Contains a COVID-related death.
21 October 2021
Vāsaya-viruta, said my Bengali grandmother: the cries of crows, who come to us as messengers from the dead. Gheibheadh tu na feannagan-firich, said the Gael one: You would seek the forest crows.
On the latter, Dwelly elaborates: proverb; said to persons who boast of doing impracticable things.
I suppose that writing this letter is one of those things.
Did you know Dwelly never told his wife he was writing a dictionary? He spent years on it, came up to the Highlands every weekend to bumble around meeting people, listening as they told him about selkies and kelpies and ban-sìthe and cù-sìthe, putting it all in his big book. He was an Englishman, so Lord knows how he got anyone to talk to him. But he did it, somehow; somehow, that land he walked on survived; somehow, so did we.
Some of us did, anyway.
O mo chridhe, how do I live where you are not.
I give this letter to the crows, to be carried to the dead.
15 November 2021
You are dead, and I walk.
Through and around the blooded lands, avoiding the selkies and the kelpies. Up rocky hillsides, down slopes laden with scree, along the sharp cliff edges around the lochs and lochans. I trace the old boundaries, check the wards, and the ban-sìthe glower but let me pass.
We saw such great magics together, you and I. Elven music in the dawning, the chime of fairy bells at dusk. Trees that whispered secrets of the land from many moons ago. Best and rarest of all, na fir chlis: the great dancers, reaching their cold electric fingers down from the sky. All that beauty is shadowed for me now. I mark the bounds with my clipboard and pencil, and am untouched by any passing wonders.
Seasaidh thinks I need to Talk To Someone, or some such thing. I leave my phone behind when out on the land, so she leaves me voice notes for when I get back. We all loved her so much, Eimear, and it’s the worst for you. But it’s not healthy, wandering off by yourself and hating everyone.
She knows a good therapist in Inverness, apparently. They do appointments on Zoom.
I don’t hate everyone, a ghràidh. I hate bloody Boris, of course, and the busybodies down in the village, and all those people who wear their masks as chin hammocks. But not my beloved sister Seasaidh (sigh), or Mrs. McLeod next door who brings casseroles, or anyone on the Settlement Committee. They’ve all been very kind. I guess I also like Michael Sheen, and that nice girl who does the six o’clock news, and Harrison Ford circa 1972. And Angus.
Angus! More on Angus later.
About the Settlement Committee: I’m the chair. I’m sorry, I know you never wanted me to do it. But you are gone now, and the house is so dark and so quiet. It’s for the best.
I give this letter to the crows, to be carried to the dead.
13 December 2021
No dogs allowed, say the Committee, so I must attend the Annual Settlement Meeting without Angus.
Dear, dour Angus! You never met him, of course, but he is terribly good. He is properly dog-shaped, with a barrel tummy and a wiry coat, and his tail wags but rarely, as is the way of Scottish terriers who have only just made your acquaintance. He seems unattached, or at any rate he has no collar or microchip, and the shelter is closed because of the pandemic. So he lodges with me for the moment, and comes with me on my long walks. I got him a tartan lead and a tartan cravat.
He gets tired, though. He only has little legs, and with him at my heels I have mapped out the entirety of the blooded land. Footstep by footstep, quadrant by quadrant. Angus puffs, the Committee gripes about my illegible handwriting and the ban-sìthe just spit at me, but the work is almost done. Do you remember the year of the first settlement, when we were children? When every flower on the blooded lands bloomed red, and the water ran with the petals?
I think we’ve made progress since then, but not that much. Gus am bris an latha; until the day’s breaking, as they say. One day the damage we did to the land will be wholly reversed, but today is not that day.
I’m tired too, mo chridhe. I can’t bear this much longer.
I give this letter to the crows, to be carried to the dead.
21 December 2021
Dwelly again: “cù-sìthe, fairy-dog, otherwise the Black Dog. An omen of death; compare with Black Shuck in southern England and other ominous canines.”
From which you can probably deduce the following: Seasaidh thinks Angus is the Black Dog. When asked why this might be the case, she says she “has a presentiment.” Our grandmother used to say that, while also claiming to have the second sight that all Gael grandmothers should have. Tha e tradaiseanta! At any rate, my little Scottie terrier and I are doubtful.
The Committee is almost done with the settlement. The papers have been drawn up, ready for sealing, with all the old laws of blood and repentance plus a couple of new ones for this year. As the committee chair, I get final sign-off on prohibiting fly-tipping in the protected area and how we’re all going to work together to act on climate change. What jolly fun.
Angus has a tartan basket now. I got it to go with the tartan cravat. He has deigned to sleep in it after much sighing and sardonic non-wagging of his tail. I thought it was cute, though, and I’m the one with opposable thumbs in this household, so there you go.
Oh, mo ghràdh. It’s not long now.
I give this letter to the
22 March 2022
Seasaidh caught me writing that last letter. She made a GP appointment for me on the spot, and they referred me on. I’m mad with grief, it seems. Losing my grip on reality.
Look, I know the crows don’t really take the letters to the dead. I found the first one, the one about Dwelly and his wife, shredded to make a nest in the alder tree. But the crows are wild things. I thought it would help, to give my heart to the wild things.
Here is a secret, a ghràidh. I saw the Black Dog come for you.
I don’t suppose I was meant to see it. I wonder if I caught it in an unguarded moment, if spectral omens of death have such things. I thought it was a stray. A big, lolloping, pointy-eared stray dog, with matted black fur and yellow eyes. Waiting on the doorstep, at the hospital side entrance on a Glasgow backstreet. Covid was hitting everything particularly hard then. There were Scottish lockdowns, mask requirements, reports that the crematoria had no more room for the dead. Everything about death is sacred, my Bengali grandmother taught me: that’s why a person’s ashes are scattered in the river, Ganga our mother, so your soul may be carried to wherever it need go next. But nothing felt particularly sacred then, not this well-beloved house or the blooded lands and least of all the hospital with its stink of chlorine and despair. I opened the door and the Black Dog trotted in beside me. “Shoo,” I said, “thalla a-mach, out you go.”
But the dog didn’t go. It sat down quietly on the floor and I saw that there was red vermillion smeared on its forehead, as though holy fingers had recently blessed it. Then it got up and trotted silently upstairs.
You died that afternoon, your soul going wherever it is souls go. I loved you, but I didn’t love the way the virus had ravaged your body, or the rattle of the ventilator in each artificial breath. I didn’t see the Black Dog again, and I only realised later that it was me who let it in. Me who opened the door and let it clitter-clatter inside, its uncut claws hitting the stone floor.
I am sorry, my love. They won’t let me give this letter to the crows.
21 June 2022
This will be my last letter to you, a ghràidh. Things were delayed for a time, but no longer.
Grief becomes complex grief if you leave it to fester for too long, or so says the NHS psychiatrist at Raigmore. I am ruminating, like a cow, or is it brooding, like a chicken. It is not healthy. I am not healthy.
But how do we not all perish from it, I asked the shrink.
“Eimear,” he said. He always says my name very softly, like a caress. As though I’d let anyone touch me since you. Eimear, you must learn to adapt. To move on.
I said, I was born between Loch nan Seileach and Loch Beanneachrain, eadar a’ ghaoth agus an t-uisge, part of the land and heir to its sins. My people destroyed the ban-sìthe, shattered their ancient magics, razed their brughs, cleared them from their ancestral grounds as we cleared our own people from their ancestral grounds. We put poison in the water and cut great gashes in the hills. You can’t move on from that. Someone has to pay for that.
He said that wasn’t relevant.
He doesn’t know what’s relevant and what isn’t.
I have mapped the land, and the Committee has prepared the settlement. It begins like this:
It is settled that the wild things shall hold on to the wild places; that the land that was razed shall be returned; that in reparation it shall be blooded; and that it shall be loved, by all of us, for all time.
Followed by the same again in the Gaelic, which I’m too tired to copy out now. It is to be settled tonight; they’ll come and get me soon.
Don’t fret for me, dear heart. Seasaidh was right: I let the Black Dog in. Once for you, and once for myself.
I’ll see you soon.
I have come into the dark woods at night, and lain down in a soft clearing thick with moss. They have wrapped my body in mistletoe and thistles, and stabbed me with a silver knife. There is blood, and that blood soaks into the earth.
I am the settlement. I am the blood on the land.
Blood; land. I am the land. I am the water; I am what comes with the wind and goes with the stream. I am the trees that whisper; I am the bells that chime; I am the dancing and the dream. I am the deep roots; the bitter cold; the silver knife; the dripping red. I am naked and profane; I am the offering for the dead.
Eimear. I am Eimear. Oh fuck, this hurts.
25 June 2022
It’s over. I’m alive, somehow. Battered, but alive.
The Committee have turned up en masse. (As they always have done, for previous committee chairs in years gone by. I’m not sure why I thought it would be different for me.) They carried me off to A&E, brought me home again and have kept me fed and watered and painkillered all the days since. Mrs. McLeod brings more casseroles. Angus lies at my feet and looks soulful. I wish you were here, but as you’re not, at least I’m being well looked-after.
Angus. Yes. His real owner came to me. Yesterday, in the afternoon, while I was sleeping.
I was sleeping. On the sofa on the living room, under the throw you knitted that winter the wolves came. She came through the trees, She came with the wind, She passed through the door as though it were not there. Death came to me in my living room, and regarded me as something She knew not of.
You, She said. You are the one who bled for us, in the woods.
She wore grey, and was grey. Yes, my lord, I said. I think you were there, too, in the woods.
I am everywhere, She said. I am the estate of every living thing.
I know that, my lord, I said. I know that very well.
You have one of my familiars, She said. You call him the Black Dog.
Yes, my lord, I said. He lived with me here. And yet–
And yet what, child?
I am alive, I said. I should be dead. I thought I would be dead.
Perhaps, She said. The ban-sìthe take what is due to them and no more. Your one extraordinary life is more precious than you know.
But, I said. The omen. Your omen.
My omens come to those whose choices are narrow; to whom free will has become a burden rather a privilege. They come to houses where sorrow lives in the rafters, where seasons pass but grief does not. But my omens do not bring certainty. Nothing in life is certain.
Except you, I said.
Except me. But even I know not the hour of my coming.
I got him things, I said. I thought they were so cute. I said this to Her, lord of all things’ end. I thought he was so cute.
She gazed at me, and I was broken and remade in her gaze.
You who bled for us, She said. You who bled to the heart’s blood, and still dragged himself from the woods; who still kept with him his heart.
What of it, I said.
It is not a sin, to love a wild thing. It is not a sin, to keep with you your heart.
At her feet, I cried. My heart has gone with the crows.
It has not, She said. For I would know it— and I thought, then, that under her grey mask she smiled. But her smile would be a beautiful, terrible thing, and I did not look. Instead I tried to get up, to bow to her, but she shook her head.
Rest now, She said. Rest, and I will carry your letter, to the places of the dead.
So. I suppose you’ll get to read this one.
I am alive. Despite everything, I am alive. Seasaidh was right, again: I should talk to someone. To people. To my friends on the committee, to my neighbours, to the therapist in Inverness on Zoom, and even to Angus, when he’ll listen to me.
(She let me keep Angus. He’s still extremely cute.)
Until the day’s breaking, then, a ghràidh. I love you, I love you, I love you, and I will learn to live without you, all the same.
Yours, bloodied but not broken,
Iona Datt Sharma is a writer, lawyer, and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Their first short story collection, Not For Use In Navigation, was published in March 2019. Their other work can be found at www.generalist.org.uk/iona and they tweet as @singlecrow.