Highlands Horror II: I'm Not Cold Anymore
I stray from Old Military Road and follow the muirburn's siren call, smoking orange and white on the hillside. It billows in the April wind tearing bitter through the valleys, slicing filets of bark from dead trees and whipping asphalt grit in my eyes. Spring rain fell yesterday. It is harder to walk in the grass. It is muddy and uneven. Still, the fire croons.
How to describe the smell of burning peat? A gale drives it toward me in ocean waves, cresting and breaking on my body. If we go the route of describing wines, it boasts bold notes of moss and bog myrtle; a heady and smoky aroma with an earthy finish. But that’s not how you describe a smell like this, is it? No.
It smells like the matchstick meant to set aflame the world, like the reaper's scythe and sickle both; it smells like an ancient thing, a forgotten god risen from dormancy beneath the dirt and summarily scorched back to sleep.
Smoking orange and white.
The heat grows hotter. Like the wind, it comes in waves. In breakers. Reverse riptides meant to push me away, ones that said Go and Danger and Turn around now. But the road is long and empty, with naught but the munros for company; only the red deer and the grouse for companions, now chased off by the burn. There is nothing for me down that road, so why follow a path there’s no point in walking?
I’m not suicidal, don’t get me wrong. Mom calls me jaded yet curious, and she says this is a bad combination.
The moorland is soft and sopping wet. When I near the crackling edges of the controlled burn, I notice no workers in highlighter vests monitoring the spread of the flames. This is a desolate place, devoid of so much as a footprint. Who set the fire, I wonder? Did the Highlands do it itself? A bored tattoo artist in a parlor gone bankrupt, idly needling his forearm with sloppy doodles of sacred geometry?
The ochre heather sizzles between orange hunger and the white pseudo-cloud lifting its soul up to the real ones. It’s snapping, and hissing, and whispering, too. So many people forget the small sounds, but I have learned to listen for words because the dead always have something to say. I wonder if it will be profound.
I sit and warm my hands by the fire as a child might before the hearth. Frigid muck seeps through my jeans, cooling the backs of my thighs. The border between boots and the ravenous mouth of the burn, gold and black as it ignites and then scalds, creeps along as if cautious.
Stay with me, the heather whispers. When one dies alone, it’s as if one has never existed.
I listen. I nod. I lay back to rest my eyes in comfortable silence.
Stay with me.
The muirburn forges on. I’m not cold anymore.