My father didn’t believe in ghosts. He didn’t have any time for God, either, when it came down to it. Maybe he’d had this attitude since childhood and it drew him to the study of physics and to becoming an astronomy professor. Or maybe hard science trumped the spiritual in him later on. I never knew which. But by the time I came along he was pretty sure of himself and did his best to raise me to agree with him.
As kids do, I would occasionally express interest in something spiritual or religious as the world tumbled by, chaotic and frightening. Whenever I did, though, Dad the astronomer, Dad the physicist, Dad the realist would somehow succeed in explaining everything empirically until he was satisfied that I agreed with him. I thought he was the smartest man in the world. And with typical adolescent conviction and hauteur, I came to regard anything unmeasureable or unprovable the way he did—as no more than swamp gas or the madness of crowds.
And so it was that I, a cocky, seventeen-year-old self-styled realist, arrived alone in Britain during the last chill of winter in early 1970. I had cut myself loose from my California high school through early graduation, armed with a guitar in a yellow vinyl bag made out of our kitchen tablecloth and the two pieces of advice my father felt were sufficient to prepare me for the vagaries of the world: “Never set foot in a government building.” And: “Always drink gin, not vodka, so people will know you’re drunk, not stupid.”
Determined to follow this advice if the opportunities ever presented themselves, I rambled around England for a while before heading north to visit Dad’s oldest friend and former teacher, Bert Mackenzie, in Aberdeen. Dad was particularly insistent that I visit Bert. They’d corresponded for 35 years after Dad left the little English boarding school where Bert got his first job. I figured it couldn’t hurt. Free room and board would at least extend my travel budget. And I’d never been to Scotland.
I stayed in hostels as I hitched north. Each evening I partied in the common rooms, playing my guitar and singing earnest versions of Beatles and Dylan and Simon & Garfunkle songs—songs which served as the cultural glue binding me to my free-floating international peers.
But after one particularly unsatisfying night of music at the Stratford hostel, I found myself in a bookstore poring over a fat paperback copy of A.L. Lloyd’s Folk Song in England, in search of new musical realms. I bought it and headed north. Within a couple of days I was lost in this book, hearing little besides the voices of long-dead balladeers, singing their circular pentatonic melodies and seeming to speak directly to me.
I couldn’t seem to get the old ballads out of my head. How had anybody actually written such songs? Walking along with my thumb out, I’d cycle the chorus to “Prince Heathen” around and around endlessly, pulsing the internal syllables in time with my footsteps, sometimes actually disappointed when a car pulled over to pick me up and interrupt the music.
Eager spring blossoms were bursting from every hedgerow when I arrived in Aberdeen. Bert Mackenzie and his wife Di lived on a farm outside the village of Cults, a few miles up the River Dee from Aberdeen. Bert was practically a Central Casting version of a retired public school teacher. His hair had gone white and he smelled of chalk dust. Di smelled of her garden, which she seemed only to leave at mealtimes. They greeted me like the son of the prodigal son and set me up in the guest room.
The farm, separated from the river by corn fields and bracketed by low, wooded hills on either side, was the furthest of perhaps half a dozen houses scattered along a rutted unpaved drive which snaked its way down from the main road.
Old Bert did his best to entertain me. But after a jaunt to Braemar and a guided tour of the ancient university buildings in Aberdeen, he sensed that this American teenager was considerably less interested in Scottish politics and education than he was. As I seemed more inclined to plunk on my guitar while reading my now-stained and dog-eared book of English folk songs, he walked me up the hill a few turns in the late afternoon and introduced me to Sandy and Lindy Cheyne.
Sandy and Lindy ran the local folk club. Both in their twenties, Sandy was bearded with a shock of prematurely grey hair and Lindy struck me as a Highland version of Cher, bangs, eye shadow, and all. Sandy was an aspiring artist who played the banjo with singular vehemence. Delighted to meet a visiting musician of any kind, the two invited me to bring my guitar over that evening for a sing-around session with the local regulars.
At eight o’clock I was wedged on a couch between two girls from Aberdeen High School while Sandy presided over an energetic tag-team Scots folk song session. Every available seat in the cluttered livingroom was filled with an eager participant, mostly not much older than I was, mostly without instruments, and all keen to sing multi-part harmonies with anything they knew.
A red-headed singer named Maggie proved the most immediately friendly, introducing me around to her schoolmates.
“You don’t sound American,” challenged a slender blonde named Mary.
“And what does an American sound like?” I asked.
“Well, all the Texans coming in for the North Sea oil—they all talk like John Wayne.”
When my turn came I gave a passable, un-Texan rendition of “The Boxer,” which, happily, everyone in the room knew.
“How long can you stay?” asked Maggie.
I shrugged. “I don’t have any real plans. I suppose I should get going soon and stop freeloading off Bert and Di.”
“Nonsense! You’ve seen her garden. She could feed you for the next five years.”
“Yeah, well, I want to see how far south I can get before my money runs out. Milan, Rome, maybe Greece.”
“Well, you must stay till Friday night. It’s our folk club night.”
I couldn’t say no. Though I spent most of the evening eying Maggie and the other unattached girls in search of cryptic signs of romantic encouragement, the voice I listened to most attentively was Lindy’s. She sang sweet and unmannered, and her songs, while common enough to the locals in the club, rang in my head so new and so clear that by the time we’d sung each through once, I remembered it all. By the time I hummed my way back down the starlit road around eleven, I felt filled with more companionable cheer than I’d felt since I’d left home.
The next morning I slept late. By the time I wandered downstairs, Di was already busy in the garden and Bert had gone off to a school meeting. I felt marvelous and squinted into a blue sky scrubbed pale by a refreshing, light northerly breeze.
“Can I walk down to the river from here?” I asked Di.
“If you mind your step,” she warned, “but there’s nothing down there, really. Wouldn’t you rather walk up into town where there’s something to see?”
“No,” I said. “I want to go somewhere where there’s no people and no noise.”
I picked my way along the edges of the cornfields for a quarter of a mile and stood on the gently sloped bank above the grey, languid river. Surveying perhaps a mile of riverbank, I scanned left and right for any sign of fishermen or farmers or anyone else like myself, just wandering. Other than the occasional crow flicking to and fro among the corn stalks I was very much alone. I breathed in the cool scent of the River Dee and skipped a rock or two out across its gently billowing surface, basking in rare and treasured solitude.
Descending the bank I strolled slowly upstream away from the farm, along an irregular path that appeared and disappeared among clumps of greenery. A short way along the path a patch of tall grass below the crest of the bank seemed to beckon. I sat down and lounged back into the green cushion, hands clasped behind my head and knees up. Before long, a sweet and lilting song that Lindy had led at the sing-around began running through my head. I started to sing to myself.
Doon yonder den there’s a ploughman lad
And some summer’s day he’ll be aw my ane
And sing laddie-o and sing laddie-aye
The ploughman laddies are a’ the go
I inhaled the grass-scented air and closed my eyes, letting my voice waft toward the river. “And sing laddie-o and sing laddie-aye, the ploughman lad—” There was a rustle in the grass just above my head. I jerked up, startled, as a young girl wearing a knit pullover, jeans, and scuffed white sneakers appeared on the path and looked down at me, apparently unsurprised.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” I replied, sitting up. Before I could get to my feet, the girl sat down next to me on the grass and gazed out at the water.
She looked about sixteen, with short brown hair, slightly upturned nose, and a dusting of freckles on rosy, porcelain-smooth cheeks. I blinked, unwilling to believe that such a perfectly lovely creature could have appeared out of nowhere to sit down next to me.
“Wh… where did you come from?” I stammered, too flustered to be polite.
She smiled at me, a radiant, unguarded smile, and speared me with dark brown eyes. “Oh, I come down this way quite often this time of day.” I shot a glance up and down the riverbank where no one had been only a moment before.
“Did you walk through the fields?” I pressed.
She shook her head, still smiling. The breeze off the water riffled her hair. “What’s your name?” she asked.
I told her. “What’s yours?”
“Lesley,” she said, looking me up and down in open appraisal. “You’re clearly not from around here. Are you visiting?”
“Yes,” I replied, telling of traveling from California to see the world and stopping to visit Bert and Di.
“Tell me about California,” she said, shifting her weight and leaning toward me a little. “I’ve always wanted to travel. California seems very far away.” I told her it was and it wasn’t—that she could feel very much at home there. I felt strangely at ease with this girl and at the same time consumed with adolescent curiosity.
“So, do you live around here?” I asked.
She gestured up the hill to a stand of trees. “Just through there,” she said. “I live on the other side with my father.”
“Just your father?”
“My mother died.” I must have looked uncomfortable because she added brightly, “Oh, don’t worry. She’s all right. It’s not like she’s gone. I feel her presence sometimes. She was a very remarkable woman.”
I shook my head. “What do you mean she’s not gone? I mean, there’s nothing… that is, if she’s… well, dead… she must be gone.”
“Who taught you that?” Lesley’s voice held a note of amusement.
I hesitated. “My father, I guess.”
“And your father, he doesn’t believe in Heaven, then? He never looked into the sky and wondered?”
“Sure he did. He’s an astronomer. He’s spent years staring at stars.”
“Hm,” Lesley smiled. “Perhaps he’s been staring at the wrong ones.”
I paused and watched the river glide by. “So what do you mean you feel her presence?” I finally had to ask.
Lesley leaned forward, hugging her knees.
“Only that she had the second sight. She said she’d stay and watch over me. I never doubted her when she talked that way. She had healing in her hands as well.”
As fascinated as I was with Lesley, the notion of healing hands fought too hard against the prejudices of my upbringing. I discarded the thought and changed the subject.
“Have you always lived here, Lesley? I mean, your accent… you don’t sound like Maggie and the local girls.”
Lesley tossed her head and laughed. “No, I’ve always been in Scotland… I grew up farther south in Midlothian. As far as the accent goes, who knows? It’s Scots enough. But, my mother used to say I was the reincarnation of a red Indian princess. Maybe she was right.”
I grimaced inwardly. Here I was trying to summon the nerve to ask Lesley out in the here and now and she was on again about the afterlife.
She stood up and dusted herself off. “Let’s walk,” she said, cocking her chin to the left and starting down the path. I scrambled to my feet and trotted up to join her, eager to stay near her.
We walked slowly along the river bank away from the farm, talking as naturally as if we’d known each other all our lives. Time itself seemed to slow to match the sleepy pace of the river. Lesley talked about looking forward to finishing school and wanting perhaps to be a writer someday.
“So you go to Aberdeen High School?”
“Everyone round here does,” she said, picking up a stone and plunking it into the river.
I found myself talking about my music and my dreams of glory. She told me about her father, who was a dentist in town. I poured out my hopes and fantasies, embellishing them inwardly to include her. I could hardly believe that here I was in Scotland strolling along the riverbank with a girl as beautiful as any I’d conjured up in my dreams. I desperately wanted to see her again.
“Do you sing?” I asked. “Would you like to come to the folk club?”
She shook her head. Her mahogany brown eyes seemed deeper and larger than any eyes I’d ever seen. I wasn’t sure which question she was answering.
“Well, can I see you again?” I finally screwed up the courage to say. “I’m not here long, but maybe we can…”
She turned suddenly and looked up at the stand of trees she’d pointed out earlier.
“I have to go,” she said.
“But when can I see you?” I implored.
Lesley took a slight step away from me. “Maybe tomorrow. I come down here often.”
“Can I call you?”
She kept backing away, up the path toward the woods. “Maybe tomorrow. Goodbye.” She smiled that radiant smile again, waved, and turned up the hill. My heart leaped in several directions at once, but I worked up a smile, too, and turned back toward the farm.
I felt unutterably happy as I picked my way back to the grassy spot where Lesley had first appeared. As I stood there for a moment, I knew someone was watching me. I spun around toward the woods. There, at the top of the hill where the path entered the trees, stood Lesley, gazing down at me. I opened my mouth but realized she was too far away to hear me. A crow flickered across the field to my left, pulling my gaze away for an instant. I looked back up the hill and Lesley was gone.
Di looked puzzled as I entered the kitchen.
“You were out an awfully long time. Where did you walk?” Bert wandered in to deposit an empty tea cup in the sink.
I grinned a happy, confident seventeen-year-old’s grin. “I met a girl down by the river. We were just walking. Walking and talking.” They both noted my expression. Di smirked as she kneaded her bread dough.
“What’s her name?” she asked. “Do I know her?”
“Probably. It’s Lesley. She goes to Aberdeen High School. She lives just past those trees along the hill to the west.”
Bert and Di exchanged a look, then Bert eyed me and stroked his chin. “I don’t think I know a Lesley around here. Did she tell you her last name?”
“Yes,” I said, “It’s…” and I stopped dead. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember her father’s name. “That’s funny,” I muttered, scouring my mind for the name I was certain she’d quite clearly told me. It started with a W, I was sure, and she’d said her father shared a dental practice with a Doctor—
“White!” I almost shouted. “Her father’s a dentist who shares an office with a Dr. White. Let me see the phone directory. I’ll recognize his name when I see it.”
Bert handed me the slender local phone book. I riffled through it, scanning first the professional listings, then all the W’s for the name I knew had to be there. But it wasn’t. There was no Dr. White or Dr. W-anything-else. I shook my head, good and confused.
“I guess I’ll find out who she is from Maggie later. A few of the girls are coming over to Sandy and Lindy’s again tonight.”
“Mm,” grunted Bert in disapproval. “Can’t imagine what she was doing at the river. Should have been in school.”
Later I pulled Maggie aside at Sandy and Lindy’s, asking if she could tell me Lesley’s last name.
“Lesley, you say?” she asked, looking thoughtful. “What did you say she looked like?” I described her in as much detail as I could. She shook her head.
“Doesn’t sound like any Lesley at school.”
“Could you ask around? I mean, I really want to find her.”
Maggie smiled knowingly. “All right. I’ll ask round tomorrow and tell you what I learn at the folk club.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. Lesley’s face shone at me from every side. In the morning, I got up, wolfed down some toast and marmalade, and marched back out to the river. The Ploughman Laddie was rattling around in my head again and it replayed itself insistently as I walked out through the cornfields. The day was a little colder and again the riverbank was deserted but for a few scattered birds. I retraced my steps from the day before, continued past the spot where Lesley and I had parted and climbed the hill into the trees.
The copse wasn’t very dense. A few dozen paces along, the sun broke through the canopy and I emerged on the other side. But the house wasn’t there. There were no houses anywhere near the woods—only a path leading farther through the fields and toward the town in the distance.
I felt vaguely frightened. I fought with myself, going over my conversation with Lesley. The memory glowed, as if preserved in amber. I could recall everything with such crystal clarity. Everything, that is, except her father’s blasted name—that Doctor Whatsis. It felt almost as if my memory of the name had been deliberately clouded.
What is this, some kind of horrible dream? I thought frantically. Could I have made it all up? Did I make her up?
“This is crazy!” I finally declared aloud, and marched back through the woods to the river. I slowed as I came to the spot where we’d first met. The grass still looked dry so I sat down heavily in the same spot I’d sat before. Confused and nervous, I glanced around, not sure what I should do next. I stared at the grass for a moment, then my heart leapt halfway up my throat. There, next to me, the grass was still pressed down, still faintly preserving the shape of the girl who had appeared out of nowhere and vanished into the trees. She was real, damn it! I hadn’t made her up!
As I sat there, running my hand along the indentation in the grass left by Lesley’s thigh, a melody began faintly to play somewhere in my head. It wasn’t The Ploughman Laddie. It wasn’t anything I remembered hearing before. I hummed it, trying to remember where I’d heard it—whether it had any words to go with the music. I couldn’t place it, but I couldn’t seem to shake it, either. Strange, though. The tune seemed to soothe me. I considered for a moment trying to come up with words to go with the tune, but I hadn’t the faintest idea where to begin. After a few minutes I got up and, still humming to myself, slowly picked my way back to the farm.
The next night I spoke to Maggie at the folk club. She’d asked around the school for the mysterious freckle-faced girl named Lesley. No one knew her.
I returned to the same spot by the river the same time each day for three days. I waited in the grass, skipped stones, and hummed the strange melody I couldn’t fit any words to. But Lesley never came back to the riverbank.
The next day, my pockets filled with sandwiches made of Laughing Cow cheese and Di’s homemade bread, I hitched a ride with a lorry bound for Dundee and began my trip back south toward Dover, the melody still playing in my mind.
It was several months later that I sat with my father in the livingroom, telling him stories of my travels and sipping a little celebratory whisky. The subject of Aberdeen and his old teacher started him reminiscing.
I nursed my drink and listened to Dad’s familiar stories of schoolboy pranks and near-disasters, wishing I could tell him the story I really wanted to tell—the one story from my trip that I could never shake loose of, that still came back to me in dreams. I hesitated, wondering if I really wanted to risk his explaining away a series of events I remembered with such clarity. I decided to risk it.
“There was one strange thing that happened while I was visiting Bert,” I began, emboldened by alcohol. I launched in and recounted it all.
I told him of the girl Lesley, of my attraction to her, of the strange things she’d said, of her sudden departure, of my fruitless search for her, of her apparent vanishing into thin air. He remained silent through it all, only nodding once or twice. After a long pause he leaned forward, his forearms on his knees.
“Have you ever read Robert Burns?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted, surprised at the non sequitur. “Nothing much beyond Auld Lang Syne, I’m afraid.”
He got up and crossed over to the bookshelf, picked a small, well-worn volume off the shelf, and returned to the sofa, scanning down the contents page. He found what he was looking for, opened to the page, and handed the book to me.
“Bert Mackenzie introduced me to this book when I was in school,” he said.
I glanced at the spine: The Oxford Book of English Verse. Turning it back over, I read the page Dad had opened to. The poem was titled Bonnie Lesley.
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Read it,” he urged. I read it aloud.
O saw ye bonnie Lesley
As she gaed o’er the Border
She’s gane like Alexander,
To tak her conquests farther
A chill washed up my neck and I felt a strange pressure in my temples. I looked up and he just nodded, “Go on.”
To see her is to love her,
And love but her for ever;
For Nature made her what she is,
And ne’er made sic another!
Thou art a queen, fair Lesley,
Thy subjects we, before thee:
Thou art divine, fair Lesley.
The hearts o’ men adore thee.
The Deil he couldna scaith thee,
Or aught that wad belong thee;
He’d look into thy bonnie face
And say, ‘I canna wrang thee!’
The Powers aboon will tent thee,
Misfortune sha’na steer thee:
Thou’rt like themsel’ sae lovely,
That ill they’ll ne’er let near thee.
There was more but I stopped and looked at Dad questioningly. He leaned back on the sofa, his voice unusually liquid.
“I first read this poem when I was about your age,” he said. “I read a lot of Burns when I was at school in England. Bert saw to that—Scots-centric first, last, and always. This poem was a favorite of his.” He looked out the window for a moment, then turned back to me and continued.
“Burns was young when he met this Scottish girl, as I recall Bert telling the story. He apparently fell in love with her. Well, he fell in love with girls all the time. But this one… This one was special. She was a fashionable young lady, daughter of a doctor or something, who sent her south to the Borders, perhaps to get married. At any rate, she died soon after and Burns never saw her again. When he learned of her death he was devastated. He wrote this poem as an anguished cry to heaven—a plea for her to come back. Go on, finish it.”
Return again, fair Lesley,
Return to Caledonie!
That we may brag we hae a lass
There’s nane again sae bonnie!
As I spoke the lines I could hear a melody wind toward me as if coming from a great distance. I felt a lump in my throat and looked up, confused.
“Was this a poem or a song?” I asked.
Dad shrugged. “It’s only a poem as far as I know.”
The lines were so simple, but the cry that inhabited them felt so palpable, so pained. The cry had melodic shape. And as the melody echoed in my mind I gradually became aware that I’d heard it before. It fit the words perfectly. And along with the melody, a pretty, smiling face shimmered for an instant at the edge of my vision.
I stared at the printed words for a minute, then closed the book.
“So,” Dad muttered, “she came back. She really came back.”
I looked up sharply, ready to defend myself this time in the face of any dismissive nod to science.
But Dad merely gazed out the window at the stars, smiling slightly, his eyes misted over.
“You’re lucky,” he said.
© 2001 Danny Carnahan