Jane Gourlay

Las Campanas

Doña Luisa told me not to do it. Don’t follow the gringo, she said, el escosés loco. With his swagger and eyes the colour of the lake she said, flicking her braid. The local kids used to ask him if he saw everything in blue. I even wondered myself, that first shimmering afternoon in the plastic hammock, the cicadas on the hillside echoing on the tin roof. No vayas, she called out as I boarded the truck, in the same voice she uses to sell tortillas at the bus station. Her broad face has appeared to me repeatedly since. At the scholarship interview in the city, sweating in a borrowed dress; in the hushed airport, at the London language school. I tasted her chile soup and felt the heat of her arms when I bought a warmer coat. To me, London has the character of a giant stone iguana; imperious, flicking its eyes at me as I hurry past with my dark head down.

The small plane to Edinburgh banks and I press my face against the window, towards an undulating field of uniformly-spaced orange lights. They are like the candles in the village graveyard on el dia de los muertos. We go with offerings of food, Pepsi Cola, cigarettes and tall white lilies. We wait all night for our ancestors at the worn-out door of the other world. I haven’t seen him yet. Exams, he said. Wait until Hogmanay, he said, and come to Edimburgo, his faltering Spanish still better than my English. I watched the calendar and held the curling photo in my pocket at all times—on the tube and in my grammar classes with the polite Arab research students. The moment of our meeting at Edimburgo airport is as familiar to me as a memory. So when we are boarding the airport bus and he hasn’t yet looked me in the eye, I take a while to understand that the moment may not happen at all. He talks fast, shifting, looking out the window. Using English I can’t follow. Blood pounds in my head as we sweep through quiet suburbs. He’s talking about the mount—it must be a mountain—where we’ll meet his ‘uni’ friends ‘for the bells’. I nod. I see the single, dusty iron bell on my village church tower. I hear its plain tolling as we climb stone stairs in darkness. Maybe this is where we will have the moment, hidden in the back room of this empty flat.

Shortly afterwards, he is hoisting himself up and I am lying still on a dirty bed, under a flickering street light. I angle my head to allow the tears to flow sideways out of unblinking eyes, and gather in my ear. It still hurts between my legs hours later. Hours of crowds and roaring pubs and shouting people and spinning at the funfair. I scream along with Emma and Nicola or whatever these blonde girls are called. Then we all walk up and down a wide street beside a castle that looks like a big old prison, choking on whisky out of a plastic bottle.

Carried by the crowd, I suddenly find myself under a gigantic Ferris wheel. The receding cars swing above me one by one, against fast-moving clouds. He hasn’t looked at me since he pulled his trousers up. He and his friends disappear into the crowd one by one. He is last. I lean back to see another gleaming disk spin up like an old peso coin. Everything is in motion. The wind sucks around me and pulls my hair off my shoulders like a small black ghost. I look again at where I last saw el escosés. But my feet stay on the spot. I won’t follow. Maybe I’ll see him later on the mountain—I’ve just spotted it slumped like a giant, exhausted ox behind the rising spires of the town. I start walking, shouldering through waves of big, alcohol-sodden, red-faced gringos.

The fire between my legs has converted itself into a growing heat in my chest. My careful store of English has gone. I hear only the Español of the valley—soft, incantatory—the murmured prayers of the bruja burning secret herbs and wafting them over my suitcase, my tickets and my body at dawn. Doña Luisa standing in the doorway, cockerels crowing in her yard.

It’s snowing now—the first I’ve seen—and I’m halfway up a dark, muddy path. I know that this can’t be the mount where el escosés was going with his friends. But the bruja’s voice is rising above the wind, joined by Doña Luisa’s hawker’s calls, and the slapping of tortillas between her rough palms. People pass, a drunk girl tries to hug me, shrieking about a cancelled party, fireworks. But I pull away and I’m running now, sweat slick on my back, blood soaking into the crotch of my jeans. At the top I find no one else there. So I lie on my back on a bench and place my cheek against its rough wood. Snow coats me. I lie there for a long time. Then I take the photo between my fingernails and hold it above my face until the wind whips it away, into the deep whirlpool of the blizzard. The women’s voices are chanting louder now, as the first massive burst of fireworks blooms over me, over the emptying town. I hold my plane ticket in my pocket and lie still, until the sky fills and empties again. Like a curving field of candles at the bottom of a dark valley.