Anna and the Spirits
Author(s): Frank Woods
Copyright holder(s): Frank Woods
‘C’mon, lets go.’ I felt awkward.
‘Och no, she’ll hear us all right.’
He knocked harder.
A dim glow grew behind the drawn curtains of the right hand window.
‘Who’s there? Who’s there?’ Her voice quivered and could scarcely be heard above the wind.
‘It’s me, Anna. Davie. Hurry up. It’s raining.’
There was a noise of a chain, then a bolt being drawn. The door eased open just enough to be peered around.
‘Davie, who’s that with you?’
‘A friend. From Aberdeen. He’s up camping. We’re coming home from the pub. I’ve told him you make a fine cup of tea.’
The door opened. Faint light spilled from an inside room onto a tiny old woman. A mane of steely hair cascaded down from a centre parting and merged with a tent of loose garments. She groaned softly at the effort of moving as she turned and led us in, a stubby little triangle propelled by shuffling slippers.
Anna puffed at an ash-dusted fire with a pair of bellows almost half her size and settled a blackened kettle onto the embers. The room smelled of peat, paraffin and old age. It brightened gently as she turned up the wick on the solitary oil lamp, sat down on a scuffed mock leather settee covered in a tangle of blankets, and waved us towards a couple of old chairs on the other side of the fire.
‘So you’ve brought a friend, Davie?’
She turned to look at me. Her face was heavy and lined as if with time her features had melted and flowed to echo the cascading lines of her hair and her clothing. Although her eyes were sunk into deep caves they shone with an unexpected brightness as if returning the orange glow of the peat. I found her gaze unsettling.
Davie drew her attention. ‘I was telling him Anna. You might have something special at the bottom of the laundry basket.’
‘Oh be quiet, be quiet’ she murmured but she scuttled off the couch and across to the corner of the room where she stopped and turned to peer back at Davie.
‘I’ll bring you another one from the village tomorrow,’ he said.
Satisfied, she rummaged into an old wicker basket and pulled out a half empty bottle of rum.
When we all had glasses of rum in one hand and cups of thick peat-flavoured tea close by the other, Anna began to tell stories; the woman who was burned for a witch because she could turn a ram infertile with one secret word; the island which could cure madness as long as the moon was right and you remembered that the mad one who had just been pushed overboard at the end of a rope had to be towed three times around in an anticlockwise direction and the oarsman didn’t forget to go ashore and hammer a silver coin edge first into the old twisted yew tree that stood there.
‘Then there was the chieftain’s daughter,’ Anna quavered and whispered, ‘who climbed at night onto the high moor and buried the body of her still-born love child there in the black peat. She sat and stared down the long silver streak of the loch far below until her heart confirmed what she felt deep inside. Her Viking lover would not return. His large square sail would never again beat its way up the loch.
‘And then she jumped. But before her body landed like a bag of broken bones her spirit flew. On dark nights it can still be seen swooping and turning silently through the air.’
Anna leaned forward towards the fire and I was once again caught by the intense amber glow of her deep eyes. She sighed. After a while she looked at us.
“Och it’s all right for young men, but I’m needing my bed.’
We said our farewells and headed into the night. The rain had stopped. I was glad of Dave’s company for the first mile to his keeper’s cottage. Neither of us referred to Anna and her stories; instead we made plans to take our hangovers for an early climb up Beinn Eighe.
After we parted I plunged on along the track which was picked out every so often by large white quartzite boulders. I worked hard at keeping my mind on the walk and away from the peat fire, the old drooping face, the whispered stories. As I passed each white boulder I focused my full attention on the next one.
I was close to the campsite and beginning to relax when the boulder I was aiming for appeared to move, to lift, to recede a little further into the distance. Then it floated up from the ground and came swooping towards me. It circled me. I threw up my arms. I shrieked. I crouched. I tasted the bile of terror. When I looked again it was gone. I ran.
I unzipped the tent door, climbed into my sleeping bag with my boots on, and pulled it over my head. In the safety of its cocoon, alcohol and tiredness quickly overcame adrenaline and fear. I was soon asleep.
The morning was dreich with heavy rain and low cloud which obscured the mountains and swirled the campsite in bleak monochrome. A note on Davie’s door confirmed the climb was off. I kept walking and found myself back at Anna’s cottage. She almost seemed to expect me and gestured me through to the same room. As my story tumbled out she nodded now and again.
In the daylight her deep set eyes still seemed to glitter, but with a whiteness, an alert sparkle that in the middle of my tale suddenly shifted from my face to the window beyond.
I turned in time to see a white shape appear out of the mirk, swoop towards the window, touch it with a movement that was at once sudden but gentle, then disappear from view. I raced outside. It was gone.
I’ve been told the flying stone was a snowy owl; the shape at the window a beam of light breaking through cloud or a seagull mistaking a reflection; not to mix whisky and rum.
Say what you like. I was there.
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Anna and the Spirits. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved August 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=920.
"Anna and the Spirits." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2021. Web. August 2021. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=920.
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