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Closer

Closer

A Story by Dana Diehl
Art by Clay Rodery

Birds flying

Justine watches South Carolina disappear with the sun through the smudged airplane window. She’s fifteen, body like a blade of grass. Three weeks ago, over Christmas break, her father called to tell her mother he wouldn’t return from his five-month study in Anchorage, that he was staying to track the migration of humpback whales with his cowriter, Kara. Justine listened from the phone in the laundry room, hand cupping the receiver, holding the sound in place.

“Their song is changing, Laurel,” he said, and her mother hung up. Went to her room and locked the door and didn’t emerge until an hour later, her eyes red. That night, Justine doodled whale flukes up her wrist as her mother bought two one-way tickets to Scotland over the phone.

“It’ll be an adventure. Winter in Scotland. We’ll eat deep-fried Mars bars and climb mountains and look for Nessie,” her mother said, speaking with her hands. “We’ll stay with my friend, Calum. He’s studying the separation of the continents from Pangaea. Exciting, right?” She wore new lipstick, the shade of fig-flesh, and had her hair tied back for the first time in years, the lines of her face pulled to hard angles. It made her ears, her forehead, look too exposed, a landscape stripped of trees.

“How long will we stay?” Justine wanted to know.

“As long as we want.”

In the weeks before the flight, she ordered Justine a British nature guide and asked her to memorize the flora and fauna of northern Scotland. Over dinner, she had her recite the four endangered flowers, the six popular nesting sites for seabirds, and the most poisonous spiders and where to find them: “The tube web spider, found in the toes of shoes. The huntsman spider, in banana crates, on pieces of fruit.”

Justine didn’t really believe her mother would go through with the trip. She’d always talked about going, about taking a break from her office job with the Department of Natural Resources, and never had. But then, after Christmas break, she called Justine’s school to let them know Justine wouldn’t be returning for the spring semester. A day later she came home from work with a box that held her cactus, the lopsided mug Justine sculpted when she was six, and a geode she bought in New Mexico. She pulled suitcases from the attic and wiped silkworm cocoons out of the corners with the back of her hand. Before saying goodnight, she told Justine stories of puffins nesting in rocks, of mountains as soft as flannel, of castles built on sleeping volcanoes. Calum lived on an island called Skye off the northwestern coast. Except Justine shouldn’t call it an island anymore, she should call it an isle. And a lake was no longer a lake, but a loch.

Justine’s mother lived in Scotland for a year during college, studying geology at the University of Glasgow. Sometimes, when Justine was younger, her mother would pull out the slides, yellowed and dusty, and project them onto the blank white cinderblocks in the basement. Images of herself—younger, thinner, with glasses like owl eyes. Poised on top of a mountain. Cradling quartz and sandstone in the crook of her arm. Doing handstands on a beach, her belly—now a mystery, hidden behind baggy shirts—exposed and flat and pale. When Justine was younger, she danced across the projections and cast shadows into her mother’s memories, sliding so that her mother’s face would cover hers.

Now, they travel to Scotland together. “You should sleep,” her mother says, leaning back into her jacket, which she’s folded into the shape of a pillow. Her shoulders touch Justine’s between the narrow seats, rubbing bones under skin, and Justine leans away. She presses her forehead against the glass and feels the vibrations of the plane move through her skull.

Within moments, her mother is lulled to sleep, and Justine is wide awake. She watches the progress of the plane on the digital map built into the seat. Watches as the plane travels out of North America and soars over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, arching under Iceland. There are four miles of air between her and the water. Ten miles between her and the seafloor. Miles filled with fish, with whales, with eels and squid. She’s supposed to feel like she’s being taken somewhere, but instead she only feels like she’s being taken away. Justine counts the time zones as they pass and thinks about her father in Alaska. “Soak it all in,” he said to her on the phone that morning. “Be good. Make the most of every second. I’m sorry I can’t be there with you.” She imagines him eating deer meat in his kitchen, graphs of whale songs strewn across the table, coyotes stalking in the shadows behind the shed and pipes freezing and cracking in the walls. She imagines him looking into the darkness, waiting for the earth’s axis to change.

 

Scotland is browns and greens and gray skies, cold fog suspended in the air, cutting hills and trees in half at the end of the runway. When they get off the plane in Edinburgh, Justine’s mother breathes in. Her eyes close and the soft spots of her face tighten. Justine mimics her, feeling her lungs fill with dampness. A seagull cries overhead.

Calum waits for them outside the terminal. Justine recognizes him from the Scotland slides—a body always blurred in the photos, in motion. While her mother has visibly aged, a crown of gray where the dye’s faded, he looks much the same. Garnet-colored hair. Skin leathery like a bat’s wing. Body thick and boxy, built for being close to the earth. As they approach him, her mother adjusts her shirt, pulls her hair back.

“Pleased to meet you,” Calum says, shaking Justine’s hand. His accent is like gravel, and his hand cups hers like a shell.

Justine knows Calum from his handwriting, messy letters that spike and run together. Handwriting that indicates both seriousness and curiosity. As long as she can remember, her mother has received packages from him in the mail, every six months or so, with a rock Bubble Wrapped inside, a scribbled note on loose-leaf paper. Limestone from the southern coast of Britain. A piece of sea glass with a flower-burst patter. Red sandstone from Dundee. He never labeled them. “It’s a challenge,” her mother explained, examining the fissures with a magnifying glass at the kitchen table. While Justine’s mother pored over the gifts, her father, long and skinny like Justine, would disappear into his office and play recordings of whale songs, their high-pitched calls bubbling and sinking through the house. Justine loved the songs, their unpredictability.

Calum’s car is small and smells of rock dust. Justine sits in the back seat with the suitcases and listens as her mother points, exclaims. She waves to a crag rising above the steeples and points of Edinburgh. Arthur’s Seat, she calls it. Formed by a 350-million-year-old volcano. And later, Argyll Forest, where Calum taught her to kayak. Rising dark, almost purple, from the distance. Covered in trees that are leafless, but draped in light green moss like spider webs.

“How did you end up back on the Isle?” Justine’s mother asks as they leave the forest.

“After my divorce,” Calum says. “She moved to France. I moved back to the Isle when they found those dinosaur prints and fossil hunting took off. Got a proper job doing digs and working in the Staffin museum. Laurel, you look just like you did twenty years ago.”

Justine flips through her nature guide and scans hills outside the car window, watching for magpies, for red squirrels, for puffins lost inland. But the car travels too fast for her to focus, and soon it’s dark.

After traveling north for hours, they cross a long, arching bridge onto the Isle of Skye. Calum turns down a street that follows the coast and stops at a one-story house with dark windows, white stucco walls, and a front yard paved with tiny shells instead of grass. It’s cold and windy outside the car, so they rush inside. Justine stands in the middle of the living room with the suitcases, not knowing what she can touch, as her mom flits from wall to wall and picks up framed photographs of landscapes, flipping over magazines held down by quartz and bookends shaped like eagles. She hovers next to a map of Pangaea over the fireplace, Africa sandwiched against South America. North America pressed against Europe. The room smells like spices and smoke. Calum switches on lamps, casting shadows. He turns on the television, and a weather report lights up on the screen. Justine looks at the Doppler radar map of Scotland, with its irregular coast, its inlets and rivers like veins. She looks at the way the weather swirls, appears and disappears, so different from South Carolina, where weather moved in big, green, predictable masses.

“Justine, you’ll sleep here.” Calum leads her to the end of the living room, where he’s hung two quilts off the ceiling beams, sectioning the room in half. He pushes them aside to reveal an air mattress with blankets folded at the end, a curtained window, and a lamp sitting on the floor. “Sorry it isn’t more. Usually it’s just me here.”

Justine nods, pushes past him. Sits on the mattress.

“I know it can be overwhelming,” he goes on, still holding the quilt back. “I traveled to America once, when I was young.”

Justine nods. She wants quiet now. She wants to close her eyes and be in a familiar place.

“Goodnight, Justine,” her mother says as Calum drops the curtains. Justine doesn’t answer. She crawls under the blankets and pulls off her jeans and sweater, kicking them to the end of the mattress. She thinks about finding Calum’s phone and calling her father. Imagines closing the gap with the punch of numbers, the transportation of invisible particles in the air. She falls asleep to the sound of the house moving, the wind whistling through the empty spaces.

 

In the morning, Justine sits in silence with Calum as her mother, wrapped in a shoulder-to-ankle robe, rushes from behind a closed door to the bathroom. Justine picks at a piece of toast smothered in strawberry jam, and twenty minutes later her mother emerges in clouds of steam, her hair black in its wetness, her cheeks rosy. She looks like a stranger here.

“I want to see the Isle,” she tells Calum. “I never made it up here while I was in college. I’ve heard about the glacial troughs and aretes.”

“The arêtes?” Calum corrects.

Justine’s mother blushes. “You might have read the essay I wrote on Arbroath. On the sedentary rock erosion? Back in college, I was one of the first people to take record of it. I was thinking I’d follow you around, maybe try writing again.”

They turn to Justine.

“How would you like that? Want to take a tour of the Isle?” Calum asks, but Justine shakes her head. She doesn’t want to get back in the car, trapped in metal, doesn’t want her mother to quiz her on the fauna of the island, or to hear about the geology of the land. She itches to move. So, as they drive off, Justine watches them go from the front lawn.

Calum’s house is on its own at the end of the road, but she can see more homes and a church steeple, a mile or two in the distance where the coast curves toward the mainland. To her right, there’s a sharp incline of brown grass, no trees. Across the street, a gray strip of beach, the water covered in a thinning mist. She walks to it, her shoes bending to the rocks, slipping on the yellow growth. She reaches the water, and the sea laps up to her feet. There are broken, purple sea urchins in the tide pools and clam shells with white flower patterns growing on their backs.

This is the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean in Scotland. Justine thought it would be different, wider, from this side. Like when, six months ago, her father saw the Bering Sea for the first time and decided it was worth leaving home for. When he recognized something larger than his own life.

Justine tries to remember the things her father taught her:

The Atlantic is two thousand miles wide. Six miles deep.

If the ocean froze over, it would take over a year to walk across.

The oceans move in a clockwise motion, exchanging water, sharing it. 

A whale might see every continent in its lifetime.

Justine can still see the mainland, green and hazy, in the distance. She decides to walk along the coast, walk until the mainland disappears and it’s just ocean, nothing but water between her and America. Maybe then she would feel her new place on the planet.

As the rocky beach turns to cliff a few yards up from the waterline, Justine climbs along it, walking through grass that’s wet and swampy with dips and hollows disguised by piles of heather. Her feet and ankles sink through, and the cold water is a shock. It fills her sneakers, leaves her gasping for air. She takes another step and sinks in mud to her thighs. She gasps and looks back, searching for the plated roof of Calum’s house. It’s out of sight. All around her, as far as she can see, are brown, barren hills and gray water ending in haze. No seagulls. No porpoises or whales breaking the surface, blowing water. For a terrifying moment, she believes she’s the only living organism on the earth. Is this all Scotland is? Is this the Scotland her mother longed for?

Justine turns back, pulling her feet up out of the mud. She follows the coast, struggling through the heather, slipping over the bouldered coast until it takes her to Calum’s house. She undresses in the foyer and runs, naked, to the bathroom, where she wraps herself in towels, where she washes the mud off her jeans in the sink. Brown water puddles between her fingers and spins down the drain. After pulling on sweatpants, she hides the damp clothes under the mattress in her corner of the living room. She doesn’t want her mother to see.

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