Timothy Irish Watt is the co-author of the academic book, Shakespeare, and the Mysteries of Authorship (Cambridge University Press, 2009). “Orcadia” is his first published personal essay in a national literary magazine.
Timothy Irish Watt
My father, whoever he is, what the word denotes, what the figure within it fails to entail, my father had a father who threw him over the hedge. Grandpa. A prick, a war-hero, and an orphan sort-of. His father – grandpa’s father – was a Presbyterian missionary who died of malaria in Bengal just after his son, my grandpa, was born. Grandpa’s mother was diagnosed hysterical two years later and was put away for a long time, in a white room, where she died. I have never known her name, nor ever seen a picture of her face, nor held a hairbrush, for example, that she cherished before becoming – as the diagnosis tells us – hysterical, or that she cherished more while she was hysterical and medicated and dying in her distant room. She is no more. Her son, my grandfather, favored vests.
He was sent away to boarding school by his aunts when he was seven years old. The second grade. Be a good boy, grandpa. He became a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II. He was nineteen. He led a squadron over the Ploesti oil fields. He came back alive, so to speak. He was an orphan in charge of a plane, roaring out above the world, to bomb Hitler and Hitler’s minions and Hitler’s supplies into oblivion. He was a great pilot, highly decorated, my father’s father, dad’s dad. And grandpa’s father was a missionary, and his father was a shining kind success, and his father was the first American of us all. His name was Peter. He left the Orkney Islands, and the difficult windblown whiskey-driven fisherman’s life of his father when he was fifteen. He apprenticed himself to an architect in Edinburgh, and five years later he sailed for America, a suitcase in his hand, a cap on his head, a mint in his mouth.
Apparently his eyes didn’t blink in the wind. He must have gotten this gift, if it was a gift, from his father, the Nameless Orcadian, hauling nets in a storm. His island was Stronsay – a rock in the North Sea. I have been to the tavern there where he drank. It was a rubble of dark stone with a ribbon and the cellophane wrapper of a cigarette package embedded in the dirt I assume was once the tavern floor, across which my great-great-great-great grandfather walked, in his cracked boots, moving towards the fire with a drink in his hand.
I went to Stronsay with my father, who I did not know very well, the summer after I graduated from Hobart College, with academic and athletic honors, and prepared to begin graduate school at Brown University the coming fall. I was, as far as I knew, very successful again, as perhaps I had not quite been since I’d left Lancaster for Andover eight years before.
The trip to Stronsay was my father’s idea, his plan, his graduation gift to me, his son, of whom he was said to be very proud, to return as father and son to the ancestral homeland, which he spoke of reverentially both when he first offered the trip and in the months leading up to the vague precarious sort-of togetherness of our departure from Newark, three weeks after my graduation, and four weeks after we – meaning the 1993 Hobart lacrosse team, of which I was co-captain – had won a National Championship in front of fifteen thousand spectators on the campus of the University of Maryland. Among the spectators at that event were my mother and step-father, and my father, who had in earnest reentered my life my senior year at Andover, where I was a terrible student, a good lacrosse player, and a first-rate socializer with nowhere to go to college because I’d failed to furnish more than my first choice (the University of Pennsylvania, which rejected me) and the back-up to which I would only have gone at gunpoint, with applications. It was then that my dad stepped in and suggested Hobart, his alma mater, which had recruited me heavily and which I had just as heavily ignored. Because of my father – the irony cripples my smile – I thus ended up going to Hobart, where I played lacrosse, and began to see my father again, most often on the sidelines, standing alone, and later, meaning my junior and senior years, talking with a broad smile on his face at the post-game parties in our team’s honor. I was his crutch, if he needed a crutch, and I was his friend, if he needed a friend, and I was his son, the captain. It never once occurred to me to decline his invitation, neither in my heart, nor in my mind. So together we went, father and son, to Stronsay, the Orkney Islands, Scotland.
It was July when we arrived. The wind wouldn’t let up and the weather changed and changed and changed again, and because Stronsay stood at fifty-nine degrees latitude, the sky never became night-dark, but hovered in a four-hour splendor of dusk. My father was afraid to drink. My father drank, but the drinking did not dispel the bewilderment in his eyes, nor the disorientation of his tongue. Sober, drunk, somewhere in between, it did not matter, he could barely speak. The first thing he said to me was, Do you understand them, by which he meant our greeting party – Stonsay’s harbormaster, a strapping indecipherable goof, and his mute and troubled son who had the look of a chronic masturbator temporarily held up between sessions.
I did not understand them at first, and I could not interpret sufficiently to turn confusion into heritage, to which he and I, son and father reconciled, had re-arrived, across time, bearing our name intact.
We’re just saying hello, I said. The harbormaster shook my hand. The harbormaster’s son shook my hand.
The woman – the wife, the mother, the daughter, and perhaps she was a sister too – was somewhere in the crumbling stone building behind us. The building was in the town. The town was stones and buildings bunched by the road across from the pier. The town was said to have electricity. The inn was said to have a TV. The island was said to have three-hundred and twenty-nine inhabitants.
In five days there, I saw eight. The first was the harbormaster, who was also the innkeeper, the constable, the postal clerk, and an eccentric companion to his pet crow, named Crow, who’d been with him through bad times and good, for near upon seventeen years. His name was Chimney, as far as I could tell, although it may have been Jimmy. He was the first person we met and the last we said goodbye to. There was also his son, the chronic masturbator, who was also the barkeep and the assistant harbormaster, and who could, according to his father, fill in as constable, in a pinch. What he meant by a pinch, what could possibly constitute a pinch on the island of Stronsay I had no idea, but I understand that aberrant behavior can be relied upon to show up everywhere, including Stronsay, if not especially Stronsay, which was said to have three-hundred and twenty-nine inhabitants.
The first three I saw were the harbormaster, his son, and his wife, introduced as The Missus and never known by us beyond that name. She was a whiskey-soaked stretch of indestructible leather, an unyielding accomplice to her cigarette, and she fried us whole fish and eggs in the morning and appeared to me to have no use for language, given her circumstance, on the island of Stronsay, living twenty feet from the sea in the ruined village, now lovely perhaps only to outsiders, excluding my father, who was confused, ashamed, and terribly disappointed. I said to him, His name’s Chimney, Dad.
Chimney, I said.
His son made us cheese sandwiches in the bar in the afternoon. The bar served cheese sandwiches, McEwan’s, and whiskey. There was a dartboard, and a single dart stuck into the wall beside it. Three generic mail-order tables with four chairs each, and the bar itself, also mail-order, also laminate. The two windows of the bar, one on each side of the door, offered views of the port and the sea it was part of. The port was across what was called the road from the bar and the inn. What was called the road was seven feet wide.
I enjoyed eating my cheese sandwich in the bar, and drinking my McEwan’s, and looking out the window at the rain, if it was raining, which it did with a kind of sporadic regularity. I enjoyed gazing at the harbor – two boats and a pier – and at the small island called Papa Stronsay across the harbor, and at the sea and the sky beyond it.
My dad didn’t like it. He was ashamed and disappointed, disoriented and without time. The sun would not go away; the wind would not stop. Stronsay was not what he’d hoped it would be. And the rain continued falling with a kind of disordering order, a majestic disarray, from the sky that did not become dark in accordance with my father’s expectations.
My dad did not want to drink. My dad drank, in the bar that depressed him, and his tongue went wordless, and his eyes went blank, and his body numbed. I watched this. It happened – simply, progressively, successfully: There. He was there, then, far away from the inhabitants of Stronsay and Stronsay’s two guests.
On the second day he stayed in his room until very late in the afternoon, claiming fatigue. He said to me, It never became night. In that sentence was another sentence that said, it just wouldn’t, it just wouldn’t. He was in bed and the curtains were drawn. I shut the door. I began to miss him. He was my dad, in a dark room alone, confused and hurt and with no ability to understand his situation, and no other response to his ancestral land – that’s his phrase – than humiliation and sadness and pain. To miss him, then as now, and as I had so many times before, was another way of missing myself as his son, his responsive, enjoyable, worthwhile, and saving son.
I walked the road in the late afternoon, out of the village of Whitehall, away from the port and into the island. It was said to be seven miles long and I’d decided to walk it. Darkness, since it did not fully come, was not a concern, nor was the threat of an angry crowd, appearing suddenly over the crest of the hill, with axes in their hands and the intention to repay the sins of my father, and his father and his father and his father for abandoning the island, and his father – the Nameless Orcadian – for letting him leave, by visiting them back upon the son who was walking on the road of Stronsay as if he had a right to, as if he had a right to return with his diluted blood – Dutch, for fuck’s sake, Irish, English – and his sweater made by a sweathouse stranger.
It was said my father snored so loud he woke The Missus from her admirable stupor and sent the harbormaster upstairs, with his crow, Crow, perched on his shoulder, to make sure the door to my dad’s room was shut – it was shut – and if it was not shut, to shut it with as much parental discretion as any action around a sleeping human being requires everywhere for everyone on Earth, including my father, on the island of Stronsay.
A man puttered past me in a green Peugeot. He had a turban on his head. He was Pakistani, I guessed. He waved. I waved. He drove down the road and around the curve that led into the village of Whitehall, and the inn there, where my father was sleeping, on a bed between a window and a door. Unreasonably I began to fear for my father. Who was that man in the Peugeot, and what was he doing on the island of Stronsay? He’d no doubt reached the harbor by now, parked beside the inn, emerged, and whatever it was he’d planned to do was already transpiring as I stood stupidly in the rain on the road, dreaming my separate dreams, forgetting my father, walking ahead, with each finger of my left hand tapping my thumb; pinky to thumb one, ring finger to thumb two, middle finger to thumb three, forefinger to thumb four. I had seen four of the three-hundred and twenty-nine inhabitants. It was our second day on the island. The rain came down and went away, spattered, spit, poured forth in a torrential burst, merely fell, and now and again the sun appeared suddenly in the sky between passing clouds. And the wind was never anything less than a gust, always blowing, with unforeseeable fleeting rooms of stillness hidden inside it. When I found myself in one of these rooms I would be surprised by the silence there, and then the wind would gust again, pressing against me and the beautiful roar of it filled my ears. I pressed back. I kept on walking the road of Stronsay, the island without trees, from which my father’s name and mine had sprung.
It was said, and Chimney believed it was possible, that among the inhabitants of the island, there was a Watt, the last remaining Watt of Stronsay, who’d been born and raised in the house the Nameless Orcadian had built long ago when he wasn’t out fishing or sitting by the fire in the tavern, in his cracked boots, with a drink in his hand. I wondered, while I was walking the road, if I would run into the last Watt, and if I did, if I would know without introduction who it was, blood of my blood, blood before mine, bent in the field, a spade in his hand. I wondered – I wanted – this: To pass by the house and know physically that it was the house in which the people with my name before me were born and lived. I was hoping for the deja vu, the kind that whispers the fictions of time past, present, and yet to come in one’s ears, and leaves one wondering if one is alive or dead, living or dying, as who, when.
Houses were scarce, none seemed inhabited, all were built of stone and crumbling in their plot of rocky field. I considered approaching a window and peering in, if there was a window, or knocking on the door, if there was a door to be knocked upon, a home to be entered, a person to be met, a ruin to be explored, an emptiness to ask for forgiveness, an artifact to hold in my hands.
The road curved down and around and continued on by the sea, and I stepped off of it and made my way down slippery rocks to the whitest beach I have ever seen. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a footprint on it, and for a while I stood on the last rock wondering if I should step on the beach or return to the road and keep quiet and glad about what I had seen. It was then I saw the head of a seal in the cove. I stepped onto the beach. It was indisputably lovely, and miraculously white, and when I stepped I stopped, and felt my right foot sink slightly into the sand, making its impression, and then I stepped and stopped again and felt my left foot sink slightly into the sand, making its impression. Then I stepped again and stopped and looked again for the seal in the cove and saw that there were two.
It appeared that they were watching me, now and again, until they grew bored, until they were curious, two seals swimming in a sea cold enough to kill me, around a rock that appeared like a stone throne fixed on the horizon forever. I stepped again, and stopped, and turned around to view the footprints I’d made in a circumstance of unforeseen and sublime vulnerability. There were three footprints, right, left, and right again, each about a half-inch deep and crisply drawn at the edges. When rain came, in a sudden burst, I watched the footprints fade. First the raindrops fell, one by one, darkening the sand with spots. Then the spots accrued and bled into each other. Then the rain fell more heavily and the spots disappeared and the footprints disappeared also and then the beach was wet and dark. Then just as the rain had come, the rain stopped and the sun appeared. And the sea was dark blue and swelling and iron-gray and swaying and capping whitely and settling and rising again, and the wind gusted across the surface of the water and the water sprayed upward and was driven downwind and disappeared into air. I stepped towards the water again; I watched the seals who swam in the cove.
Who was my father? My father was my dad.
It was said he snored so loud he woke The Missus from her unremitting stupor. She was a woman. Somewhere she had a name that was more or less hers, hidden in the airless pantry, in the high cabinet, behind a stack of plates, like a bottle of Beefeater’s. Memory upon memory, hand upon fist, pulling up the plumb-line to nowhere, coiling the rope on the pier in the rain, bent and concentrated, in cracked boots, a pipe in the mouth, a fire burning in the tavern, in the village of Whitehall, where my dad was sleeping because of “fatigue,” it never became night, these people are crazy, The Missus had whiskey on her breath at seven in the morning and it just wouldn’t become night, it just wouldn’t become night.
My father drank. It did not go very well, but it was not going very well for him before he drank either. His tongue was sometimes like his father’s – sharp and ironic and sometimes uninterpretable – and sometimes it was sporadic, timid, awkward, unsure, as it was on the island of Stronsay, where he took his son.
I wore the oilskin coat my mother had given me because she loved me. It had handwarmer pockets lined with flannel. My hands were in them. I watched the seals swim closer in. They disappeared behind the stone throne, and reappeared by an outcropping rock no more than fifteen feet from the shore. I inched closer, they disappeared underwater again, they reappeared at the other end of the cove. Above them, red-throated divers rose to hover in the wind and then they dove into the sea. They brought a smile to my face. All of them, the seals and the birds. I was in the wind with my hands warm and my eyes blinking and tearing and seeing and seen, on the island that was said to have three-hundred and twenty-nine inhabitants.
The fifth was the woman I met on the beach. A golden retriever followed in her wake. I did not see them at first. For me they simply appeared, at the other end of the beach. The dog bounded down to the water and bounced up and down on his front legs, and splashed water and barked at the seals, who were much like him, and the woman laughed, and the seals barked back and disappeared underwater. They reappeared at the rock again, near to the shore, close to me, where I was sitting, in my oilskin coat, with my hands warm. Hello seals, I said to the seals. I saw their eyes. One seal barked. The other seal barked. I wanted to touch them, and be touched by them. Together they disappeared underwater, and the next time I saw them they were very far out, beyond the throne; I could just make out the small forms of their heads bobbing buoylike upon the water, and I admired the ease with which they swam in the sea, and from my perspective, the courage and the happiness with which they did it.
Then they disappeared underwater and I did not see them again. Sea upon skin, skin upon flesh. The woman was near and her dog bounded up to me, where I was sitting. I held out my hands. He sniffed them and found me friendly. I scratched his ears and rubbed his head and he sat down beside me and lowered his head against my chest. When the woman came up behind him, he raised his head and looked back at her. Approval and consensus passed between them. He rested his head against my chest again. I was happy he liked me and trusted me and for a moment I wondered – or perhaps dreamed, he was listening to my heart, ta-tum, ta-tum, within me, and heard it and had sympathy. The woman stood behind him in a wool cap and an oilskin coat much if not exactly like mine. I felt I belonged. Cheers, she said.
Cheers, I said. I don’t know if I’d ever said cheers to anyone before. It came out right enough, as far as I could tell.
Visiting? she asked.
With my dad, I said. We’re staying at the inn.
I looked down at the crown of the dog’s head, and scratched his ears a bit more vigorously, which he seemed to like, from the muted groans he made against my chest, and I tried to come up with something more to say. I was surprised, despite the dog, that I had not stood and introduced myself and offered my hand. But it didn’t seem necessary. The introduction, the first friendly recognition, had happened as soon as she and her dog had stepped on the beach, appearing, I don’t know from where, it did not matter.
You too? I asked.
Visiting? she asked. No.
The wind gusted all around us and the light changed and shifted, and settled upon water, upon rock, upon land, and became muted by the edge of a drifting cloud, and momentarily disappeared and the sky became darker and cool and as elegant and fine as light, and light reappeared, shifting already, transfiguring itself and all surfaces it fell upon and the moon and the thinking of those who watched it and watched it again.
I would have spent a very long time near her smile.
We visited first, she said. We came back. We live here now.
Wow, I said. That’s great. So it’s just you, and . . . I gestured with my chin to the dog.
Max, she said, and my husband, Tom. We came up from London two years ago, July. It’s a lovely place, isn’t it?
Pride – this was where my father’s family and his father’s family was from – I felt a sudden surge and warmth of pride. It is, I said. Incredible, I said. I love it here.
I didn’t know if I did generally, but in that moment, I was certain I did.
Our family comes from here, I said.
That’s wonderful, she said. Is your father enjoying himself?
Very much, I said, eagerly and quickly. It’s been great for him, I added, to return.
Max lifted his head and licked me once on the chin, and glanced back at the woman whose name I had not yet been given. When Max stood, I stood. I wiped the back of my coat with my hands and wiped my hands on my corduroys, saw my boots and the sand upon them, saw the sea and the sea beyond it, and stood straight. Max was between us, quieter now, his nose wet and twitching, his eyes surveying the sea for the reappearance of the seals. The wind gusted across the water. And the possibility of touching this woman, of reaching out with a tentative hand, and tracing with my finger the faint wrinkle that ran from the corner of her eye and over her cheek when she smiled, as she was smiling, where she was, on the beach with a stranger, and the possibility of being touched by her, of closing my eyes, in a pocket of stillness and silence surrounded by wind, of waiting in a world of endlessly shifting light, to be touched by a hand extended gently forth from the atmospheric melee of the world itself, and then feeling her fingertip trace along the length of my left eyebrow, and fall lightly and pause upon the bridge of my nose, and then tracing along the length of my right eyebrow, for no other reason than that she was alive and loving and she’d come upon a stranger, a young man, sitting on the beach somewhere in the vicinity of her home.
I realized that we would separate as we had come together, without knowing each other’s names, but knowing something of the sea and the sky and the wind. And Max sensed it all, and the experience – Max’s experience – of us and of the sea and the sky and the wind would overwhelm one, as human, as being, on a beach, of an island, of an island in the sea, of a sea in the ocean and the ocean in itself, and a planet near enough to its sun, and a moon near enough to its planet. We were standing close, indirectly, respectfully, each to each, as two sides of a triangle running from the sea to a point somewhere far beyond us. She smelled of lilacs and salt, and the oil of her coat, and her eyes were so blue, and her face, beneath the wool cap on her head, was quiet and fine and genuine in its telling, and what passed between us, what wordless lyrical physically whispering consensus passed between us, remains.
Well, she said. Are we ready, Max?
Max bounded up and down on his legs and glanced with his deep excitable eyes from her to me, from me to her, and back again, and back again.
It was nice meeting you, I said.
It was nice meeting you, she said.
The question of names arose, flickered between us, and was gone. I smiled at her. She smiled back.
Here we go then, she said to Max. We’re off.
And they were.
Then I watched the footprints they made in the sand as they crossed the beach and climbed nimbly up the slippery rocks and onto the road. They crossed the road. They entered the field and climbed the hill. I watched them until they crested the rise and disappeared from sight, my eyes, and the limits of how and how far and what they could see.
This was the second day on the island of Stronsay where I’d come with my father, my stranger, my ghost, my kin, who was alone in a room with a watercolor of the harbor hung on the wall. The curtains were drawn. The window was shut. The door was shut. I missed my father. I had been looking for him my entire life. We had come here together, flawed and confused and incomplete, with words seeped up into consciousness, considered, trembling, and decided against, first on the flight from New York to Glasgow, then on the train north from Glasgow to Inverness, then on the train north from Inverness to Thurso, where in a small lamp-lit tea-room with yellow-painted walls and smart white trim, I watched my father drink tea for the first time in my life, and I noticed that his hands were small and suited to the teacup perfectly. I wondered what life would have looked like to me, what I might have looked like to myself, had he not left long ago, disappeared, reappeared sporadically, moved away, inched closer, came on, invariably faded again, from the time I was four to the precarious present tense of this trip we were on together.
We drank our tea in the village of Thurso. Rain drizzled down to the street outside, to the swept sidewalks, to the cars parked in orderly fashion along the curb, to the flower boxes painted red and blue and yellow and green, and to the slate roofs of the houses, which were a gently curving row, a façade of façades, each with its distinct address and distinct door, and distinct windows through which, here and there, could be glimpsed the post of a bed, a mantel, a chair, a table with books piled high upon it, and light, through which a man passed, in a corduroy coat, was fleetingly framed with a book in his hand, and then moved off down the hallway to a room at the back of the house.
Thurso was a small town, with diminutive proportions, at the northernmost edge of the mainland, on a hill above the sea. It was there my father and I had sat by the fire in low, short-backed, comfortable armchairs with a round wooden table between us, and with the whole trip to come before us. The table was a few inches shorter than the arms of the chair, and my dad, reaching easily for his teacup and his scone, remarked on it. This is just great, he said. He smiled broadly and brought the teacup to his lips and when he had taken a sip his eyes closed and he said mmm, and returned the teacup to its saucer and took up another bit of scone. The scones were delicious, the size of sand dollars, and a half-inch thick. They were warm and moist and flaked to the touch.
You can’t get ’em like this back home, I said. It was not the way I usually spoke, but what the words suggested was a genuine sentiment.
Hey, my dad said. He was animate and relaxed. He was my father, my stranger, my friend. You know what, he said. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a scone before today.
They’re the best scones I’ve ever had, I said.
We lifted the tea and sipped and gazed into the fire and felt our feet warm.
I don’t know who my father was. He was my dad. He kept our itinerary and our family tree – his words – in a folder marked “Watt.” On the family tree he circled my name, drew a line back to his, circled his name. On the itinerary he’d highlighted Stronsay, underlined it twice with black pen, and written something beneath it I could not decipher. He couldn’t either.
I can’t read my own handwriting, he’d said, chuckling. How about that?
This was on the plane from New York. He’d laid the itinerary on his tray-table, and the family tree on my tray-table, and pointed to the names. The flight attendant brought my dad a coke. My dad took it without looking up.
I said, thank you.
My dad nodded. He was my father. He was him for whom I feared. He was him whom I could not protect. His father had mocked him while his mother sat shit-drunk in the kitchen, remembering nothing, if she could, including the crashing sound of her husband who was a war-hero decorated fourteen times – the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, etcetera. He was nineteen, he was heroic, he was my father’s father, my dad’s dad. He was an orphan. And his great-grandfather was the first American of us all. His name was Peter and he boarded the boat to America with a suitcase in his hand. And his father stood at the end of the pier, dreaming, if he dreamed, and mourning, if he mourned, and looking, if he looked, from his place on the island to all the places his son was going, beyond his protection, out of sight of his father, the Nameless Orcadian hauling nets in a storm. And who was his father? His father was his dad, and the island was Stronsay where the harbormaster’s son stood listlessly drunk at the end of the pier with his hands at his sides, and there was the mail-order bar with a dart in the wall.
He’d thrown it nights before perhaps – the harbormaster’s son – after wiping down the tables of crumbs and fingerprints that might one day be there when an American father and son arrived on the ferry from Kirkwall with packs on their backs, and caps on their heads, and mints in their mouths, and romance, and resemblance, and expectations. And his father, the harbormaster, greeted them as if he was the friendly green king of the island, launching wittily into introductions and proclamations with his thick indecipherable accent, as if it could never have occurred to him that the visitors could not possibly understand him, or, as if it had precisely occurred to him. The American man said to his American son, do you understand him? As if they didn’t understand English.
I understood: The sea is not a word, homes become ruins, ruins become stones at the edge of a field, and the sins of the fathers are the sins of the sons.
I was my father’s son, and the roar filled my ears. My father didn’t want to drink. He didn’t drink. Then he drank. He drank in his room at night when all the doors were closed. And if dark does not come and if wind does not rest – the dark did not come, the wind did not rest – then whether he drank or did not drink, whether he was dying inside or not dying inside, bewildered with a body numb from a panic of living and its corrosion of nerves, a vacated figure in a circumstance of terrible vulnerability – is to say that he was my father and I was his son, his aftermath, his friend. And on the island of Stronsay, as I had my whole life, I loved my dad and sometimes I hated him, and most often I did not know how I felt beyond a wordless intensity of feeling. And the ghost – whatever it was – kept sweeping its fingers beneath my father’s eyelids. And I had not lived with nor been with him enough to know that this ghost was implacable and always recurring. My dad became a bitter hieroglyph glowing in my chest, a body breathing and heaving and at rest, and a voice – I saw it – numbed by trespass and words cauterized too deeply in wounds to ever come forth as testimony. In him there was no silence commensurate with sunlight, but a wordless denial and a deathless density of grief, and longing.
My father was a banker. His father was the war-hero, and after that, a failure in a vest. His father was the Presbyterian missionary. His father was the president of the Watt and Shand Department Store. And his father was the first American of us all. And his father is the Nameless Orcadian crossing the field at night in a storm. And his father, or his father, may have looked back with bitterness or relief or longing on a time when his father and his father’s father were at home in the world and the world knew them by name and the names were spoken. And long before that, a son found himself to be a father on a small unprotected island in the sea, and he felt the small anonymous dying inside him, and he wondered where he was and why. And in his heart perhaps he blamed his father for leaving what was known. And maybe this one had the last glimmer of Africa in him; a far-hauled flicker of a past beyond the stories told. And there was a father before him, and a father before him who might have lived when the land was sheared and drifted and became an island. And there was a father before him, and the progenitive and original moment in which he crossed the land-bridge and stepped upon the land for the first time, as the first man, and there was a father before him, who saw the land for the first time, and there was a father before him who dreamed that it would be there, in a time beyond the reach of dreams dreamed now, by a son whose father was a son, and his father a son before him. Wind upon wind upon wind upon wind, from the first unseeable matriculating instance in time apparent only as darkness, to now and its nostalgia delivered by longing; we longed for each other, for the relationship formed by a father and a son, for a place in the continuum we could think of as ours and ourselves in it as native and commiserating and known and included because of our blood and the longstanding genetic imprint of having come from another who came from another. And life was only all that was, as it was, a shining trauma, on Stronsay, in Thurso, at home, and without it.