University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Anthony Jacobs


anthony jacobs readingLeaving Grace

Scotland 1883

Lumpy sheep chalked the hills that sat under the sky. All the sky was clouds and then from there were the hills that though not touching the clouds showed no space between. Down from the hills the earth flattened into gentle slopes where stone was pushed and set into walls topped with thatch. Rye and heather covered the hillsides in rows until the earth spilled down again along steep woody banks into the shallow River Spey.

The hills left no horizon and closed everything in except for the tessellated chirps of the Crossbills and the wet wind that dipped down from the grey sky. There was no reason to climb these hills and stand on the hard scrabble that flaked away like thin stacked tablets. No peak offered any great perspective of this place in the world—here one could see better from the bottom than the craggy tops.

The heather in the fields was green when Alex left here for the last time. The seventeen year old followed the six members of his family as they departed from their home. His father at forty, still strong after working the land as a crofter but needing more help from Alex every year. His mother who had been holding everyone together including his father. His two younger brothers John and William looking back at the friendly sheep they left behind and the youngest of them all, the beautiful red clay haired Elspet, a girl just six years old and off on a six thousand mile journey.

Alex had never seen a picture of where he was going—just words and rumors passed on by others who had heard them from others who had left months or years before. Words of success were mailed back from those that had once hardly found food for Christmas dinners. The words sent back told his father that the end of their journey would greet their family with a world of money, land, sun, water and black earth. All of them except for Alex were chasing these words, not knowing the shape or form it would take. They only knew the old, where nothing had changed, where no words were necessary to describe its quotidian continuation. They were leaving the words sickness, decay and isolation. Leaving a place where it seemed a force was pushing everything down into the river. Where all the hills sat up like air trapped under blankets billowed out onto beds.

In less than a year Alex would have left to join the army anyway. Better that than becoming a crofter like his father and working all year just to eat and pay rent on ten stone-filled acres of land. Still he didn’t want to leave these hills for any promises he’d heard about the new land across the ocean. It wasn’t the hills that kept him here in this village or the sheep, the weather, the monthly craics of music and dance wailing out reels on the wind. It was Grace.

He met her as an apprentice to the barrel maker in Aberlour an hour’s walk up the river. The apprenticeship was unrealistic since he knew he would need to return to the croft, but he kept staying because it was a way off the farm. Coopering was a craft, an art, different than sticking a plough in the earth or shouting at sheep. It was the first time he felt beauty. Taking the tools and thinning the wood that would be bound by iron. The work was like building a ship except the hulls would keep liquid in instead of out.

She had startled him when she came out calling for her father. He had been bent over a barrel, scraping it hollow. When he heard her voice, his hand slipped and the plane broke on the barrel’s iron ring. She reached down and picked up the pieces of the tool apologizing because she knew her father would be angry. Alex saw her brown hair and eyes and knew from that moment that he would love her forever. With her hands holding the pieces of the plane she promised to fix it and left him. Later she returned with a cup of water. She had a sense of humor, laughing at how he had earlier jumped at her voice. With her father gone, Grace and Alex spent the rest of the day talking. He walked home to his stone cottage, thinking of her and the words and looks they shared together throughout the day. It was the most powerful thing he had ever felt in his life.

That day was the first of many filled with words and laughter. He met her at the dances and moved with her to the pipes and songs feeling the rush of something commencing—a beginning. For two months, on Sundays they met in the empty Ando Valley that lay between them. Walking next to the ruins of what was once, centuries ago, a church, they began to talk of the valley as theirs. With the sheep still in the hills, they watched the grass grow higher each time it met them.

The change in him must have been palpable for his family. Barrel making doesn’t make one suddenly stand tall and full. His father watched the air go out of Alex when he told him they were all leaving in two weeks. With the imminent departure, his dad said there was no need in him apprenticing to a vocation that would be of no use in the new land. He went the next day and told Grace and her father the news. She walked away unable to stand and listen.

Walking home along the river he suffered. His mind thought of the firing of the barrels, the hammering, bending, soaking, shaping, forming, the filling up to the brims with clear liquid funneled out of the copper arteries of the Aberlour distilleries. When he thought of this and her, he felt staved in. Broken. Irreparable.
For two weeks she would not see or meet him, but the day before his family left, he saw Grace’s youngest brother Callum come running up the path with a folded piece of paper in his hand. It was a message to meet. That night, with his family asleep, he walked over the hill in the dark to their valley. Coming over the hill he saw the thin stream that bent and twisted across the meadow. Next to a single tall tree, stood the church ruins. The roof had long since collapsed and rotted away leaving only the riverstone walls standing. The interior was empty, as if a hand had come down and scraped clean everything inside leaving just a rectangular box.

He thought he had arrived there first, but then he saw her standing still against the ruins. Grace seemed part of this place as if set in the arch where she leaned unweathered next to the pocked stone. There was nothing to say in words or expression. A silent understanding stood stronger than any quantity of words. The moon, its illumined grey, fell through the clouds on them together for the last time. Nothing was said. A force filled them with a horrible beautiful sorrow. It submerged the empty valley where they lay intertwined like the tree’s branches that shook in hopeless mourning above them. Their love spilled out tremoring with anger and pain, punctuated by a constantly moving force of life they briefly grasped only to lose again and again. The dawn’s parting bore no words; Grace simply, before turning and leaving him forever, pressed the gift in his hand wrapped in her blue scarf. It shook there as he leaned against the sage moss wall watching her go.

He left Knockando with his family walking in front of him—two younger brothers and Elspet carrying the young dog that would follow them to their new home. His father and mother walked on either side of the road carrying their bags of clothes, shoes, and modest jewelry. For them, it was as if this journey was to a dance or a wedding. His family had already left this land before even walking off it, before leaving the village—they had already arrived in the new land of their minds—they had been there since the decision to leave. They had left these hills and instead lived in their dreams of what was coming, turning over images of what would be a lifetime of hoped for serendipitous events. Alex left carrying only her gift in his hand and her scarf tucked into his pocket.

He didn’t feel like he was leaving his home or his village. Alex felt like he was leaving a moment of beginning—a present, almost birth-like, instant that would never return. Everything this moment was would be lost. Even if he sailed home six months from now, even if he had a way to hear the daily news of his homeland—who had died in childbirth—who had lost sheep in the hills—who had planted poorly and was turned off the land—even with every bit of news from these hills and valleys the possibilities of this moment would vanish forever. No tool could ever fully repair what was about to be broken.

He turned back a last time. He thought of leaving his family. Grace would find him at her door, her father would welcome him into the house. They’d laugh about how close they’d come to losing each other. But when he looked at his family in front of him—his mother and father silent, his brothers kicking rocks off the road, Elspet singing to herself, shuffling along with the dog squirming in her arms—he knew he had to go with them. Leave his land. Leave his love. Because he was the oldest, with three younger than him and a father that couldn’t be trusted to keep anything together.