G. S. Singer
The bird was gone, and Maggie knew it. She staggered to a stop near the crown of the hill, dragged the binoculars to her eyes and searched the sky one last desperate time. Nothing! Not even a sparrow. Just white clouds and blue sky. The little beast had given her the slip.
Aching and defeated, her five hour cross country trek now a complete waste, Maggie collapsed on the grass and closed her eyes. She dreaded the hike back, especially with nothing to show for it. How far was it to Kirriemuir, anyway? Eight miles? Ten? Tracking a bird with no supplies, not even a water bottle went against all her training. But it wasn’t as if she’d expected to see a Corvus juratus, the fabled Red-billed Rook, on her first day in Scotland.
She’d been bird watching in a local park when the Corvus juratus, a bird no one had seen in over twenty years, just up and landed beside her-—right there on the bench. Why, she’d been so startled that by the time she’d fumbled for her camera the rook had flown off. Who could blame her for chasing after the creature most of the day?
Maggie inhaled a great shuddering breath. Corvus juratus--the bird of a lifetime—-gone. Corvus juratus--the perfect specimen for her doctoral thesis-—vanished. Corvus juratus--and without a single picture, who would believe she’d actually seen one? Something wet hit her cheek and lip. God, it wasn’t starting to rain, was it? That’s all she needed, a hike back to Kirriemuir drenched to the bone. Her tongue flicked out and touched the spot. Salty. Bitter. Somewhat gritty. Bird poop! In a strange way, nothing had ever tasted better.
Maggie opened her eyes, wiped her face with her sleeve then struggled to her feet. Fifty feet above her, a black speck popped into the circle of her binoculars. Weariness forgotten, she watched the rook land on a branch of heather and flutter its wings as if beckoning her like some feathered spirit out of Poe or Coleridge.
This was her chance. Even the Corvus juratus seemed to be tiring. If she could just get two clear photos, one side, one oblique, make a few notes, observe some minor behavioral detail no one else had described, her doctorate would be in the bag: Margaret Chalmers, Doctor of Avian Studies. God, it had a ring, didn’t it?
Infused with new energy, camera and binoculars held tight, Maggie pushed further up the hill. Cresting the top, a castle came into view in the valley below. Nothing unusual about that, thought Maggie, Scotland had more castles than any country on Earth. Most were falling apart as this one appeared to be. She peered at the structure through her binoculars. There seemed to be some event going on down there, people milling about, cars neatly parked, tables and chairs set up, even a large moving truck.
Not far away, Corvus juratas pecked tentatively at a twig. Just a little closer, thought Maggie, two or three more steps, a few photos, some notes, then dinner, a hot bath, and the morning train to London.
On her fourth step, twenty red grouse burst from the under brush catching Maggie by surprise. The covey’s flight launched fifteen grouse hunters from their blinds at the base of the ridge. Startled by the birds, Maggie lost her footing and spun around just as fifteen shotgun barrels blasted shot up the ridge toward the flying grouse. Most of the pellets found their mark, but several wayward number six birdshot hit Maggie’s gluteus maximus. The impact propelled her somersault fashion down the ridge amid a torrent of falling birds. She came to rest at the bottom of the hill against a pair of rubber boots.
“What the devil are you doin’ in ma grouse hunt?”
“Is she okay?” Maggie mumbled gathering up her camera and binoculars, brain stunned by the sudden down hill journey.
“There’s another of you?” the man said looking about.
Maggie scooted herself to a sitting position and scanned the skies. Her rump felt painfully hot. “The Corvus juratas? Was she hurt?”
“Corvus what? Your head must of ta’en a pretty hard hit, lady.”
“There,” Maggie said pointing skyward.
The man standing over her looked up. “Lady, even an American must know that’s a blasted crow.”
Maggie observed the gentleman with a scientific eye. Tall, broad shoulders, last shave probably two days ago, he would clean up suitably with an hour’s scrubbing and a proper hair cut. The elocution lessons might take a bit longer.
“Not a crow,” she said, “a rook, much different. Corvus juratas to be exact.”
Maggie moved painfully. She touched her backside and jerked her hand away.
The man had no more than noticed her affliction when Maggie felt herself being lifted and flung over his shoulder. Not far away the hunters and their gun handlers were carrying bags of game towards the castle.
“Who are you?” Maggie asked her rescuer, the pain in her backside cleansing the fog from her brain.
“Kyle, the gamekeeper.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“To the cottage.”
“Will a doctor be there?”
“I think I should see a doctor.”
“You don’t need a doctor.”
“What about a nurse?”
“Lady, this isn’t brain surgery. You’ve only a few pellets in your arse. I’ll have them out in a jiff. Do it to ma dogs all the time.”
Soon they were on a path strewn with feed sacks, broken barrels and animal bones that led to a thatch-roofed stone cottage. Based on condition, Maggie assumed it had been built some time before the Norman invasion. Ten paces from the door Kyle dropped her belly first on an overturned whiskey barrel. Wind oofed from her lungs.
“MacLogan?” an angry voice called from the cottage, “is that you?”
As Maggie struggled to inhale, Kyle pulled a jackknife from his pocket
“Keep away, MacLogan,” called the voice in the cottage, “or I’ll gut you like a hog.”
Maggie’s breath returned with a gasp as Kyle opened the blade. “Never mind about MacLogan, Da,” he called over his shoulder, “I’ve gutted him already.”
Silence, then: “Good lad, Kyle.”
Kyle stropped the blade up and down on his pant leg.
“Wait,” Maggie said, cold sweat breaking on her forehead. “What are you doing?” She pushed off the barrel, but Kyle abruptly straddled her back.
“Relax lass, I’ll have those pellets out in a jiff.” Maggie felt a zip down the side of her pants, then cool air on her rump. “Hey, what the hell are you....”
“Pretty bum you’ve got. Not to worry, the shot’s barely breeched the skin. Let’s see, two, three, four, five, six....”
Sharp pain lit Maggie’s spine. Then another and another and another and another and another.
A quick zip and Kyle was on his feet wiping his blade on the front of his shirt. Maggie rolled off the barrel. “You bastard!”
Kyle took her hand, jerked her to her feet and dusted her off. “Oh, stop your fussing. Has no one ever seen your bum before?”
“Of course people have seen my bum.”
He smirked. “Who then?”
Faces sprang to mind. Tom, the marine biologist she dumped six months ago after playing fourth fiddle behind a porpoise, a shark and a squid. Before him, Freddy, the language professor who sang madrigals and quoted Goethe. And what’s-his-name, the sophomore tight end she’d attacked two Saturdays ago at the Varsity Restaurant after doing without since Tom. No technique, but God, the man’s stamina!
Maggie shook his image from her mind. What was wrong with her? Did she have a concussion?
“Plenty of people,” she said defiantly.
Kyle’s eyebrows raised a notch. He opened Maggie’s palm, dumped six pellets into it then started down the path toward the castle.
Maggie threw the pellets at Kyle’s back. “Hey,” she said running after him, “come back here. Where am I?”
Maggie caught up to him quickly despite the throb in her butt. “I know that. Where in Angus?”
“Eight miles outside Kirriemuir, Canardly Castle.”
“Is there a phone here I can use.”
The path was barely wide enough for one person, and she fell in behind him. “Can someone give me a ride to town?”
“Maybe the Laird, if you ask him nice like.”
“The one you gutted?”
“Aye, the same. Da, hates the Laird.”
“You work for him?”
“Aye, the gamekeeper.”
“The grouse killer, you mean.”
“Aye, and bum mender.”
Down on the castle lawn, people were taking their seats at several long tables. A white haired gentleman in jacket and kilt stood at the podium tapping the microphone. After a few moments he spoke in a mild brogue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, foreign guests, welcome all and thank you for a wonderful grouse hunt. Canardly Castle was captured from the McDunn Clan by my ancestor Archibald MacLogan in 1747. Today, I offer it for sale to the highest bidder. Bids will be accepted until twelve noon this coming Saturday at which time the person or organization offering the highest bid will be the new owner. Thank You.”
The path ended in a freshly mowed lawn and Maggie now walked beside Kyle taking long painful strides to keep up. Here she took note of all six foot two of him: muscular, handsome in a farmy sort of way, fair skinned, wooly. His clothes emitted the distinct odor of dead bird--not wholly repugnant to a naturalist used to handling stuffed avian specimens.
“So Lord MacLogan is selling his castle. Doesn’t seem right, does it?”
Kyle stopped abruptly and faced her, his blue eyes piercing in the mid afternoon sun. “He’s mismanaged the family wealth and now must sell the estate. I’ve work to do inside. Hope you get to town.” His expression changed. “What’s that on your face?”
Embarrassed, Maggie wiped her cheek. “Bird excreta probably. The Corvus juratus pooped on me.”
Kyle smiled and touched her cheek. “To be shat on by a bird is a good omen. It’s a highland legend. Wear it proudly.” He smiled again.
Maggie felt a bit faint. “I will,” she said thinking she ought to sit. “And thanks for taking care of, you know, my bum.”
Kyle strode off toward the castle. A short distance away he then turned and waved.
Around her, people were breaking into groups: some dark men in white robes were gathering by the castle walls, some Orientals on the lawn. Maggie followed a small cluster of guests ambling up the steps and through the castle’s double wood and iron doors.
Once inside, she crossed a small receiving area and found herself at the edge of a room the size of a tennis court decorated with an arrangement of carved tables and leather furniture. In the center of a sculpted two story ceiling hung a large Victorian chandelier.
As she watched, the chandelier began to sway. Maggie reached for the wall. A second glance proved the chandelier motionless, and she realized its movement had been nothing more than a touch of vertigo. Had her roll down the hill had been more serious than she’d thought, or was it exhaustion and lack of food? She had been on the go for over five hours now.
Venturing further into the room, past a man in chauffeur’s uniform engrossed in a painting of a classical Scotsman wearing a feathered hat, she stopped beside a fireplace large enough to melt a Honda in. The room looked familiar, like she’d seen a picture of it in People magazine or watched Johnny Depp sword fight through it in a movie. However there was something else. The chandelier, the grand staircase, the ubiquitous knight’s armor, the pennants, even the fireplace tools and dustbin: they all seemed familiar to her, as if she’d walked by these things a thousand times before, as if they’d been part of her routine, her daily life.
And somehow as Maggie stood there trying to comprehend the memories bubbling into her brain she knew that if she just glanced right, in a curio cabinet by a red leather armchair, she’d see a carved silver crucifix and next to that a small onyx chessboard with ivory chessmen. She was almost afraid to look, yet when she did, there were both items exactly as she remembered them. Remembered—-was that the right word? And it wasn’t just the furnishings she remembered. Events came to her: dinners, parties, evenings sitting by the fire, recitals, joyful times, times of sorrow.
This is crazy Maggie thought, fighting back the people in thirty year old clothes strutting across the stage of her memory. I’m not a clairvoyant; I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in ghosts. My brain is making this stuff up. It has to be. An over active imagination, that’s what it is--or was it the fall down the hill. Of course! I’ve do have a concussion, a mild one but a concussion none the less.
Maggie found her way to a couch, sat down, put her head in her hands, closed her eyes and began an internal assault on her memories.
“I say, are you all right?”
Maggie opened one eye. The speaker was male, about her age, gray suit, wavy hair, boyish face, and unlike Kyle, spoke with a British accent. He sat down beside her.
“Lord Stockton arrived drunk,” she blurted out, “to Lord MacLogan’s birthday party. He knocked over the cake and ruined everything.”
Maggie could scarcely believe what she’d said.
The man in the gray suit laughed heartily. “Do go on.”
Another memory came to Maggie’s lips. “Grand Dowager Lady MacLogan had Mrs. Hogan bake apple pastry when Sir Harry came for dinner. But Sir Harry was allergic to apples and had to be rushed to the doctor.”
The man in gray laughed again then called out. “Uncle, you must hear this.”
Lord MacLogan, the gentleman in tartan who spoke from the podium, walked over. “Now, tell us another,” said the man in gray to Maggie.
Maggie thought a minute. “Baron Trimble stayed the night but the plumbing developed a leak right over his bed, and he awoke in a puddle.”
The man in gray erupted in laughter. “The old boy had a wet dream, too funny!”
“Watch yourself, Trent,” said Lord MacLogan sternly.”
“Was that true, Uncle?”
“Yes, quite true,” Lord MacLogan confessed. “The castle was falling apart even back then.”
Trent turned to Maggie. “How do you know these things?”
Maggie blinked her eyes. “I’ve no idea. I’ve never been here in my life.”
“I find them quite hilarious. Tell us another,” Trent said eager to hear more.
Maggie stared into space. “Lady Lydia discovered her husband was seeing the ambassador’s wife. She refused to speak to him until he ended the affair.”
Lord MacLogan’s back straightened. “Young lady, it’s quite rude to repeat a household’s private activities. I’d like to know just how you’ve come by this information.”
As Lord MacLogan and his nephew Trent waited for an answer, Maggie held open her hands, dumbfounded. She had no explanation to give.
“I’ll tell you how she knows.”
Trent, Lord MacLogan and Maggie turned simultaneously to see Kyle walk from around the corner carrying a box of dishware.
“What?” Trent said.
“Reincarnation!” Kyle said setting the box on the table.
“Reincarnation.” Lord MacLogan repeated thoughtfully.
“You’re mad,” Trent scoffed.
“Am I?” Kyle asked. “How else would she know the goings on in Canardly Castle thirty years ago?”
Trent’s brow wrinkled in an ugly way. “From the staff, I suppose.”
“Even private events between Lady Lydia and Laird MacLogan?” Kyle asked.
Trent stared at Kyle a moment then stood. “Now see here, McDunn, I don’t much like that you’ve been eavesdropping on our conversation for one thing. For another, I don’t appreciate your insinuation that this American girl is somehow the reincarnation of my dead aunt. In fact, I think you owe Lord MacLogan a great apology, you tactless oaf.”
Kyle’s body tensed in what Maggie thought could only be the prelude to Trent’s murder. She pushed herself into the couch cushions and gulped what little spit her dry mouth could muster. That Kyle was capable of killing this insolent fellow with one swing of his fist was as certain as the vacuous look on Lord MacLogan’s face.
“McDunn!” Lord MacLogan said snapping from his reverie. “Take that dishware out to the moving lorry.”
Kyle hesitated, fists clenched, weighing, it seemed to Maggie, the pleasure of killing Trent against the pain of a lengthy prison sentence.