Posted Monday, August 9th, 2004
Awake at Loch Tummel
“I think this is Loch Tummel,” I said, the map unfurled in my lap. I was sitting on the left, where the driver should be. Gary was on the right, holding onto the steering wheel with two hands, looking out his window to see how close he was to the side of the road.
“What?” He looked up. “ Where?”
”This.” I pointed to the left. “Right here, this water.”
“That’s Loch Tummel?”
“What did you expect? A billboard saying, ‘If you lived in Loch Tummel, you’d be home by now’?”
“You want me to pull over?”
We came to Scotland because Gary thought I needed to be someplace quiet, someplace less populous than the Long Island suburb where we raised our three kids amidst a landscape so commercial the only patches of green were slips of manicured lawns between strip malls and Burger Kings. He’d reminded me that I’d been to Scotland in college and had loved it, so I said yes. Yes, because there was indeed a noise in my head I needed to quiet.
It started in the middle of a soccer game on a chilly morning. I watched as Alexa, our middle child, chased down the ball with a mature grace I hadn’t seen before. She kicked it out of bounds and winced at the referee’s shrill whistle. I nearly rose from my seat, so strong was the urge to comfort her, but she got on with it like a stoic. I glanced, then, at the blacktop playground where Madalyn, our youngest, had been coloring with chalk just moments before. She was gone, vanished, and as I looked left to right a panic set in, the kind of fear that seizes you in a fit of apocalyptic terror. And while we found her soon enough, sitting behind the slide playing with the lower half of a Barbie doll someone had left behind, the adrenalin-fed alarm bell wouldn’t quiet. My sense of reason was drowned-out, leaving me convinced that, in some vague way, the end was nigh.
Drawing breaths against my hammering heart rate, I pulled Alexa off the field in mid-game and told my husband and our little one that we were leaving, now. I didn’t wait for an answer, but pushed the children along to the car, Gary scurrying after me asking what, in god’s name, was wrong. Just hurry, I kept saying, before it’s too late. I didn’t expect him to understand. I didn’t understand. I just knew that I had to do whatever I could to make us safe. At home, I checked to see that our teenage son was still sitting in the front of the computer where I’d left him, the dangers of the world outside safely sealed within a blinking modem. I locked all the doors, tested the burners, looked under furniture and out windows. But the terror remained.
A panic attack, my doctor called it. And though by that point it had passed, he sent me on my way with a prescription for Xanax and the name of a psychiatrist. I stuck them both in my drawer next to the necklace I had inherited from my grandmother but never wore because we couldn’t afford the insurance. It was like I had a new hobby collecting totems of fear.
While the attack had indeed blown over, it left a definable trail in my brain, like the detritus of yesterday’s tornado. Even the most delicate tiptoeing around me could kick up a dust storm that brought me to my knees, coughing up worry.
Quiet. The panacea of the stressed. Everyone had said it would be great for me, and you couldn’t get any quieter than Scotland in early spring. I was pretty sure we were the only tourists in the whole country. Maybe the only people north of Edinburgh, where cold still clung to the hills like dew on a golfcourse. We’d been driving for two hours, and hadn’t seen a person or a car in all that time. Just verdant hills and lochs, interrupted by a lazy mist enjoying this spectacular countryside too much to move on. It was like driving through poetry. Poetry that didn’t know enough to fret about three children on the other side of a vast ocean being cared for by someone who wasn’t their mother.
I saw a patch of pebbly asphalt on the left, just big enough to park two cars. “Here!” I shouted, and Gary pulled into it. We got out and slammed our car doors, and I felt guiltily American for the racket. I wanted to apologize to the loch.
We stood on the bank, side by side, collars turned up against the cold as we gazed across the lake, sleeping beneath a fog suspended so still above the water it looked like a photograph. There was quiet in the mist. Quiet in the loch. Quiet in the soft green that framed the panorama in lush tufts.
And yet. There was something stifling in the eerie serenity of this place, and I felt the familiar rumblings of anxiety taking hold. For a moment, I thought the fear was making its own noise, like the crunching of tires on gravel. But it was a small car pulling in behind ours. It seemed the most extraordinary coincidence that another person would have found this remote spot, given how deserted the roads had been.
The door opened and a man in a kilt got out. A man in a kilt. With bagpipes. Gary and I stared, dumbfounded, as if a spaceship had landed. He nodded at us, I think, and walked to another spot on the bank. Then, with his back to us, put his mouth to a pipe and started to play.
Gary squeezed my hand. “Is this for real?” he whispered.
“I think the Scottish tourist authority has spies in the heather,” I joked. “And when they see tourists stop at Loch Tummel, they radio this guy to come and play the bagpipes.”
Gary smiled and put his arm around me.
“I mean, what is he doing here?” I asked.
Gary shrugged. “Inspiration.”
The racket of the instrument, squeezing and crying out a dissonant tune that filled the empty space with the unmistakable presence of human spirit, reminded me of a still house suddenly filled with the tumult of children. The knot of anxiety loosened in my belly. Slowly, a fluid realization took its place.
I reached my arm around Gary’s waist and understood, finally, that quiet was my fear. Those notes, assaulting the hills, that was peace.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Patricia Moed on Monday, August 9th, 2004 at 8:38 PM
It's wonderful seeing your story here in final form. I enjoyed reading it in the earlier draft too. Congratulations!
Posted by Steven Hansen on Tuesday, August 10th, 2004 at 3:51 PM
Very nice description of the Scottish countryside. The mist over the water is particularly alluring, and the notes of the bagpipe wafting over and into that makes an unforgettable, sensual (sensuous?) image. Peace, indeed.
Posted by Dave Clapper [ email@example.com
] on Tuesday, August 10th, 2004 at 4:54 PM
Lovely work as always, Ellen. Amazing how we try to escape the daily stresses of our lives only to realize that in many cases those are what provides our sanity.
Posted by Lee Utnick on Tuesday, August 10th, 2004 at 7:07 PM
You write as beautiful as the notes echoing off the water, thanks for taking me there!
Posted by David Veronese on Tuesday, August 10th, 2004 at 11:09 PM
What a beautiful and inspirational story. Ellen tells about the real world of relationships in our stressful times, not the television version.
Posted by Susan DiPlacido on Wednesday, August 11th, 2004 at 7:59 AM
Posted by Kathy Fish on Wednesday, August 11th, 2004 at 11:22 AM
I absolutely love this very gently told story. The images of the loch and the bagpipe player are exquisite. Beautiful work here...
Posted by Maryanne Stahl on Wednesday, August 11th, 2004 at 1:05 PM
brava, Ellen. nicely worked; lovely writing.
but as I crave quiet, how about I go to Scotland and you visit my relatives on Long Island? ;-)
Posted by Craig Snyder [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Friday, August 13th, 2004 at 1:37 PM
That chick sure is crazy, all right. And what was that bagpiper doing there? I really want to know. It's tearing at me, kinda.
Posted by Myfanwy Collins on Sunday, August 15th, 2004 at 5:46 PM
What a beautiful, tense, amazing story. I love it. Thanks for publishing it.
Posted by debbie ice on Sunday, August 22nd, 2004 at 6:07 PM
Then ending was right on! Notes assaulting the hills!