That Country Lying As Waste As The Sea

“When we first met she’d seemed fascinated by the accident, intrigued by the idea of all the metal in my body, puzzled as I was about how little I remembered.” A short story where a pain from the past stymies the hope of a brighter future…

by: Thomas Gartner

“Really?” Robyn said when I pulled the car onto the shoulder. She landed the word about midway on the spectrum between amusement and outrage.

“Five minutes,” I said before realizing I wasn’t sure exactly where the memorial was. “Maybe ten.” 

We had spent the night prior at a campground in Glen Nevis in the Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands and driven south and then east through flurries of rain, along Loch Leven, between the dark hills flanking Glencoe, finally out onto Rannoch Moor. The rain had stopped now, but more was coming, a grey blur under purple clouds.

I got out of the car and walked south along the shoulder. Mist curled off the pavement and lay out on the moor in shredded plates and streamers. The car door slammed. Robyn caught up to me as I stopped, one foot on gravel, one on heather. Half a windshield lay there, speckled with raindrops. It was densely veined with cracks but all in one piece, two corners curved and two ragged. Underneath it, pressed flat, was yellowed heather.

“So this is the place, huh?” Robyn said as she leaned against me.

“Somewhere along here. But this is new,” I said motioning to the windshield.

“Right,” she said. “Yours was a long time ago.”

“It was.  Anyway, our windshield didn’t look this good.”

“That country as waste as the sea,” Siovonne had said as we came out onto the moor. A loch, dotted with tiny islands, shimmered below us. The heather, gold and green and purple in the bright sun, stretched off to dark snow capped peaks east and south. The road ahead of us was empty except for a single white SUV half a mile away.   

“A wearier-looking desert man never saw,” she continued. Throughout the trip, Edinburgh to Inverness to the Hebrides to Glencoe, she’d been re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and reciting lines from the book whenever we crossed paths with its characters. David Balfour and his Jacobite friend Alan Breck Stewart had skulked across the rugged expanses of the moor, hunted by British soldiers for a murder they hadn’t committed. “I guess Stevenson didn’t visit on a day like today.”  

The wind gusted, and out of nowhere raindrops like little razor blades stung our faces.

“OK, pilgrimage canceled due to rain.” Robyn slid her hand inside my elbow and pulled. “See? Bad idea.”

“It’s not a pilgrimage. It’s just…here we are.”

“Well, not anymore.” She pulled harder.

I didn’t say anything. When we first met she’d seemed fascinated by the accident, intrigued by the idea of all the metal in my body, puzzled as I was about how little I remembered. Lately though, she’d been going silent at the mention of Siovonne’s name.

She gave me a little shove and headed back toward the car.

I went the other way, fifty yards down the shoulder to where a small cairn was losing its battle with gravity. Ten years of Highland weather, a road in the middle of nowhere, the cross with Siovonne’s name on it was faded to pale grey and streaked with dirt. I rebuilt the cairn, picked a few sprigs of heather to lay across the top. The car door slammed, louder this time.

Robyn was a dark profile behind the passenger side window, looking across the road at the grey contours of the moor. She was seeing, I supposed, the same things I saw there — clouds cutting off the tops of the mountains, bogs and lochans throwing hard specks of reflection through the filter of the rain, a future in which we didn’t know each other.


Thomas Gartner, a buyer at Books Inc. in San Francisco, has had work published in in various journals including Whetstone, Concho RiverReview, California Quarterly, and most recently The Madison Review. His short story “Monica Being Monica” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.   

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