For two days he drifted around Orkney. He got onto public busses when he saw them and got off at random stops, to walk along the one track country roads or simply across the windswept plain. On the seemingly limitless sky clouds and sunshine changed periodically according to an inscrutable schedule determined by far away currents and convection.
At the Standing Stones of Stenness, a Neolithic circle of stones set on a narrow peninsula between two shallow lochs, he met an old man walking with two hounds. The boy had been standing in the shadow of one of the stones smoking and watching two crows argue in coarse voices when the man suddenly spoke.
“Memories, huh?” the man asked. His windbreaker was the dark blue of municipal uniforms, and he had a lazy eye that made it hard to know what he was looking at.
The boy smiled noncommittally and tossed aside the cigarette. The old man slapped the cold stone next to them. “They got memories, too, you know?” he said, and when the boy didn’t answer he answered himself.
“Yes, old memories. Do you know that they have been set up at the same time the earliest civilisations started out in Egypt and Sumeria, India and China.”
The boy looked around, across the lochs and the pastures dotted with gorse and tufts of wild oats, all the way to the end of the land and the sea many kilometres distant.
“What did people do in this place?” he asked the old man. “There’s nothing here.”
The old man looked around as well, with his mismatched eyes, and then watched his dogs chase each other between the standing stones.
“Maybe that is what they came for.”
In Kirkwall he had two strange encounters that would haunt him for a long time. One of those happened as he picked pockets in the cathedral. A clump of tourists was listening to a guide tell some tale about a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft, and who mysteriously disappeared from a dungeon cell underneath the church the night before her execution. The boy had mingled with the group and used their shoving and pushing and the distraction through the guide to steal wallets. Just when the guide encouraged them all to peer inside the gloomy hole that lead down to the dungeon and everyone was craning their heads, a hand closed itself around the boy’s wrist.
“Not this one, Jack. Believe me. It’s not worth the trouble.”
The man was tall and stared at him with intense eyes. Then he let him go. The boy slowly walked away, so as not to rouse the attention of his other victims and make sure nobody else would remember his face.
He strolled through Kirkwall for a while, and listened to two heavily tattooed girls play Minstrel Boy near the harbour. The long-haired, dark one sporting raven feathers on her arms was playing the guitar, and the cropped, blond one with the Celtic knots and heavy leather choker and bracelets played a fiddle.
At dusk he walked around the Peedie Sea, a small body of water at the Western border of the town, cut off from the sea by a narrow sandbank with a road running across. The sky was overcast and reflected the town’s lights a sickly sulfurish yellow. In the shadow of a silo, amidst high stands of pricklyburr he met the tall man from the Cathedral again.
“Hold this for a moment, Jack.” The man was holding out a red glow stick. The boy took it and in its light watched the man set fire to the spiked fruits of the pricklyburr, drop them into a bowl and inhale the lazy white smoke.
“Thanks.” The man took another hit and the boy thought he could see the man’s pupils widen and swallow all of his pupils until there was nothing but two limitless black wells. The man’s voice was cracked and strangely quivering when he spoke again: “I have something for you, Jack.”
The man took something small out of his coat pocket and handed it to the boy. The boy turned it over in his fingers. It was a guitar-pick made of ivory, with scrimshaw filigrees and patterns winding around in it in slanted likes like some sort of unearthly writing, and a silver framed hole. The boy didn’t play the guitar, but the pick seemed to be almost too heavy to be useful.
“My name is not Jack.”
“Isn’t it? Well, it should be. Run a string through the hole, wear it like a charm. You’ll never be caught again. And now go away, Jack, and don’t come back. Take the light and go back to where you came from.”
By then darkness had fallen, and the boy made his way to one of the hostels. That night he had some problems bluffing himself past the age and ID check of the Kirkwall hostel. He tried to sell the yarn that he had gotten separated from his sister (the girl at the check-in counter seemed more receptive to a boy with a big sister than one with a big brother) who he was travelling with, that his papers had been in the backpack she carried, and that she would arrive the next day, but the girl at the check-in counter wasn’t buying it.
“Ah’m sohry, bit Ah cannae do it, luv.”
He nodded, resigned to try another hostel. He pushed his hands into his pockets and encountered the strange, heavy guitar pick. He took it out and looked at it again.
“At’s a pretty thing. D’ye play the guitar, luv?”
“Do you have a string or something?”
Maybe feeling sorry for denying him earlier, she hunted around her desk and handed him a length of some gilded cord.
“There ye are, luv.”
He ran the cord through the hole in the pick, just as the stranger had recommended, and tied both ends off. He slipped it over his head and centred the pick on his chest, underneath his T, when the girl said:
“Leuk, there is yer sis.” And at his startled expression: “’At is yer sister, luv, in’er?”
The boy turned around and saw a young woman carrying two backpacks, a violin case, and a naked guitar. It was the blond girl with the Celtic knot tattoos who he had listened to earlier. Something about her indeed bore an odd resemblance to him. And somewhere nestled in the corners of her eyes there was weariness he recognised. Trusting his gut, he rushed towards her to help her with her luggage and said loudly:
“Hey, I thought you’d arrive tomorrow, sis. I forgot my ID in the backpack. Stupid of me. Good thing I was wrong.”
The young woman sat down the larger of the bags and handed him the other one without perceptible hesitation. “I don’t think so. You didn’t forget it in Aberdeen, you numbskull, did you?”
The boy knelt down and began to rifle through the strange bag. The young woman started to chat with the check-in girl, telling her about the annoying wet end of a little brother, and got three beds on her ID.
“Come on, wet end,” she said, jingling the room keys. “You carry the bags.”
And in the hallway: “Listen, kid. I only agreed because I really can do without a scene right now. Don’t let me regret it.” After a pause, “Annie. You are?”
“Wet End. And thank you.”
Annie laughed. “Alright.”
In the room they were joined by her dark haired friend with the raven feather tattoos.
“Did you get it?” Annie asked, voice discordant with tension.
The raven girl nodded but asked:
“An’ who would tha’ be?”
Annie looked around as if she had completely forgotten her new relation.
“That seems to be my little brother, Wet End. Wet End, this is Bev.”
“Mistaek,” Bev said, with a broad Irish accent. She took a small package from a pocket which Annie grabbed with obvious greed. “Ye don’t want her fer a sister, ye want me. I’m the fun one. But ye can be my brother as well, if ye want te.”
Annie excused herself to the bathroom. Bev took up the guitar. She strummed it once, rolled her eyes and began to tune it. The boy sat on the edge of a bed and relished the pain her comment had caused him. It took Bev a while, but when she was satisfied, she started in on what the boy eventually recognised as “Johnny I hardly knew you”.
He and Bev then spent the night talking and her teaching him the basics of playing the guitar, while Annie lay in blissful stupor on one of the beds. The boy wondered how his sister might have turned out if she had still been alive. Early in the morning he got up and searched through the packs of the sleeping girls. He took almost a hundred pounds and an old but well-whetted, well-oiled Swiss army knife. He gave Bev a light kiss and then snuck out of the room.
That day he travelled the islands again, and slept on fresh hay in small, lonely barn in the middle of a wide, lonely field. The next night he took another ferry further north.