Scenes From a Life
by  Lisa Paris

I have been many things in my life. A man of many parts.
Each more intricate than the last - each a sum of the whole.

Scene One - Quayside

A cold wind from the northwest. The clear, thin cry of gulls overhead in the pale sunlight. My feet slipping on cobblestones as I ran pell-mell with my brothers, down to the quayside, to watch the boats come in.  Fishing boats and Clippers. Merchantmen, and on a good day - if we were lucky, a Man o' war.

The sea was our mother.  Both friend and foe.  A harsh provider, yet cruel destroyer.  Fickle as a woman, thuggish as a man.  Beautiful with the mystery of an Indian sapphire, cold with the misery of the grave.  My brothers and I worked to unload the herring boats.

Hands and clothing slippery with silver scales as we swung the catch in the bulging nets, tipping it into the pallets for the women on the quay. Come evening, we'd be red and raw with cold. The smell of fish and brine in our hair, on our skin. A bucket of fresh herring to take back home for supper.

My brothers laughed and flirted with the lassies.  Cheeks rosy, sly eyes flashing.  Meeting hands and meeting glances as they brushed shoulders, told tall-tales, whispered promises amongst the pallets.  I was the quiet one.  Odd man out.

Eyes even then on the horizon, beyond the water-break.  The point where the harbour's sanctuary met the open sea.  Watching as the great ships spilled forth their cargoes. Loaded their hulls with crates and baggage.  Ran up their sails, hauled their anchors. Setting sail for the cold North Sea.

Off to the Indies, the Americas. Perhaps to China. To strange places with tropical names and dangerous inhabitants. Where elephants walked and tigers roamed.  Not for me the herring fleet, the comely lasses, the rain soaked shining streets.  I dreamed of adventure. Of exotic lands.  A place where the sun rose, sure and warm as a golden eye each morning.  Where a man could build his dreams, carve himself into the land. Be master of his own destiny.

Scene Two - Atlantic

Storm lashed Atlantic.  The rain as sharp as needles on my face, against my eyes.  Brine clinging to my clothes - hair stiff with it. Not a part of me warm or dry anymore.  Marrow cold to my bones. Timbers creaking and groaning. Sails shaking. Billowing and burgeoning to breaking as the storm smote us, and spray hissed across the bows.

Wind bursting through the chasm of breakers - the surging wall of grey. The strange knowing look of grim awareness on the faces of the seamen as we worked with silent accord.  The deck a treacherous, vertical slide.  Hands raw and blistered as I clung to ropes and hawsers.  To let go was death.  To be swallowed whole by the aching maw of the sea.

Eternal blackness.

The ship's bell was a relentless reminder.  Solemn as a portent.  Mournful as a death knell, as it clapped from side to side in the storm.

It's part terror, part exhilaration.  The sensation of butting heads with life.  Of meeting it face to face. Daring death itself to snatch you - to take you if it has the temerity.

Triumphant somehow, visceral.

I know how men must feel as they march to war.  Into battle, once the fear of death has flown.  I raised my eyes to the heavens - lids fluttering against the spiteful darts of rain. Black and silver.  Disorientating and heady.  A spiralling vortex of hailstones and maelstrom.

I had no regrets.  If I'd died then - I wouldn't have changed it. Already I knew there was no going backwards.  My path lay before me, away from the Old Land.  My face turning west towards the new.

Scene Three - Boston

A different quayside - a different world.  A harbour clustered with a hundred different riggings.  Sloops and Tall-ships, Brigantines and Cutters.  A typical portside. Bawling and squalling with fat throngs of people.  The cries of the hucksters.  Painted whores and sour-faced fishermen.  Drunken sailors and frock-coated merchants.

Huddles of sad-eyed immigrants clutching bags and watching trunks.  Their fear almost tangible as they counted the pathetic, meagre belongings - most wishing that they'd never come.

I looked around and breathed in life.  The rabble and hustle, the smells and odours.  Some rank - the bilge pumps polluting the harbour, the fish warehouse, the cheap perfume of the strumpets. But above it all, the sweet salt tang like a memory on the wind. Bourne across the Atlantic and chased by the breeze.  For a second I knew it - the bittersweet  scent of heather. Damp earth mould and bracken. The heart of a land forever lost to me. Receding like the mists of a dream.

I would never see that land again. The four brawny brothers, the rosy lasses, the grey-sleeted cobbles I left behind me. Gone - all gone.

I pushed through the crowds. The kaleidoscope of teeming life.  Gaunt scarecrow of a man, just recovered from ship-board typhus.  Whey-faced and scared.  Full of wonder and resolution.  Bones protruding in places no bones should protrude.

A carriage clattered past me.  Wheels slick, brass shining, paintwork glossy as a mirror.  It was then I saw her.  A rich man's daughter.  Pale as a faery - ethereal as the dawn.  The slanting sun on her spun-gold hair, throat as white and cool as a lily.  But oh, such a merry, glancing smile.  Our eyes met and touched.  Held, caressed.  I was lost.

It was clear to me then, why the plump shouldered girls had never enticed me, their soft highland voices had never enthralled me.  I was waiting for her.  Only waiting for her. My beautiful Queen of the lilies.  My Catherine.

Scene Four - California

I was drunk with the grandeur of the landscape.  The glory of the earth.  Indigo mountains and mauve shadowed deserts.  Whispering grasslands that danced with the rhythm of the wind.

Wildflowers gaudy as scattered sequins, fragile gemstones flung in handfuls cross the prairie.

Trees that soared like cathedral spires, their bell towers full of shushing breezes - deep green whisperings of secrets, and something beyond ancient lore.

The dawn and dusk like an artist's palette.  A vast vivid paint box of every imaginable hue and colour.  Gold flecked clouds and silver skies. Rose pink mornings and violet twilights.  Achingly beautiful - sensually lush.  My eyes feasted on the horizons like a starving man.

Mankind had tried to tame the valley for centuries.  The native, indigenous peoples, the Spanish who came after them.

Yet the land had prevailed, even conquered.  Nothing remained save some tumbledown stones.  The ruin of a once proud hacienda.  Weeds and wildflowers bursting through the cracks, as nature reclaimed her own again - disdainful of man's temerity. Scorning his very existence.

We clambered over the broken walls, my bride and I.  Her hand held tightly in mine.  Through abandoned rooms and stricken halls, fallen bird's nests and piles of dead autumn leaves.

My Boston Lily - white and slender.  Colours dimmed by that garish place, but no less lovely in comparison.  The pale sun of winter, to the voluptuousness of summer.  A grey dove to a bird of paradise.  I was so blinded by my dreams, I missed the fear in her eyes. I embraced the land - it intimidated her.  The land that I would tame and make my own, she knew it would exact a price.

A land like this does not give of itself freely.  A land like this demands its own blood tribute. And in return for the valley - I gave of my wife and newborn son.

Scene Five - Falling Star

A brief magical arc.  A flash of glittering diamonds in the night sky.  The star fell - gone too soon.  Trailing clouds of glory in it's dying wake. Rare and lovely.  Burned out in a white heat of light.  An omen.  An auspice.  The Highland blood of my ancestors never stronger or more afraid than at that moment.  When all the oft-remembered mystery of the old ways sang in my veins.  The magic woke the druid in my soul.  I pushed it aside. A new land - a new life.  For how could that moment be unlucky, as I looked down at my newborn baby son.

Undersized and scrawny.  Tenacious in his very fight for life, his will to be born.  A tiny scrap of life with solemn eyes.  Such old eyes, oddly uncanny and vivid with knowing. As though they'd looked upon the earth before and knew it's secrets.  It's cruelties.  Eyes the brightest blue I'd ever seen.

A fuzz of black hair.  Raven's wing and silky as his mother's, despite the blood and caul that still clung to it.  Blood on my baby's skin.  His mother's  - his own.  The brownish/red stain of pain and struggle that clothed his nakedness, and heralded his entry to the world.  My heart contracted.  I could hardly bear to see it there.  To know of the trial he'd undergone.

It seemed incredible.  Miraculous.

Such a small body possessed of such huge spirit.  I sensed it in him even then.  The vibrancy, the energy.  He felt so urgent, so alive in my hand.  Despite the fact I could balance him on one palm, his own barely as big as my thumbnail.

That Child - a miracle.  I was terrified yet overcome.  Consumed with love and ripped asunder with pain.  I had already lost one precious son.  God grant I would not lose his brother.

Scene Six - Lamplight

Hot sand in my mouth and a river of pain.  Sick stench of my own blood - a miasma of hurt, confusion and despair.  Falling like a dark shroud.  A pall.

Even then, God had not seen fit to put me out of my misery.  To terminate my suffering. To what end? For what twisted reason?

Not for revenge.  I had no heart for it.  Not for the land.  The land would always be there, supreme and arrogant when I was long gone.  Once I'd thought I could conquer it - I was younger then.  But the land had stolen everything that mattered from me - all I called my own.  The land itself, it was the only thing left.

A voice in the dim lamplight.  Young and terrified with tears.  Clutching hold of her strength with all the courage she could muster, as she clung to my hand.  I knew then what I'd dared not ask.  She had lost her father - I, my best friend.  So this then, was the reason I'd been spared.

To save the child more pain.  The girl so like my own, so deserving of her place within my heart.  My barren heart.

Alone and empty for so long now.  Places I knew, people I loved.  Gone all gone.  Their faces a shimmer of shadows - revenants of the past, trailing ghost memories.  Mocking vagaries of lost happiness, or the promise of happiness.  Vanished forever like dust in the wind.

My robust Highland brothers, the sly dimpled lassies.  My Queen of the lilies and her golden haired son.  La Mariposa - my exotic butterfly - she too.  Spreading her jeweled wings to fly away with my star auspiced, blue eyed son.  The falling star etched in my heart like a wound since that day.  I prayed it was for my pain, not his.  That he was somewhere safe and happy, warm and loved.

But I had this child.  A brown - eyed girl who needed me now.  And I still had the land. Each blade of grass, every grain of soil.  All the leaves on all the trees.  I had a grey hair for every acre of it - a sorrow for every inch.

I vowed then I would not lose it.  Not when it had cost so much, demanded such a price of me.  It was mine, and I was prepared to fight and die to keep it.  It was all I had left.

Scene Seven - Courtyard

Sun dapples down on the courtyard through a canopy of leaves.  A shifting, dancing pattern of greens and shadows, light and dark.  It's peaceful here.  A tranquil haven in Teresa's garden.  Surrounded by the scent of herbs, the drone of the bees.

Spiky lavender, purple sage.  Dark rosemary for remembrance.  A herb particularly bittersweet to me.  It's pungent aromatic perfume a reminder of my losses - a symbol of my gains.

From here I can hear the sound of cattle.  The shrill whinny of horses.  Birdsong like a flute in the white oaks.  But sweeter, so much sweeter still, the piping laughter of children.

I'm getting older.  But it's an age I wear with pride, not anger.  Gone now the frustration. The raillery at  'times winged chariot'. The grief for stolen moments, the things I never did.  I've loved and been loved.  Lost so much, but gained much more.  Life has been a benefactor and a harsh mistress.  The warp and weft has ebbed and flowed like tide.

A rustle in the bushes, a pair of glowing eyes.  Of all my grandchildren, I love this child. He hands me a pebble as though it's a jewel.  A small round pebble the size of a dime.  Brown fingers wiry - almost bird-like. Never fat or dimpled like his sibling or his cousins.  My heart is full of love and pain.  Perhaps because we nearly lost this child.

Taking it solemnly, I imprison him on my lap.  Thank him as though it's worth more to me than gold.  His bright eyes round and grave, vivid.  Blue as the sky.  So full of wisdom and shadowed by illness.  Eyes like his father's all over again.

He tilts his head and listens intently, I hear them too.  Voices approaching.  The deep bass rumble of my eldest son. My golden son, with his long straight back and graceful carriage.  His lean, open face so honest and true.  An echo of Catherine - my Queen of the Lilies.  Another voice - softer.  A sun-smothered drawl.  And I think of the star and the son that was lost, as my own blue-eyed Johnny hove into view.

My grandson's elfin face lights up, and he's off like the wind. Pelting across the courtyard to meet his father and uncle.  Thin brown legs heart-achingly sturdy now, and fleet as a hare.  I look in contentment, as he's picked up and swung by strong, loving arms.

A slight sigh in my hair, as I sense that she's there.  Soft hand on my shoulder, as she places her trowel down carefully on the bench, and watches her son with her husband.  Serenity a living glow on her face.  My precious, brown - eyed girl.

I have been many things in my life.  Adventurer, lover, father and fool.  I have seen half the world, but missed what was under my nose.  Spent years frozen with bitterness, to be melted by a moment of love.  I have raged at the hand fate dealt me - yet managed to turn up an ace.  What I thought was the truth an illusion. What I thought was illusion the truth.

But now as I count up my blessings, I know that I've won more than lost.  Life turning gently full circle, the seasons changing, my years unraveling like a golden thread.

There are things I would have done differently.  Things I did wrong. I acknowledge them with sorrow, but to change them might have brought about another ending.  Another conclusion to my journey, and that I could not have borne.

My name is Murdoch Lancer - I have been many things in my life.  A man of many parts. Each more intricate than the last - each a sum of the whole.


Lisa Paris - 2003



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