"Arran's Inheritance" features in my cli-fi anthology "Crisis: A Climate Fiction Collection," available to purchase as an e-book at the URL shown below. All proceeds will be donated to student climate activist charity People and Planet.
It had snowed heavily the night before, and the goat willows that crowded the bridleways flanking the River Caddon hung heavy and low. The ice-hardened ground crunched loudly underfoot, the sound amplified against the heady silence of the afternoon, punctuated only by the occasional pile of snow falling from an overladen branch, or a few sorrowful notes of a robin’s song. It was cold in a way that children never seem to notice; for Miles and I, the dry chill in the air was a call to adventure. Mam had made us promise to be back before nightfall, but apart from that, we were free.
“Hey!” I called after Miles who, at twelve years old, was two years my senior in age, and at least three in running ability. “Wait for me!”
I watched him cross the rickety wooden bridge at a half-sprint and, feeling a mixture of envy and a childish fear of being left behind, ran after him across the frozen boards, hearing the water flowing below, made sluggish by the sheets of ice that constrained it at the shallower edges. I knew Caddon Haugh like the back of my hand, but every year I still looked forward to its annual transformation into the quiet, monochrome world it became in late November. The snows never failed to come, and my brother and I never failed to make the most of it. That was how it had always been.
For us, the riverside woodland was like a generous family member, living just a short walk down the road, who showered us with gifts whenever we visited. In winter, Caddon Haugh bore gifts of snowball fights, ice-skating and winter foraging; in spring we were treated to the whole spectacle of emerging life, from fledgling reed warblers and meadow pipits, emerging on shaky legs to try their hand at flight, to bright fields full of purple ragged robin and devil’s bit scabious, and the fresh-marzipan aroma of flowering meadowsweet that blossomed from below the hedgerows. By the time it was warm enough to wear short sleeves, the woodland ponds swarmed with emerald damselflies as we built dens out of fallen branches until dinner time, coming back home exhausted, muddy, and glowing with happiness.
By the time I caught up with Miles, a featherlike snowfall had begun again, the blank white tile of the sky now crowded with falling flakes. I heard the persistent call of a dunnock rise from the shadowy woods and looked up to see Duneigle Hill disappear into the whiteout beyond the pine-encrusted slope to the south. I stopped to catch my breath as Miles swung from the lowest branch of a moss-covered alder that hung over the path, watching the puff of condensation billow outwards from between my chapped lips. I heard Miles shriek with surprise and looked up to see his shoulders and woollen hat covered in the snow he’d dislodged, his toothy grin beaming wide under a messy blonde fringe and a snub-nose tinged pink from the cold.
“Last one there’s a rotten egg!” Miles teased, and we were off again, careening down the bridleway towards the haugh.
* * *
“Almost there, Mr. McLachlan.”
My carer, Lindsay, coos from just behind my grey-haired head in a voice honed by thousands of hours of caring for children and the infirm. Her saccharine voice mingles unpleasantly with the ever-present noise of motor traffic from the nearby A74, my hearing aid somehow unable to cope with the two competing sounds, trying to combine them when they should be separate.
“Now, we’re going to leave the wheelchair at the gate, just like usual. But don’t worry. I’ll be right next to you the whole time.”
“I have nae forgotten,” I grumble, unable to suppress the annoyance in my voice even though I know that Lindsay is just doing what I pay her to do. “Just cos’ I cannae walk straight, it dinnae mean my brain’s all gone tae mush.”
“Of course, Mr. McLachlan.”
“And for God’s sake, call me Edan,” I mutter. “We’ve known each other for five years.”
Lindsay helps me up from my chair, supporting my back and shoulders with strong hands as I settle my grip on two carbon-fibre walking sticks. We start across the bridge over the River Caddon at a snail’s pace, my old muscles taking their time to warm up. They replaced the old wooden bridge twenty years ago with a nasty stainless-steel thing. It’s much sturdier, of course, but for me there’s no contest between them. The steel looks like everything else does these days: too hard and too bright, like it’s competing with everything else for your attention. These little changes, scattered everywhere like pine cones in Autumn, remind me that this isn’t my world any more. Frail and almost wheelchair-bound, my world has grown smaller with each passing year, but even the tiny world of Caddon Haugh is not as it should be.
My right foot hits a small ridge on the metal surface and I stumble forward two paces, feeling my knee joints protest.
“Whoops,” Lindsay chirps, steadying my shoulders with expert hands.
Now in the centre of the ghastly metal bridge, I totter over to the east side and lean over the railing, peering into the brown-hued water.
“I remember…” I begin, but am interrupted by a shuddering cough that rattles my skeleton like it’s a wooden wind chime. Lindsay exhales in a way that I somehow find both irritating and reassuring.
“Are you alright, Mr. McLachlan?” she says. “Do we need to go back home?”
“Ach,” I retort. “I’m fine, lassie. It’s just a wee cough.” I shake my head. “And I told ye tae call me Edan.”
Lindsay hovers, chastised by my foul mood and unsure of what to do. I’ve got to try to be more polite to her. She’s all I have left since Agnes died.
“I remember,” I start again when my lungs have cleared, “when this river could barely move for ice, this time o’ year. Now there’s nary a smidgen of it. It isnae right.”
“It’s been a mild winter, this year,” Lindsay replies in her light-hearted, sing-song way.
“Aye. It’s always a mild winter. It isnae right,” I repeat.
Lindsay makes a wordless noise of agreement. I’m sure she’s humouring me, but today I just don’t care. Every year it gets worse, and it frightens me that so many people just don’t see how bad it’s become. But when you’ve been around for as long as I have it’s impossible to ignore, even if no one cares to listen to you anymore.
* * *
I remember the day we found the hare like it happened this morning. I still think about it sometimes.
It was January and the ground was still partly frozen, but the winter air was already thick with the smell of manure, the farmers having started their muck-spreading on the fields beyond Caddon Meadow for the coming year’s crops. Miles had just had his fifteenth birthday, and this was to be the last year we spent together on Caddon Haugh before he found work at the crude oil refinery at the Firth of Forth. The meadow was cropped low for the winter and the encroaching reeds from the waterlogged woodland had just been cut back. You could look the entire two-mile rise of the meadow and see everything, down to the smallest rock or tussock. The sky was slate grey, threatening rain; already a few large drops had begun to fall.
Miles and I saw it at the same time – that thing that didn’t belong. We rushed over, Miles ahead of me as usual. As we approached, our breathing heavy with exertion, we saw a small, furry body, grey as the clouds above it but with a tuft of pure white at the back. Miles caught his breath first and reached for a nearby stick. He prodded the hare’s flank with it, more out of curiosity than hope. It was dead, or course, and had been for hours.
“Aye, that’s rank,” I said, drawing my head back in disgust. Miles played the brave older brother, as was his way. He drew closer to it and began to inspect the body.
“Eh, have a keek a’ this,” Miles said, lifting one of the hare’s hind legs up. I looked and immediately wished that I hadn’t.
The animal’s leg was bound in rough iron twine, drawn taut around exposed bone. Ragged, torn flesh hung from loose fur both above and below the snare. Miles, now well settled into his role of wise older sibling, started to explain the trap to me, even though it was the last thing I wanted to hear about.
“He’s tried tae nibble his way out. Chewed right through his own leg tae the bone.”
Hares were a common sight on the meadow all year round, but I’d never seen one trapped until then.
“Who’s done that? Why’d they do that?”
I stared in horror, now unable to look away.
“Ech, stop your girning,” Miles replied. “It’s the farmers. Mr MacBride told me. It’s so they willnae eat the crops when they come up in Spring.”
For my pragmatic brother, this was a perfectly reasonable explanation. But something went dark inside me then. I looked around me at the hedges lining the fields, thinking of the empty farmland that lay beyond in every direction, and realised for the first time that the farmers who owned them probably despised Caddon Haugh for its abundance of life; they probably wished that they could drain it and turn it into even more farmland. I couldn’t quite believe that my beloved Haugh – this place that I’d cherished for as long as I could remember – could be hated by anyone. To me, it wasn’t just the trees, the ground, the water: the animals were a part of the landscape, a part of myself. This hare, and all the others, were like family to me. I could scarcely believe any of it, but all the evidence lay right in front of me in a way I couldn’t ignore. The hares – my hares – were nothing but vermin to the farmers. Their lives were worth less than nothing.
“I think I’m gonna chuck,” I managed to say.
Miles laughed, uncertainly but not unkindly. He always knew when not to tease me. I knew that I couldn’t tell Miles what I was thinking, but he sensed my melancholy mood on the way back home, not venturing to speak as we walked side-by-side, slower than we had come. The rain started pouring down as we crossed back over the wooden bridge, but I barely noticed it. That night I lay awake for a long time, staring at the beams in the ceiling and thinking of that hare’s corpse; how it must have struggled, how afraid it must have been. I wondered how long it had taken to die.
So, too, did I wonder what it all meant for the place that I loved so much but could not protect.
* * *
By the time we reach the end of the bridleway, where the gravel and mud at last make way for the gnarled, distorted trees and mossy rocks of the wet woodland, I feel like I’ve walked a hundred miles. Lindsay has told me I should turn back at least a half-dozen times, but I’m determined to make it all the way this time. Lindsay has stopped a few paces behind me. I turn to see her head turned up towards the tree tops, her dun-coloured ponytail reaching almost all the way down her back and her brown eyes catching the winter sunlight. She sees me looking at her and returns my gaze.
“It’s lovely here. It must be nice to have this so close by. There’s nothing like this where I come from.”
Lindsay is English, and grew up right in the middle of Birmingham. To her, I suppose, even a simple field must be a sight to behold. A toonser, through and through.
“Ech,” I reply, hearing the bitter tone in my voice. “It’s nothing like it used tae be. Listen,” I lower my voice, raising a walking stick up towards the sky.
Lindsay listens for a moment, one ear cocked in the direction that my stick is pointing.
“I can’t hear anything.”
“Exactly,” I reply, and I can feel the phlegm rising in my throat again. It never stays away for long. “Years back, I could pick out at least ten voices, calling out up there. The only time the birds went silent is when it snowed.”
“So, why don’t the birds call out anymore?” Lindsay asks, and I get the dim impression she’s humouring me again. It’s more than likely I’ve pulled this stunt before, but for some reason I can’t remember.
“Because they’re all gone,” I mumble. “They’ve gone the way of everything else around here.”
Lindsay doesn’t venture to talk to me again until we’re deep into the woodland, past all the rhododendron, some reaching higher than a man, that have begun to encroach upon the borders of Caddon Haugh, crowding out the riverbanks and blotting out the sun. I resisted the urge, somehow, to gripe about the rhododendron; how it was brought here by English aristocrats, entirely oblivious to the scourge they were unleashing. I know that Lindsay would not have appreciated that, but facts are facts. Now that the money’s not there to manage it anymore, the rhododendron is winning.
“Shall we sit by the water?” Lindsay asks.
“Aye,” I respond, my voice once again rough and phlegmatic.
I think it’s all the vehicles – the reason why I find it so hard to breathe right these days. Where are all these people going every day, anyway? What’s so important? What’s the rush?
Lindsay helps me down onto the bench that faces the largest pond in the woodland, and we sit together in silence for a few moments. I close my eyes and imagine the pond as it should be: frozen over, three inches thick, not muddy and turpid and choked with algae, as it is. Miles and I would sometimes skate here for hours. Miles fell in just the once, but only because he tried to skate in February.
“Are you cold, Mr McLachlan?” Lindsay chimes in. I open my eyes and see a steaming thermos cap of tea in her gloved hand, thrust under my nose. I take it and draw it up to my mouth, taking a sup and feeling its warmth spread inside me.
“Reminiscing again, are we?”
“Aye. Everyone I ever came here with is gone,” I start. “Ye all I got, Lindsay.”
Lindsay makes a noise that I think might be genuine sympathy.
“I used to come here with Miles. We used to hunt for damselfly nymphs and beetles in spring.”
I point to the opposite bank, where a forked downy birch tree stoops low against the dark water.
“That’s where I proposed to Agnes, ye know.”
I know I’ve told her all of this, but I want to hear my lips form the words. It helps me to remember. Lindsay understands, and lets me talk.
“I remember, I got doon on one knee right there,” I point a shaky finger at the mossy ground below the tree, “an’ my Agnes was a-sittin’ on that branch there, lookin’ as bonny as anything I ever saw. I picked her a water mint just like it was a wedding bouquet. She wore it in her hair.”
My throat is choking up now, and I know it’s not just because of the problems with my lungs. I feel a familiar burning behind my eyes and grit my teeth until it recedes.
“I miss her. I miss them all. Some days I dinnae know what tae do with myself.”
Just like Miles, Lindsay knows when to drop the act. She shuffles closer to me on the battered bench and puts an arm around my shoulder, applying just enough pressure for me to feel her presence there.
And there we sit, just watching the water and the trees and the sky in melancholy silence until I’m ready to go home.
* * *
Our son, Daniel, was born in the summer of 1968. He was a strong and healthy infant, and by the time he was only ten days old we were confident enough to bring him to Caddon Haugh for the first time.
Just after midday, we settled down on the meadow for a picnic lunch. It was well into July, and the wildflowers were at their full height. Every inch of the slope, from the edge of the woodland near the river to the topmost hedgerow, was crowded with the bright bulbous heads of globeflowers and the yellow wash of ten thousand meadow buttercups. The air was thick with marsh fritillary and peacock butterflies; they flitted between flowerheads, spoilt for choice, amid a backdrop of buzzing solitary bees and hoverflies.
The sun shone down from a sky mottled with cirrocumulus clouds that took the hard edge from the heat. A cuckoo called in the distance. Agnes, resplendent at thirty-six years old in a white cotton sleeveless summer dress, nursed baby Daniel as I unpacked the lunch spread and laid it out on the cloth before us.
“Miles says he might be able to visit us next month,” Agnes said in voice that resonated with contentment.
She gazed into Daniel’s eyes as she spoke to me. Our son was transfixed, staying quiet as a mouse as he stared back up at his mother, his dark blue eyes shining softly. I left the lunch for a moment, moving over to Agnes and sitting on the woollen blanket next to her.
“Everyone’s flocking to us now this wee lad’s around,” I reply, beaming with happiness. “But all I need in the world’s right here.”
I leaned in, kissing Agnes on the cheek. Daniel made a sound like a turtledove, his eyes shifting to my face. As I smiled back at him, an orange-hued garden tiger moth burst from the tall grass beyond the picnic blanket, spiralling towards us like a kamikaze pilot before settling flat-winged on Daniel’s button nose.
“Oh!” Agnes exclaimed. “Take a swatch o’ that!”
Daniel seemed to see the moth, because he laughed and moved a stubby hand towards it. The moth flew off behind Agnes’ head and was gone.
“He’ll be just like ye,” Agnes said, her smile revealing two rows of straight white teeth. “They think ye are one o’ them.”
Agnes was right. Daniel grew up to be an ecologist, and it was from him that I learned to put words to the things I was seeing; to understand the scale of the loss that I’d sensed was coming when I was still just a child. We don’t see him much these days, him being busy in Canada, trying to do his part to heal the great wounds we’ve inflicted upon the world. I don’t know how he keeps getting up every morning with some of the things he’s seen, but still he keeps going, keeps trying. If only I were a young man again, I know exactly where I’d be: by his side, fighting to protect what we both love so much.
On the day his own son was born, he called me on the house phone and we spoke for hours. When I put down the receiver at last, I wept into my hands.
* * *
“Such a beautiful day today, isn’t it, Edan?”
In the last few months I’ve finally convinced Lindsay to use my first name, and in return I’ve tried my best not to gripe at her when things get me down. I can feel myself slipping away; some days I can’t even get out of bed. On the worst days I try to remind myself that this is exactly how it should be, and that very soon I’ll get to be with Agnes again. Her last few months of life were much crueller on her; despite the burning pain in my lungs, the broken sleep and the constant aching of every joint, I know it’s nothing compared to what she went through.
“Hmm,” I respond non-committally, not wanting to ruin things by saying that I’ve not seen a single bee or butterfly since we entered the meadow even though it’s halfway through August, and that there were no dragonflies at any of the Haugh’s three ponds either. Lindsay just doesn’t see these things, but maybe it’s better for her that she doesn’t.
“Look, Edan – there’s some cows over there!”
I move my head on a neck as stiff as an old book, and see a group of five shaggy brown Highland heifers grazing on the wildflowers. They were brought in this spring to prevent the meadow from turning into woodland, now that all the liquid fertiliser has seeped into the ground, making it more nutrient-rich than it should be. It seems that, at last, this place has been recognised as worth preserving by those with influence.
“Aye,” I respond, my voice croaking like a bullfrog. “Put there tae protect the meadow after I’m gone.”
Lindsay chirps her agreement, even though I’m sure that all she hears is the rambling of an old man without much life left in him. If it wasn’t for the new chair, with its specially-designed wheels for rough terrain, I wouldn’t be able to come out here at all – there are some advantages to be had in the modern world, after all. Lindsay pushes the chair a few more paces and turns me to face the sun. I close my eyes and feel its heat fall onto my face.
“Have you heard any news from Daniel?” Lindsay offers.
“They’re ready tae pack up an’ come home. The wildfires have wiped out the whole forest they were studying. I might even get to see him an’ Arran before I go.”
Arran, my grandson, is fifteen this year. Daniel and his wife Jayne dithered for years, unsure of whether it was fair to bring a new life into the world, as broken as it is. They’re still not sure it was the right decision, even now, though it’s hard for them to talk about it. I last saw him two years ago, and at twelve years old he was already planning to follow in his father’s footsteps. I expect Lindsay to admonish me for talking about death, but for once, she doesn’t. I suppose I should take this for a sign that she’s finally starting to take my mortality as seriously as I am.
“That would be nice. We had such a lovely day when they visited last.”
“Easter,” I respond, knowing that my lungs will punish me later for all this talking. “Arran’s clothes were all green fae all that running through the ferns. Daniel was furious.”
Lindsay chuckles quietly. “I wish I’d had the chance to do that sort of thing, growing up.”
Even though my hearing is going, something in Lindsay’s tone makes me sit up and turn towards her. My eyesight’s going, too, but I can see something in her face that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. I’ve known her six years and I’ve only ever thought her blind to the natural world, but it now seems to me that she’s just been keeping those thoughts to herself. I throw caution to the wind.
“Do ye worry,” I venture, trying my best to look my carer in the eye although I’m having a hard time staying straight in my chair. “About the future, Lindsay? Do ye ever wonder what will become o’ all this?”
“Yes,” she replies, her voice low and quiet. “Some of things on the news…I can’t believe it’s even real. The fires. The floods. The sea creatures washing up to shore all full of plastic. It’s horrible.”
“My Pa used tae say that nature could take care of itself; that it was people he worried most aboot. He couldnae understand why I never followed Miles to the oil refinery, and I never could make him see it. But I look around me and all I see is people getting stronger, an’ nature getting weaker, every year. It’s pure daft that people don’t see it; that they jus’ carry on like there isnae anything wrong. But it cannae go on this way forever, can it?”
“A friend of mine says she won’t have any children because of it.”
Lindsay’s face is ashen.
“Daniel used tae say that. Then one day, they decided tae have Arran anyway. He never could explain that tae me either, not prop’ly. He said it was something aboot trying to have hope.”
“I wonder what kind of a world Arran will grow up in,” Lindsay replies, and tears are in her eyes as she looks down at me.
“Aye,” I respond, tears now choking my own voice. “It surely isnae the inheritance I had in mind for him. But Pa said something else, too. He said that people always find a way tae keep goin’, that they always seem to find a solution to what’s wrong in the end. An’ maybe that’s true.”
Lindsay keeps her eyes on me but says nothing as the tears run down her face.
“People are waking up, like from a dream, Daniel says. People are changing how they think.”
“But will it be enough?”
I think long and hard before answering. I don’t want to lie to her, to create false hope where there may be none. But I realise that there is hope, if only because of our own frailties; because we can’t possibly know the future. And it seems to me that this alone is a good enough reason not to give up.
“I cannae say for sure,” I respond, my tone as even as it can be with my lungs doing their level best to sabotage me. “And I have nae special wisdom to impart. But all I can say is, dinnae underestimate people, and dinnae underestimate yeself. Each day is a gift, to do with as ye will. It’s up to ye tae make the right decision every day, instead o’ the wrong one.”
I’d like to say more, but my lungs feel like they’re on fire. Lindsay holds my chest and shoulders taut as I cough my lungs out, staying there until I collapse against the backrest, exhausted.
“It’s time tae go home,” I manage to say. Lindsay has already taken hold of the handles behind me.
Together we return to my house in companionable silence, and as we leave the woodland I say goodbye to Caddon Haugh, and to all the creatures that have made it their home over the years. I know that I’ve been blessed to know it, and to know all of the people who’ve shared it with me over the years.
My last and only wish is that the people I leave behind will love it, and protect it, as fiercely I have.