The Rowan Man

Somewhere a lark was singing. Shading his eyes against the sun, James Macgregor scanned the sky and tried to pinpoint the bird’s position. Above and all around him the brilliant blue arched over the heather braes of Ben Bhreac. His eyes watered in the glare and he turned his gaze back the way he had come. The grass path between the heather clumps was scattered with the tiny heads of summer bluebells and the air was scented with thyme. The lark descended suddenly with a whir of wings and the shadow of a buzzard flitted across the ground near Macgregor’s feet.

            He made his way to an outcrop of rock and sat down, pulling his map from his pocket. He still had seven or eight miles to walk, he reckoned, as he spread it across his knees. But there was plenty of time to rest and eat here in the fragrant sunshine before continuing down the pass towards Torran.

            He opened his packet of sandwiches and flicked some crumbs across to a stonechat which bobbed and flirted on a boulder near him. Then he turned back to his map, where his route had been meticulously inked in across the brown contours of the mountains. Glancing up, he noted the high peaks of Sgurr Dearg and Ben Glas to the west, and sighing happily he settled back to eat his lunch. He was completely alone.

            A shadow fell across his map suddenly and he looked up, puzzled. A small cloud had drifted across the sun. In a moment it was passed, but he shivered slightly. Climbing to his feet he put the remains of his sandwiches in his knapsack, refolded the map and more hastily than the laziness of the afternoon demanded made his way back to his path. Without knowing why he felt uneasy.

            The going rapidly became steeper, the grass and heather giving way to loose scree and outcrops of rock. He climbed on steadily for a while and then down to his left he spotted a Rowan tree, standing sentinal over the source of a tiny burn. The brown waters cascaded over the rocks, ran through a small meadow and disappeared over the edge of the hill to the east. There was a dappled shade on the grass beneath the tree’s branches and Macgregor flung himself gratefully full length, scooping up the icy mountain water with his hands, as he bathed his face and drank.

            Then he sat up and looked around. He could feel someone watching him, although there was no one in sight. He got to his feet and walked around the tree, glancing up into its graceful branches, peering round the outcrop of rocks and scanning the heather. He was demonstrably alone. On every side the mountain stretched away empty of movement. Even the birds were silent in the shimmering heat of the afternoon.

            Telling himself not to be foolish he sat down on the grass, took off his boots and lowered his feet into the water. The shock of the cold took his breath away, and it was only seconds before he was drying his toes on his handkerchief.

            When he turned to open his knapsack it had gone.

            He scrambled to his feet, his heart thumping with fear. There was no sign of it. Forcing himself to stand still he gazed round shading his eyes against the sun’s glare. The leaves of the tree hung completely motionless; it was as if the afternoon were holding its breath. Macgregor could hear the blood pounding his ears as he fought back wave after wave of sudden unexplained panic.

            Then he saw his knapsack. It had fallen between two rocks not far from him. Running to it he snatched it up and sprinted back to the path on the ridge away from the tree.

            Immediately he felt freer. The air was fresh up there, a small breeze stirred the heather tops. He could see the distant wheeling of the buzzard as it circled endlessly in the sky and he felt a little less alone.

            He walked rapidly towards the summit of the hill. Several times he tried to slow his pace but he could not. It was as if his body knew something of which his eyes and ears were not aware. Instinctively he was putting as much distance as he could between himself and the Rowan Tree.

            Furious with his irrational terror he stopped dead and turned round. The hillside was still deserted. The heather gleamed and far below a blue ribbon of water reflected the sunlight and a still picture of the mountain peaks, in its depths.

            Unable to stop himself he called out, ‘Halloo!’ and was startled and embarrassed suddenly by the sound of his own voice in the silence. Persistently, he called again and this time he was rewarded by the hysterical ‘go-back’ of a grouse as it blundered out of the heather a hundred yards away.

            The hills were empty of people.

            He turned and walked on, then a few paces further he stopped abruptly. He could actually feel someone breathing down his neck. He lashed out wildly with his fists as he turned but there was no one there.

            Little beads of sweat were standing out on his forehead and between his shoulder blades. Desperately he clenched his fists, trying to master another surge of panic.

            ‘Fool,’ he said out loud. ‘Maniac. You’ve got agoraphobia or something James Macgregor. You’re neurotic, that’s what you are! You’ve been working at a desk too long.’

            The sound of his voice comforted him a little and taking a few more deep breaths he strode purposefully forward once more.

            The sensation that he was being followed still persisted but he ignored it with determination. He began to sing quietly to himself.

            ‘Oh Rowan Tree, oh Rowan Tree,

            How dear thou art to me…’

            The feeling began to lessen. Cheered, he sang again, this time more loudly, letting his baritone echo across the hill as he repeated the verse.

            When he reached the top of the pass he sat down on a rock to recover his breath. To his relief his fear had gone and it was with his old confidence that he reached into his pocket for the map, and began to scan the familiar page. But as he held it out it was caught by a gust of wind. It billowed into his face, flapped back and forth wildly and split with a loud crack down the middle. As he fought to control it, it struggled in his hands like a live thing. First one half and then the other was torn from his grasp, and he stood helplessly watching as they fluttered back down the hillside. The wind dropped as suddenly as it had arisen and he was left in total stillness. Recovering from his surprise he set off in pursuit of his map, pounding down the rocky path, the stones scattering in all directions beneath his boots.

            He found one half trapped in a rocky fold of granite beneath a half dead tree. A Rowan tree. Kneeling, he tried gently to free the crumpled paper without tearing it any further, working away at the stones and roots amongst which it had been driven. Slowly it came away. With a sigh he smoothed it on the grass beside him and began to refold it. As he worked he became conscious again of somebody or something nearby. He glanced round the clearing and recognised the burn. But he did not remember seeing those dead branches on the tree before. Surely when he walked round it, it had been green and graceful; a thing of beauty. Now it was blighted. Some terrible presence, an evil presence, inhabited this place, and in the still of the afternoon it was stirring again and had noticed him. His hands began to shake as he brushed some fallen twigs fro, the map.

            A shadow fell on the grass and he felt the air grow cold. He glanced up. A figure stood before him beneath the tree. A tall shadowy figure that was little more than a cloud itself. He knelt where he was, transfixed with terror, some pieces of broken twig still clutched in his hand.

            The apparition remained unmoving for several seconds and to his horrified gaze it appeared to be growing in stature. Before long it was towering above him blocking out the sky, becoming larger and more solid at every moment.

            His fingers formed two of the pieces of rowan twig into a cross without any conscious will on his part. He held it up before him with trembling hands.

            ‘Our father which art in heaven…’ The words, so often repeated in credulous childhood tumbled now unbidden from his lips.

            The creature had eyes. It gazed at him for a few moments as he faltered through his prayer and then slowly, almost unwillingly it began to fade.

            In a few seconds it was gone.

            Macgregor knelt on the grass for a long time, his hair ruffled by a new and gentle breeze, listening to the quiet rustling of the leaves above his head.        Then at last he rose to his feet. He could see the second half of his torn map lying only a few yards away in a patch of bright sunshine. He staggered a little as he bent to retrieve it and then turned and made his way back up towards the path.

            It took him just over an hour to get back down to Torran, as slipping and slithering down the path, grabbing at clumps of heather to steady himself, he half ran, half walked towards the village.

            In the long grass at the foot of the lowest slopes of the hill he threw himself down and lay for a long time unmoving, his head cradled in his arms.

            A thick white mist drifted slowly across the sky, obliterating the mountain peaks one after another, casting a clammy chill over the grass. Macgregor sat up at last, shivering, and gazed towards the hills. They had vanished from view. Slowly he looked down at his hands. The two broken pieces of rowan twig still lay clutched in his palm. He gazed at them thoughtfully for a few moments, and then, tossing them to the ground he rose to his feet.

            The bar at the Torran Arms had been open for at least an hour and he was wasting precious time. 



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