There Was A Soldier
He stops, breathing heavily. Leg hurts like hell. So does the shin and the foot that aren’t there any more. Looking back and down he can pick out most of his route. No track. Sergeant Wayne MacRae is not doing easy tracks, he’s making his own like always, right? Third time up here. First time before enlisting - easy when you’re seventeen and have two very good legs - then again with lovely little, long-gone little Brigitte. And now.
He sees the distant road as a pencil line across late season purple. His fellow travellers would have reached Ullapool a couple of hours ago. Most would have transferred from the bus to the Calmac ferry, be heading out now for one or other of the islands. He can see the distant Minch and beyond that the far off shadow that is the Outer Hebrides under a sky of blue patched cloud piled white on dirty grey. Already he’s higher than almost all the surrounding peaks. He knows these hills, old friends, all of them. Around about him, here, just the mother rock and lichened boulders lying as the retreating ice cap had dropped them amidst scrub heather and what remained of the early season snow. He looks up at the cloud base, somewhere within it today’s destination for a crippled soldier.
The sergeant, ex-sergeant, looks again at his map, estimating his position. No satnav, no mobile, nobody to know where the hell he is, or care all that much. Not a problem, right? Out aloud he addresses the unhearing hill; ‘Just you and me, brother, right? I had you before - we had you before, and I’ll fucking have you again, OK?’ But how without significance this voice of his in all the silence. He checks his watch. Six hours, maybe one more? ‘Pitch up right here or go back or climb on blind as a bastard and hope for the best?’ He grins, answers himself; ‘OK let’s get on with it.’ Part balancing on the sticks he lifts his left boot up and forward, planting it secure on stone and heather root, then levers to bring up the bright metal prosthetic that needs no boot and no sock and feels no cold and no pain; well, no real pain. Again the good foot forward then again and again and once more, one more time and … He can smell the cold and nothing else. Exact opposite of Kandahar where you can smell the heat and the barren dirt and the shit and the spices type cooking and sometimes the explosives. Always likely be too late when you smelt those. ‘Whoops!’ The prosthetic leg and foot he has learned to call Charlie skids off cloud soaked rock. ‘Take it steady, Charlie’, he instructs it; ‘Concentrate, why don’t you.’ This Charlie is not his friend. Not yet, maybe not ever. The surge of pain has combined with heaving lungs to force him for the first time seriously to think about turning back. He will not turn back. From somewhere far away comes the thin, well-recognised crack of a rifle shot but he can see nothing from inside all this woolly wet lightness. ‘Culling the stags’, the notice had warned. ‘Walk the hills at your own risk’. Yeah, risk! Bollocks. He knows a bit about risk and shooting people and stuff.
Quite suddenly there is no cloud. He stops, looks up, sees he is within just a couple of hundred metres of the top. He slips off his back pack, lays it down alongside a boulder, the better to do the final bit. ‘Trouble with you, sergeant,’ he tells himself, ‘You’re not bloody fit, are you? All that laying around in hospitals with all the other useless bastards.’
He works his way upwards, reaches the pyramid of stones that marks the peak of the hill, half collapses rather than sits down with his back to the cairn. There’s the rasping of cold air in and warmed air out of his lungs, decreasing in volume as his breathing slows. He remembers again that last time, eight years since. Brigitte had added her own stone to this pile. He remembers how, afterwards, they had lain together right here. He can see her face now, absolutely, eyes wide with excitement, pale rose lips with half a smile, spread hair blonde against bare stone. He shakes his head. Too much time away a’serving of Her Majesty the Queen and all that shite. Girls like Brigitte couldn’t handle that - wouldn’t handle that, never mind handle the bloody wreck he’d turned into by the time they’d got him back. He doesn’t blame her. Not many could handle that no matter how much they might want to.
He’s found their stone. It’s quite well down in the cairn. Lots of others up here since. Smooth granite shot through with bright white quartz, on its underside two kisses etched deep. His blade; her instruction. And the brass badge, well tarnished now, still in place where he’d put it underneath. He stares at it. Stags antlers; ‘Cabar Feidh Gu Brath’ in the gaelic. Right, deer’s antlers forever. Even for himself for ever. He pockets it, replaces with care the rocks he’d had to remove, takes a last look around. So, you made it. What now? He checks the time. Three hours or so before dark. Collect the pack, get your arse down the hill, pitch tent alongside the big loch, catch yourself a fish or two? Be lucky. You have to be lucky sometime. You’re very lucky to be alive, sergeant, had said the medic. Guy had meant well - they all mean well - but that was as close as he’d ever come to striking an officer of the Queen’s Own Highlanders or of any lesser regiment for that matter. The breeze has become a small inconstant wind and he thinks the temperature has dropped a few degrees. He looks up, feels the first of the new snowflakes touch down gently on his face. October; early for snow but not all that early.
Going down is harder and more dangerous than coming up. ‘Careful, careful,’ he instructs himself. By the time he reaches the boulder where he thought he’d stashed his backpack the steep slope has been transformed by a light covering of white, already drifting. Trouble is, the pack’s not there. He looks around, blinking ice crystals from his eyes. ‘Do not panic. Think, yes, concentrate. Panic? No fucking way, not if you want to stay alive! You got yourself into the pigshit so think yourself out of it.’ Has to be the wrong boulder. Trouble is he can see about half a hundred others. They’re scattered like kids’ headless snowmen up and down the steep. He feels his way with increasing difficulty to the nearest ones, kicks alternately with boot and Charlie, feeling his way around for his pack. Nothing. He stops again. Snow’s getting thicker. Visibility now very bad. Big trouble, soldier. You are some stupid sod. Forget the pack, forget the camping, get your arse back down to that road!
Half an hour: he suspects he’s well off his route but he knows he can’t have descended more than two or three hundred feet. Twice he’d fallen, the last time rolling down before coming up hard against hard rock. Feels like the impact damaged a rib or two. Hadn’t done Charlie a lot of good either but he’d kept hold of the sticks. Without them … bollocks, forget all the bloody what ifs; just keep going downwards, right? Sticks forward and in, feel for the good under-snow purchase, weight on. Careful … careful then swing and do it again and - stop; right in front - bright white fucking nothing! Has to be the edge of the corrie. Bloody great cliff to fall down. You’re way off beam, MacRae. He takes out the map, turning his back to the swirling snow. Should be OK to follow this edge, lose a good five hundred feet, take a left by that spike. Maybe it’s not snowing down there. It’s not all that cold. Maybe not, he tells himself, but it’s going to get one hell of a lot colder after it gets dark. Move yourself.
When he finally realises he must have missed the spike worry mutates into fear and it’s not long before old Charlie has skidded under him once again and this time the sticks can’t help him, can’t stop the fall and he’s rolling out of control, bouncing downhill like a pin ball wizard rock to rock and then it’s over, he’s over, falling through space, landing on a cushion of snow, still moving and falling again, turning around and around in space. But he’s crazily at ease, now. With himself and with everything …
He is not dead. He knows that because pain, his well remembered friend is still with him, is still within him. His vision clears. He can see for miles, he can see the road. He’s lying on snow, in snow, but it isn’t snowing any more and there hasn’t been that much of it down here anyway. You lucky, lucky bastard, MacRae. He turns his head, side to side. There’s blood on virgin snow close up. Nose bleeding. Broken? Least of your problems. His bed is a snowdrift, in front more drifts, between them steep-down heather, scrub and scree. His sticks are gone and in any case his good left leg feels like it’s been broken and even without looking he knows that something is also very wrong with Charlie. The pain of his broken ribcage rises and falls with every breath he takes. ‘So come on, move’. His voice aloud has hurt too much. He whispers, ‘So? So you can’t walk? So fucking crawl, it’s all downhill, for Christ’s sake.’ But he knows it’s not on even before he’s able to turn himself around to face downhill, to make a start, levering with his elbows in the soft cold stuff. With every small movement he feels the retreat of his senses, the greying out of the world. And so he rests, now quite calm. Better here than in Kandahar. Better believe that. He looks down on the homeland arraigned before this Queen’s Own Highlander and with infinite slowness Sergeant Wayne MacRae manages to insert the cold hands inside their torn and ragged gloves into his coat pockets for warmth. Something hard in there - the cap badge. He traces with one bare fingertip the outlines of the cabhair feidh. Somehow it helps. Even though the clouds have gone, already the light is failing. He closes his eyes.
Waking, the night is bright with stars. There’s something here, close by, some shape standing still before him. For a moment he wonders if he has actually died, for the lowered head on the massive shape carries the cabhair feidh, a truly magnificent set of antlers. He hears the harsh breathing and sees the trembling of the outlined shape of the animal and knows right enough about that awful smell; the unmistakable stink of warm guts smashed into by hot metal. Almost close enough to touch. Culling the stags, the notice had warned. He feels the pity and the anger against some bastard that can’t shoot straight. ‘Hey, there, mister’, he whispers. ‘You and me both. You know I’m here, don’t you?’
The great shape jerks its head as if to run but does not move away; perhaps cannot.
‘You’ve had it, big boy,’ he whispers; ‘We’re both hurting and we’ve both had it. Shit, I’m sorry.’
The stag seems to stumble then sinks forward to his knees in the snow, rolls over on to his side, head up, quietly whickering out his puzzlement, his agony, his fear and what remains of his fine male life. This close, the sergeant can see the rolling of the whites of the animal’s eyes. He takes his hand from his pocket, reaches out, says, ‘Take it easy, mister. I can’t hurt you. There’s nothing can hurt either of us. Not any more.’ The stag’s hide is rough and warm to his touch. Making a huge effort he drags himself closer to the shuddering and the harsh breathing and the heat and his hand touches the stickily spoiled place where the bullet has gone in. The big hole would probably be on the other side if it had exited.
And thus they lie together, the ruined soldier and the ruined stag, and as the night wears on and the stars describe their well remembered passages across the sky ex-sergeant Wayne MacRae is uncertain whether his talking is aloud or in his head but he tells his friend about his boyhood down there by the sea-lochs of Wester-Ross and up on these well-remembered hills and about the army life he loved and lived. He talks of the vital closeness of himself with those in uniform and the feeling that with them you were more than just yourself. That you would die for them and almost did and he speaks of the leg that did die, blown off from the rest of him into large and small pieces. And he talks about Brigitte Larrsen who he would have loved for so long as that which was left of him lived. Sometime towards first light he knows it cannot be but he imagines the stag talks to him in return, telling about his beautiful mother and being born in the tangle down by the great loch and learning from her where to wander for the best forage higher and higher on the hills in places clear of those things on tiny wings and those big ones of strange scents, on two legs only, with the sticks that kill. He talks also about the growth each year of his strength and his antlers and the time when his challenges cease painfully to fail and when at last defeat turns into triumph and the roaring exhilaration of that gathering together, that joy-filled servicing of his great band of hinds.
This is a magnificent dawn.
The stag’s shudders turn into occasional trembles then into only the hint of a now and then quiver and then there is no more movement of the great chest. Soon the animal heat and the shelter that has maintained his own small hold on life will fade away. He opens his eyes, looks for the last time to the lonely, well-loved hills around. He is content. In his heart and in his hand and close enough to touch, the everlasting cabhair feidh.
As a Highlander by adoption rather than by birth, but one who has read widely of the history, I have an ultimate respect for those who wear the badge of the stag’s antlers, these days the mark of the Queen’s Own Highlanders but before that of The Seaforths. Years ago I sat with Delia, enthralled, as Affie Thomson of Badachro recited in the Gaelic his epic narrative poem The Cabair Feidh then translated it into English for our benefit. Affie had fought at El Alamein. His poem was a tribute to those comrades in arms who came not back to their beloved hills, would nevermore smell the tangle, see the lochs. And this story is my tribute to Affie as well as to them.