He sits on rocks where before him is nothing, nothing but the drifting fog that has always veiled the highlands. His feet, bound in deerskin, dangle over the crag. As the eagle cries overhead, his old friend, he wraps his arms around himself and hunches deeper into his coat—the coat of feral goat’s hide, crafted by the lass’s calloused hands.
The lass. She knew this wilderness before he did. Yes, she knew first the treacherous crevices where an ankle could be snapped, the ravines where one could fall and screams be silenced. She knew first the herbs that grow thick in the valleys, the goats in the heights that give milk if captured and tamed. She knew first the eagle, circling far, far above.
He remembers the day she first knew him.
Fire propelled him upward, ever upward. No wind was stirring in the valleys that day, the air almost choking in its stillness as he climbed, his bare hands chapped and bleeding from grappling this root, that rock. When he passed through a pool that had collected in the hollows—its edges darkened by the purple-flowering heather—icy water spilled into his boots where the stitching had broken. But on he went, for the fire yet burned.
As he journeyed higher into the heights, the air began to stir, like a growing whisper. His face and hands and feet were stiff from the cold, and the wind began to seep past the barrier that guarded the fire. He felt it flicker. He stumbled.
It was then that the eagle cried for the first time, descending from the fog to show itself like a black demon long haunting a soul. As he paused to look up at this lonesome creature, as lonesome as himself, he felt the wind strengthen—and the fire flickered again. When next he stepped, his foot slipped, and he fell. Caught in brambles, thorns tearing his scarf, the fire within went out.
He lay still, drawing the air into his lungs, gazing up at a sky drifting with fog as if with a bride’s veil. And the eagle circled, circled. It was no demon, he knew, but a guardian. It cried one last time, then ascended to vanish again.
The fire would not carry him to the heights, he knew. He was spent, frozen to the marrow, ready to sleep the endless sleep. And yet he could not close his eyes. Upward, Upward, he must continue upward. But how, when he had nothing left?
He remembered the morning when he had stood at the foot of the great highlands, knowing he must enter them, must become lost to find—but to find what, he had not known. Now, as he rolled onto his hands and knees and looked up into the fog, he realized it was not he who had chosen to enter this place. He had been called.
Deep calling upon deep.
As darkness sank the milky light, he rose again, for it had never been the fire that had seen him this far, but what awaited him above.
He saw the light, smelled the smoke and the stew, before he saw the lass. Where the wilderness sought to consume all into itself, she had built a fortress to survive its hunger—a stone cottage, mottled by moss but straighter than any root in the highlands. Smoke curled into the night from the chimney rising from the thatch. Honey light escaped to him from the cracks in the shutters. And over a fire in the dooryard hung a cauldron, steaming with the fragrance of the deer’s flesh.
He did not see her until he staggered forward and fell to his knees by the stones bordering the fire. He heard something other than the hiss and crackle of the flames; he heard the softest gasp—the life-breath of another, the life-breath he himself bore. He looked up.
She stood in the space between the cottage and a slope that soared to the stars, gathering socks from a line into a basket woven from branches. She wore a coarsely woven dress. On her head was tied a handkerchief as red as the wild raspberry, revealing wisps of the acorn-brown hair hidden beneath.
She did not speak to him as he struggled to his feet, this stranger from below. But her eyes indeed spoke. He heard the words that had echoed to him as he set out from the known into the unknown, as he journeyed from fire into cold, as he rose again for the sake of love. Yes, he knew this now, knew he had bled for love. And now love would mend his wounds.
He buries his nose in the scarf binding his neck, its raspberry-red hue burning into his mind in the moment before he closes his eyes. It smells like her. His lass.
Many years he has now lived in the highlands, coming to know this place as well as she, but still—deep calls upon deep. The echo rings on through the heights and valleys of each other’s souls.
Amo te, amo te, amo te . . .