by Chris Malcomb
|It started with an itch. I was standing atop the tower of the Old Town Jail in Stirling, Scotland’s ancient capital, when I felt an irritation on my neck. My fingertips hit the skin below my jaw and dug in, but as they trailed downward, across two days of stubble and into the concave recess above my collarbone, they brushed something unfamiliar: a lump. I had been in the country for five days, taking daytrips from Edinburgh and admiring the endless array of stone streets, walls, and buildings that appeared to have simply grown out of the lush green landscape. Moments earlier I was laughing along with a group of tourists as our guide, impersonating a Victorian Inspector of Jails, explained the merits of nineteenth century torture devices. Now, as I rolled over the lump with the tip of my index finger, my focus shifted inward. I was barely aware of the people directly below me ambling along the Old Town wall towards Stirling Castle, the massive stone fortress perched on the crags to the north.
The lump was a smooth, slippery marble. I pushed it deep into my throat until it disappeared. I released, and it popped back to the surface like a rubber ball in a tub of water. I pushed and released again. It popped back again. I squeezed it between the tips of my finger and thumb, hoping it would soften. It didn’t. I dropped my hand and turned to face the striking granite tower rising out of the forested hillside to the east. I had planned to head there next, towards that lush green valley where I knew I would find a gentle curve in the River Forth, over which arched the famous Stirling Bridge. In 1627, William Wallace had coaxed five thousand English soldiers across that bridge. The Scots ambushed and slaughtered them all. The bridge, then made of wood, was annihilated in the turmoil and rebuilt with stone.
I felt a flash of heat, then a chill. I gripped the blue railing next to me and leaned out over the edge of the tower. Beyond the Old Town wall, the countryside rippled like a green ocean, segmented by endless lines of meandering stone walls. I took a stabilizing breath, pushed back from the railing, and walked numbly to the train station.
Four hours later, a young ER doctor at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary told me that it was probably just a swollen lymph node. “But maybe you should see a specialist anyway,” he said, scheduling an appointment for the following afternoon. “Just to be safe.”
To pass time the next morning, I walked Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, ending up in Holyrod Park. I weaved around some secluded lochs and cut through fields of tall, wheat-colored grass. By mid-morning I’d scrambled along the crags to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a flattened hump of land atop a large, sloping bulb of grass. The peak was crowded, so I descended slightly to a secluded area and settled on a large, flat stone. I spent the next hour gazing over the grayish-brown hues of Old Town buildings and out towards the mirror-blue waters of the Firth of Forth. The vast green countryside stretched before me like a soft blanket, the distant mountains of the Southern Highlands barely visible in the clear afternoon sky.
On the train ride back to Edinburgh the previous day, I’d watched this same countryside fly by in a blurred haze. But I couldn’t derive even the slightest pleasure. Instead, I kept rolling the lump in my neck. My skin was red and tender, the lump itself sore from my prodding and pushing. The spot seemed to cool down, then heat up. The lump felt smaller, then larger, then disappeared completely. At times I could see its shape inside of me in my reflection in the window: white, smooth, and glistening. As the train rhythmically bobbed along the steel tracks, my body grew numb, my fingers lifeless. My neck throbbed, each pulse stifling a single word within my throat.
The train stopped a half-hour outside of Edinburgh, but the doors did not open. I leaned my head against the window, gazing at the fields and hills beyond the glass. It was a beautiful scene: sheep and farmhouses and trees and puffy white clouds. After five minutes, however, my focus shifted to the pinkish, ghostly glow of my reflected face, large parts of which were swathed in dark shadow. I placed my hand on my neck again, my fingers disappearing into the darkness beneath my chin. The conductor informed us that a cow had been grazing on the tracks. I re-focused my eyes beyond the window. She was back in her field now, safe. The train’s resumed rhythm gently rocked my body, and the green hills passed before me once again.
The specialist at the Royal Infirmary was a silver-haired man with a gentle accent. He closed his eyes as he touched my neck with soft, warm fingers.
“Feels like it’s in the thyroid,” he said.
“Thyroid?” I said.
“It’s a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “It’s responsible for metabolism, among other things, and wraps around your trachea just below your larynx, like this—” He clamped his left hand around his right wrist.
“So is it a tumor?”
“Or maybe a benign cyst. We can sample the cells now.”
“What happens if it’s a tumor?”
“Depends on the size,” he said. “In most cases they remove the gland. Then there are radioactive iodine treatments and synthetic hormone supplements.”
I stared at my swinging feet. “How big is the needle?”
He smiled and directed me to a room smelling faintly of medicated bandages and ammonia. Next to the padded table was a shiny metal tray holding small vials of clear liquid, several cotton balls, a box of disposable latex gloves, and two gleaming syringes. A nurse slid a small pillow behind the base of my head and swung a big silver lamp around from behind me. The floral perfume on her wrist startled me, its sweetness an odd contradiction to the sterile setting. She tipped my chin upwards, exposing my throat to the heat of the lamp.
The doctor snapped on a pair of latex gloves, dabbed a cotton ball in a nearby jar, and swabbed the area around the lump. The sharp scent of alcohol singed my nostrils, overpowering any lingering traces of the perfume. The needle pierced my skin, and slid in smoothly. I cringed, gritted my teeth, and held my breath against the burning.
Afterwards, the doctor informed me that the biopsy results would be ready in a week. He suggested I use the time to visit the countryside. “You are on holiday, right?” he said as he walked me to the door. “Perhaps Oban. It’s beautiful there in August.”
The bus ride was five-hours. I read from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I sketched in my journal. I leaned against the window and watched the passing of things that seemed to have always been there. A veil of white mist curled around the top of a green mountain. A bright rainbow vaulted from a sunlit field into the darkened sky. There was a field dotted with shaggy red Highland cows; an old man dressed in tweed pedaling his bike along the road; a white, thatched-roof house perched alongside a crystal stream. There were walls everywhere, lines of stone trailing through fields littered with daisies. I followed them for miles, studied their curves, undulations, and sharp turns. Sometimes they merged into other walls. Sometimes they disappeared into patches of forest or bodies of water. Sometimes, quite inexplicably, they simply ended.
Oban is a fishing village built into the hillside and capped by McCaig’s Folly, an unfinished granite replica of the Roman Coliseum. From the streets and docks along the shore, the town’s buildings rise like steps, each one a swath of white, gray, and red brick separated by a line of green trees. The glassy bay teems with brightly colored fishing boats and sleek passenger ferries. Just off shore lie several of the Isles of the Inner Hebrides: Kerrera, Lismore, Mull, Iona.
I kept busy for two days, hiking the rocky coastline, watching fishermen unload their catch, lounging amongst the crumbled ruins of Dunoille Castle. One morning, I rented a mountain bike, peddled into the countryside, and spent the afternoon trout fishing with two local twelve-year-old boys with buzz cuts and dirty flannel shirts. Each evening, I huffed up to McCaig’s Folly, curled into one of the archways, and watched the sun drop behind the islands. As the summer night darkened, I wrote postcards describing the view from my perch, chuckling at the mild deception of my correspondence. To my grandparents in Florida: Scotland is sooo beautiful! To a friend in Berkeley: Learning so much! To my brother: Wish you were here!
The gravity of my situation hit me full force on the second night. I was heading to a local pub to join some Australians I’d met earlier that day. The air was crisp and chilly. The clear sky shimmered with stars. I passed groups of people strolling arm-in-arm: laughing, singing, dancing. Suddenly, I stopped short.
“I have cancer.”
The words rolled off my tongue awkwardly, under my breath. I watched a group of revelers raise their golden glasses in the warm light of a pub window. I shivered. My lower lip began to tremble. I pushed it into my teeth and kept walking. I had no idea where I was going. I just needed to get away. My feet pounded the stone sidewalk. I passed a few more people, but did not look at them. My breathing intensified. My fists grew more rigid. I felt a bead of sweat trickling down my back.
I kept walking.
When I reached the water I turned right and followed the sidewalk out of town. After ten minutes, I was the only one left on the path. The air grew cooler. The stars seemed brighter than ever, but all around me things were becoming less and less discernable. I could barely tell tree from stone from water from sidewalk. The road wound around a bluff, curving away from the lights of the town. I stepped off the sidewalk, sat down on a rock, and stared out towards the darkness of the bay. Waves lapped at the stones below my feet. A stiff breeze rustled my hair. A few lights twinkled in the black water, but disappeared as they slipped behind the black mass of an island.
I sat for a half-hour, touching my neck, listening to the dark water. I tried to focus on my physical presence: the hard rock under my hip, the cold wind on my face, the tightness in my jaw and forearms. I tried to breathe, to remain in the moment, but couldn’t suppress the intensity of my new fear. Until that moment, I’d never considered the world beyond my existence; how all things—grass and sun and ocean and sky—would carry on after I was gone. All at once, everything around me seemed so permanent and lasting. Moments earlier I had been a part of that tableau. Now I was perishable, destined to disappear forever. I pushed my hands deeper into my coat pockets and wept. In two days I would turn twenty-nine. I wasn’t ready. The uncertainty of my immediate future underscored the certainty of my inevitable death. Maybe a month, or a year. Maybe even fifty. Still it would happen.
I stood up and turned back towards the town. As I stepped off the rock I stumbled, scraping my hand slightly on the seawall. I righted myself and resumed walking in the dark, resisting the urge to touch my neck.
Despite its diminutive size, the island of Iona possesses a rich, turbulent history. In 563, Saint Columba, after refusing to hand over an illegally copied version of a sacred text, fled his native Ireland, vowing to settle on “the first island from where he could not see his homeland.” He and his monks landed on Iona, a tiny island off the western tip of Mull, a pebble amidst the large rocks tumbling down Scotland’s shore. Here, they established a monastery, and proceeded to convert much of pagan Scotland to Celtic Christianity. Over the next fourteen hundred years, the island became a prime pilgrimage site for Christians. Iona, it has been written, is a place where “a man’s piety was sure to grow warmer.” After my experience the previous night, I longed for such a place: a place of new beginnings, a place of timelessness.
The ferry docked in colorful Baile Mor, where I strolled past rows of small cottages, shops, and gravestones, walked by the old abbey gates, and followed a road directly out of the village. After about a mile I slipped between the bars of a large, red gate and continued down a dirt path towards the ocean.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived at a bluff overlooking an isolated beach. Rust-colored granite outcroppings framed white cockleshell sand, jagged rocks, and swaying seaweed. The dark water was turbulent, casting white froth with each crashing wave. The wind whistled through my hair as if I were on the prow of a ship. As I scrambled to the water’s edge to explore the pools between the rocks, I envisioned Saint Columba and his eleven monks dragging their wooden boats ashore on this very beach. The bottom of each pool was coated with tiny, smooth stones, each a swirl of vibrant crimson, cobalt, olive, or purple. I plunged my hand into one of the icy basins, pinched a grape-sized stone, and held it up to the sunlight. The stone glistened like a jewel, as if some ancient king had dropped his crown on these rocks and failed to recover all the dislodged gems.
I stayed on the beach for an hour: exploring, picking up stones, slipping favorites into my coat pocket. I walked back through the fields as dark storm clouds began rolling over the island. The ride back to Oban was cold and wet.
It was still raining the next day. I hitched a ride south to Kilmartin, the home of my ancestral clan, the Malcolms of Pollatoch. My driver was Alec, a dark-haired stoneworker in his mid-forties who was repairing a wall at the Kilmartin Inn. The rain lightened as we motored south, snaking through stretches of lush fields and rolling hills. We talked about travel, politics, and the coming solar eclipse. We watched wands of sunlight break through the clouds and illuminate patches of countryside: sheep, cows, farms, and streams. Along the way, Alec pointed out things he had built: a meandering wall; a solid, squat foundation; a set of smooth granite steps.
Kilmartin consisted of a few small buildings squatting on a ridge above a valley dotted with standing stones and large, circular piles of rocks. Steep hills rose up on three sides, the northernmost one capped by the prominent ruins of Carnasserie Castle. Alec parked the car at the Inn and grabbed his wax-coated jacket from behind the seat. I stepped out into the light mist, crossed the road to the Kilmartin Cultural Centre, and spent a few minutes perusing shelves of pewter cups, swatches of clan tartans, and hand-knit wool sweaters. I bought a brass tin whistle and spent the afternoon walking through the hills, exploring the castle ruins, picking up bits of sheep wool, and watching the clouds shift in the sky. When I returned to the Inn, Alec had fresh bandages on two of the knuckles of his right hand.
“Cut yourself?” I said.
“Aw, yeah.” He examined his fist. “Scraped ’em on a chink.” He heaved a large bag of hammers, chisels, and mallets into the bed of his truck. “Not so bad, though. Dropped a twenty-kilogram stone on my foot once.”
“No kidding. Nothing hollow about stones. Good thing I got these.” He kicked at the dirt with his steel-toed boots, leaned against the truck, and brushed the hair out of his eyes.
“You ever wear gloves?” I said.
“Tried to, but can’t feel enough that way. Leaving a bit of skin seems worth it. Reminds me what I’m working with.” He paused. “Or what’s working with me.”
I nodded and laughed.
Alec smiled and dusted off his pants. “Gotta surprise for ya,” he said.
We hopped into his truck and descended some shady dirt roads into a valley called Kilmartin Glen. As we came out of the trees, I spotted a line of four cairns in the middle of the valley. Beyond them rose three distinct groups of immense stones, protruding from the earth like gargantuan thumbs. The first and third groups were pairs spaced only a couple of meters apart; the second was a single monolith encircled by several smaller stones.
We stopped closest to this one.
I entered the field, slowing as I approached the stone. It was over ten feet high, with a base as wide as a large tree trunk. Its dark gray and white face was littered with moss, lichen, and dozens of “cups and rings,” tennis ball-sized areas where the surface was hollowed out and encircled by concentric rings. The stone itself ascended to a roughly rounded point. I glided my hand over the mixed textures. It was mostly cool, but the sun-soaked areas felt warm. I leaned closer, letting its enormity support my weight. I closed my eyes, and breathed.
“Beautiful, eh?” said Alec.
I pushed back to see the entire line, all perfectly upright. “How long have they been here?”
He pointed across the field to a ring of stones partly obscured by the trees. “Those over there, nearly three thousand years.” He paused and placed his hand on the stone in front of us. “This one? At least fifteen hundred.”
“What were they for?” I leaned to examine the stone from various angles.
“Grave markers. The ancients buried their kin with all kinds of stuff. People bin’ finding things out here for a hundred years.”
“Loads,” he said. “Pottery shards, arrowheads, cremated remains, bones. Even some cows’ teeth.” He kicked at the dirt and shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets. “I think it’s interesting, but I mostly come here to clear my mind.” He surveyed the line of rocks. I leaned against the tall standing stone.
Two hours earlier, just after returning to town from the hills, I had walked through the graveyard behind the Kilmartin Abbey. The headstones, many carved with intricate Celtic crosses, were scattered amongst clumps of long grass and wildflowers. Some were worn smooth and unreadable; others were coated with scales of lichen or tipped at odd angles. Some of the Malcolm stones dated back to the late 1800s. I trailed my fingertips over their edges. Smooth. Rough. Gouged. Pointed. Catching sight of a small, nondescript stone, partially obscured by overgrowth, I stepped closer, bending to one knee in the soft grass. It belonged to a young Malcolm who had lived in the early 1900s.
She was seven when she died.
I ran my fingers across the letters of her name. M…A…L… The gray stone bumped under my smooth skin. C…O…L… I stopped at the last letter. M. Mine was spelled with a B.
I held my finger there, pressing it into the cold stone.
Now, hours later, in the Glen, propped against another grave marker, I considered the quiet fortitude of stones. These stones. They carried with them an aura of permanence. They seem unfazed by relocation, disruption, or even years of stillness. These stones, through generations of driving rain, bitter winters, and blazing sun, had done one simple thing: stand. This was the stillness Alec embraced while standing alone in the Glen, the solidity I’d sensed all over Scotland.
But what is solidity? Is it the comfort we gain from touching something harder, more rigid than ourselves? Is it the ability to adapt, to evolve amongst life’s myriad changes? The mammoth slabs around me seemed so solid, yet they were really just shards, broken pieces that had been cut from their source and dragged into a new environment. Despite their rigid, impenetrable appearance, they were not immune to change. Their jagged edges had softened. Their cups and rings had grown shallower. They had, almost imperceptibly, sunken deeper into the earth. The stones my ancestors had leaned against were not the same as those that now supported me. Those stones were gone. And so were those people.
Alec and I wandered around for nearly an hour. He showed me the chambered South-Cairn and the standing stone circles on the valley’s western edge. I joked about searching for cow bones and amulets in some of the smaller burial chambers scattered randomly in the fields. As we drove back, the orange sun settled behind the trees, and the stones faded to slivers in the green landscape. We left the Glen in silence, the only sounds coming from the wheels of the truck spitting gravel against the undercarriage.
“We found some irregular cells in your sample,” said the doctor. “While we can’t be sure without performing the surgery ourselves, the indication is that they’re papillary carcinoma.”
“If so, it’s the best of the four types of thyroid cancers to have.”
“That should be reassuring, right?”
“Seems odd, but yes.”
I sat quietly. The doctor leaned against the counter, arms folded across his bright white coat. “How did this happen?” I said.
“Hard to know, really. Sometimes these cells just go bad.” He handed me the manila folder containing my test results. “But these are lazy cancers. Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Try to see as much as you can.”
I stared blankly at him.
“Just call your doctor when you get home,” he said.
Outside, large, dark clouds were gathering over the city. Sometimes these cells just go bad. I slipped into a bright red phone booth and arranged to fly home the next day.
Then I started walking.
When I arrived at Holyrod Park, I went immediately to the shore of a secluded loch. It had started raining. I stepped to the edge of the water and angled my face towards the sky. Warm drops splashed my cheeks, trickling off my chin and down my neck, over the lump. I reached into my pocket and dug out one of the stones I’d picked up in Iona. It had changed dramatically. Instead of a vibrant, swirling array of colors, it was drab, chalky, and lifeless. Yet as I held the stone in my outstretched palm, something happened. Each drop of rain revived a fresh flash of color. The brilliant vermillion and white speckles re-appeared. Then the copper-colored swirls. Before my eyes, the stone once again became a jewel in my hand.
I closed my fist around it, leaned forward, and found my reflection in the glassy surface of the loch. I looked worn, faded, weary. Raindrops peppered the dark water around my image with dozens of dancing circles—each ring of light emanating from a drop, expanding, and dissolving into nothing. I rolled the stone in my palm, feeling it slip along the creases of my skin. Without thinking, I reached out and dropped it into my reflection. There was a small splash. The stone disappeared. For a moment the water was a rippled chaos of color, light, and shadow. The raindrops kept falling. The circles continued to form, widen, and fade. Eventually my face stopped trembling and once again became still.
Chris Malcomb still remembers seeing the yellow mustard fields through the 747 window on his first trip to Great Britain, at age twelve. Despite his Scotch-Irish heritage—and a college year abroad in Cork, Ireland—his first trip to Scotland wasn’t until the one depicted in this essay. A lifelong educator, he has taught middle school in the U.S. and abroad; college English at San Quentin State Prison; and writing workshops for the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS) and the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI). He became a writer when he had to teach it to his first sixth grade students, and has since published in over a dozen periodicals, including SF Chronicle Magazine, Shambala SunSpace, Under the Sun, and Teachers & Writers. He grew up in Newfoundland, Barbados, Cape Cod, and Boston and currently lives in Berkeley, California, where he runs The Mindful Writer, offering workshops in mindfulness, creative writing, and Chinese tea ceremony throughout the SF Bay Area. Learn more at www.mindfulwriter.org.