our lives to others.”*
That ephemeral and incomplete cite came to Knox’s mind for a second time since he had set foot on Scottish soil. He smiled at it trying to remember where he had read it or heard it, but was left with the tingling sensation of curiosity. He went on guessing the meaning of the quote. He pulled up a chair by the window in the small dining area at “Uaine ‘Bheinn” – “Green Mountain” to him as Knox struggled to read its Gaelic name – tiny hotel in the village of Dundonnell on the south side of Little Loch Broom.
The morning of the early autumn month was cloaked in a milky mist; a treacherous weather symptom that made the paths difficult to follow and the signs hard to read. The owner, a man in his mid-50s spat on the happening as he came inside the cozy room bearing a cup of strongly scented with herbs brew Knox filled his nostrils with. He took a chug and grimaced instantly. Knox couldn’t tell whether it was too sour or sweet. The cup was left to sit alone on an empty table as the older man stood by the window and pulled a curtain aside.
“I don’t like it when this one falls down. Sometin’ eerie ‘bout it.’ He looked at Knox and pointed at what was outside. “Ye canna expect nothin’ good from it. Still gives me chills up me old bones.” He shivered as if a cold wave had indeed passed through him and pulled to lift higher his burgundy shirt collar popping out from underneath his beige sweater.
Knox ordered himself whiskey. He hoped, as he drank the burning golden liquid, digesting the words of the gray-haired man, that a drink of such would stimulate him, give him courage somehow by some means. He needed it. He thought about what the man had said. He had offered his premonition unwanted, maybe just to indicate a conversation with his guest, but Knox found a different meaning in the windy worry of the inn keeper. To him it sounded like a warning and the gesture towards the looming mountain peaks, An Teallach casting a shadow on the snuggled little village and the small huddled hotel with him trapped inside it sent shivers down his back. There was something very eerie about it, true.
From his seat Knox observed the static and dead in both color and presence exterior of Scotland’s wilderness. Trapped he might have been, yet he couldn’t help feel it was inside a safe barrier generated by old beliefs and protected by small totems hung over the lonely fireplace. It was odd how that feeling was stronger up here where only myths and foreigners visited. It felt like it was born here, in this boring, cold unwelcoming place. Knox rubbed his eyes with his thumb and middle finger. He drank down the rest of his morning drink. His gaze averted from the outside world and traveled alongside the empty bar.
The gray stone of the hotel was isolated by homemade dyed rugs, reds and blues and yellows deftly crafted and soft under his shoes. The walls made home for various trinkets, old-fashioned climbing gear, oil lamps, some still working, photographs of the generations who had run the inn. Above Knox’s head hung scenery paintings of lakes in summer and mountain peaks with sunshine halos, puffs of white clouds rolling gently under the brush. On the counter sat a heavy radio picking low voices and buzzing tunes through blizzards and sunshine regardless. The rest of the dining area was arranged with dark wood furniture in order to bring comfort and coziness to the visitors. Taking all that in Knox could feel that same wave of chilliness going through him, as it had went through the inn-keeper. It threatened him if he dared go outside, and as such bribed him to stay inside.
He put down his glass, his fingerprints appearing on the glass under the short steam of his breath, than disappeared. Knox sat back in his chair paralyzed by his own folklore dread. There was a burned hole on the white embroiled table cover where his glass had been and Knox stared at it for a while, thinking of the person who had sat here. He thought one would not expect to see burned holes in places like this. They meant presence, and a person had the impression that the tourists, sight seers and climbers wanted to be easily forgotten, like they were afraid that if they were to leave a mark behind in a place like this, they’d be bound to come back one day.
Knox knew they were drifters of the world, backpackers with mixed culture, no names, just made up stories and dreams. They never came back. This hole was a statement, a real and irreplaceable evidence that someone, despite it all, had stayed to sleep in the silence upstairs, rolling in the sheets which smelled like wet rocks and had eaten some local dish like haggis with neeps and tatties and malt whiskey cream or slow cooked lamb shank with other ingredients which Knox couldn’t remember from the menu, but was sure included gravy.
He truly couldn’t imagine staying where he was any longer. Maybe he hated the place because of what it prepared him for. Maybe he hated it because he wouldn’t be returning to it either just like all the others.
The inn-keeper’s son named Graham dragged his feet past Knox. They had already covered the initial conversation between host and guest in which Knox was asked a great deal of questions, to which he mumbled satisfactory answers. Graham nodded at Knox and picked up few pieces of wood which he threw in the fireplace. Knox watched them burn.
He was the only guest at the hotel at the moment or at least he believed it so. He hadn’t met anyone else whilst having his breakfast or dinner, nor heard other voices. Yesterday a group of climbers had arrived. While trying to register, Knox had heard them speak with heavy accented English. After they exchanged words with the owner who shook his head at their questions, they looked at each other disappointed and out loud argued about leaving and perhaps coming back again next weekend. Apparently the descending mist hadn’t averted their desires to explore the heights, but the grey-haired man did. The owner, one Sean Fraser was full of old tales.
Knox wasn’t much of a climber; he had done hiking with his friends some years ago on a trip in Austria and today he was going to attempt what Sean Fraser had labeled as ‘suicide’ – going up An Teallach alone and in the fog. Knox wondered why the owner had let him stay and not the group – did they not want to do the same insanity as him? Yet he had sent them away and allowed Knox to sit patiently and bide his time.
Regardless of such thought, Knox carried on with his preparation. From the kitchen he ordered two sandwiches in a Tupperware box, some fruits and two bottles of water. His backpack was ready, the ropes and ice axe prepared. Knox zipped his jacket and reached for the door.
“Have you got anything but wind in your head lad? Don’t you see what it’s like out er’?”
Knox just waved at the owner “No worries chief. I’ve got it all planned ahead.”
“Aye, aye, t’ what they all say, but there are more deaths this year than any other. Cause’ of fools like you.”
“Deaths?” Knox turned around, hand on the door handle.
Sean nodded. “Five just this January.”
To be continued….
*Quote by Harlan Ellison