by Robyn Goodwin
It was a cold day in Scotland as most of them are, no doubt. The Bastard lay dying with a woolly cap pulled down around his ears. A cough rattled around his chest, like loose change in trouser pockets. Fiona, his wife, pressed her hand on his forehead and sighed. Through the window, he could make out the spiny hill he’d lived on for eighty-three years. There was no need for glasses anymore; the view was as predictable as the heel print of his boot. The ground, wet from the rain, was split open like the backs of the old fisherman’s hands—forget the eighteen years of herding sheep, he considered himself a man of boats. The sky was a satisfying shade of plum. Long-beaked blackbirds flew from tree to stream. What was left of the sun disappeared behind a scrubby hill. Beyond that, there were a few houses, and a ridiculous farm with a scarecrow fashioned out of an old metal rake. Fiona poured hot water into a small porcelain cup. A pot of her noodle soup simmered on the stove reassuringly. Hamish didn’t eat anymore, but the soup was good and the smell was enough.
“How about some soda water, Hamish?” Fiona asked, her head cowering in anticipation of his response. His voice was crumbly, even still, he spoke to her as he had their entire marriage: two parts aggravation, one part awe.
“Why do you persist with the soda water?”
“It’s a tonic of sorts.”
“It gives me the runs.”
“Perhaps we should wait, then,” she said. “Until after the vicar’s visit.”
“Ah, Jeseez,” the Bastard said. “Give me the tonic. I’ll rid him of the house.”
“It’ll do you good,” Fiona said. “No matter the outcome.”
She spoke as if she knew the outcome already. She kept a list in the cupboard she consulted now and then. Number four was “Save Hamish’s soul,” outlined in red, because she likened it to the heart. The first three were prayers he still had a soul—that one hadn’t flown right out of his body for living a life of such deceit. She found it impalpable, his years of good health, string of television appearances, the ridiculous tweed hat he purchased for interviews. It was only in the past weeks she recognized the unsettling flutter in her stomach for what it was—happiness. Not for the suffering, but in spite of it.
Fiona suffered for him, and found she was particularly well suited for this appointment. It was as if after fifty years of floundering, she’d finally found her calling. She fluffed his pillows, smoothed his rough hands against the blanket, stroking his knuckles with her thumbs. She tucked him in tightly, propping his head on a pillow with sharp quills bursting through the seams. Fiona was fastidious in the ritual of dying.
“There’s great comfort in the ordinary,” she said, wiping his forehead with a damp cloth. Truisms sprung from her lips without much forethought. She had become quick in her old age, and wise in his illness. The Bastard would not be outdone.
“Nothing wrong with a good night’s sleep,” he said.
“Nothing wrong with that either,” she said.
Next to The Bastard’s bedside, was a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilych.
“Read it again,” Hamish said. Fiona knew exactly to what he was referring. She dragged a wooden chair across the kitchen floor to his bedside, turning on a lamp out of habit rather than necessity. She began to read. “In the beginning was the word,” she said, “and the word became flesh…”
“Not that!” Hamish said, tortured by the effort of speaking.
“What?” Fiona asked, a sprig of gray curls running up on her forehead. “Oh yes,” she said. “The Tolstoy.”
The Bastard listened intently. He was slightly irritated by a birdsong in the distance, and the skittering of leaves tumbling down the gravel road to his house. He was drawn to the scene of Ivan hanging draperies. For some reason, this reminded him of the exact moment his own sickness entered him. He liked to dwell there in that recognition; how he’d been admiring the coat of his neighbor’s terrier Angus on a Saturday morning, working his boot through a clump of grass. He remembered how the pain severed his breath, and settled in his gut. He remembered saying out loud to the terrier dog, “So, it’s come.” It was matter of fact, something he credited to his sensible nature. He made a list and set to bed with a few books, a penknife, and a small bit of cloth he occasionally rubbed against his thigh. But it was the book that brought him the most comfort—it was both fascinating and horrifying. It was penance, and on a good day grace, having it read when the chill entered the room and he became confused about the rituals he set clocks by: pruning, shearing, shaving and planting. He claimed he too, had the same ache in his side as Ivan; only he was a Scotsman and couldn’t carry on that way. He held his hand over his chest as Fiona read. He craved stillness. And in the quiet of Fiona’s voice, between the long Russian names she stumbled over, and the tireless drone of propriety and shopping and pastries, the Bastard could fall into the deepest of sleep.
Hamish kept three pictures in an envelope under his cracker light body. Two of them were by choice—the third, his wife had stuck in deference to some ideal she held of her husband that remained unvoiced, but a source of disappointment to both. The first photograph was of his son James, a large man with punishing skin, holding a fish. James wasn’t a sportsman, but was amenable to the camera, preferring the frozen image of himself caught in sport to the actual drudgery of nine hours on a lake with little to entertain yourself with other than a jumble of worms in a Styrofoam cup. The woman standing behind him was his wife Hope, an American girl from Tennessee, who wore open-toed shoes in the glum November rains. The two of them were en route from Memphis to see him one last time before he passed. He no longer remembered if he had purchased their ticket for them—judging by the mood of the matter, he ventured he probably had. The other photo was plain enough. A boy on a milk crate with hair like wild grass, holding a small wooden boat fashioned by sticks, and a bit of stretched canvas. It was indulgent, Hamish thought, to dwell too heavily on himself as a boy. He was never a handsome son, but less of a disappointment than some. Truthfully, it was measurement enough to know when to stop measuring.
The third photo was the one that everyone spoke of for a long time. It was well worn, as undefined as it had been the day he snapped the shot. It was a picture of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. It was the original, though it had been handled by hundreds of hands since that July afternoon. It was a modest photo, yet deceptively so. Nessie was a slippery creature—greed spoiled plenty of opportunity for moderate celebrity. Hamish knew there were fates worse than free pints and a slap on the back as you walked down a lane, though he much preferred the fanfare associated with his photograph. Because of him, the town enjoyed a booming tourist industry. The little tavern in the village was able to purchase new seat cushions and fancy dispensers for their condiments. The innkeepers and hotel proprietors developed an odd flamboyancy. One man in particular, a Mr. Getty Gordian purchased a golf cart to shuttle guests to and from the loch, pointing out bits of rubbish and a few berries and plants which were known to be part of the creature’s diet. Hamish himself was brought in periodically to ride on the flank of a parade float. All because of a picture, though not just any picture. His was different. It had authority, stood up to various scientific tests, puzzled even the most astute scholars in the field.
And it was a fake.
He often wondered if the ability to create such a believable fake was, in fact, his true ability, and thus felt he had undersold his talents. Hamish studied the picture. Nessie’s head and neck broke through the still water of the lake, fingerlike, its massive body below the surface. There was much conjecture about its size—more than once, it was implied the creature had horrific eyesight and was perhaps not too bright. Hamish took this personally. Several of his neighbors implicated Nessie in freak accidents. Most were grateful to have confirmed suspicions they had held since they were children. It was the frailty of the head Hamish liked to point out with the tip of a sharpened pencil, tracing the slope of its elongated neck. In those moments, he cocked his own head to the side, a gesture expressing a tenderness and understanding of something greater than him.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” he had said. “If you believe in that sort of thing.”
He had grown fond of Nessie over the years, the way you do of a bad childhood. It was an unhealthy attachment that bore repeating. And only in rare moments, when the pain in his chest pulled on him like moorings, did he question his creation, grapple with sin.
The last time the vicar had visited the home of a terminal parishioner, the patient miraculously recovered, and thus, the vicar enjoyed a modest celebrity. In keeping with his faith, he only allowed himself to remember this on solitary walks or drives. He had become a loner, mulling over the great gift that had been bestowed upon him. Healer. Mystic. He parked his little red Citroen in front of the Collins’ house. He had never met Hamish, though Fiona attended the Sunday service, and her apple crisp had been the source of his weight gain over the past two years. The vicar suspected Fiona was Catholic. This in itself was not a crime, though he found the habit of her faith peculiar and unsettling. Perhaps it was her way, but the woman hovered, seemingly trying to confess something. The vicar was uncomfortable with all sorts of unpleasantness—preferring to keep things on a positive note. A crow squawked, and landed next to his car, pecking at the ground, then departing. The vicar didn’t care for symbolism. He straightened his tie, tugged on the waistline of his tweed trousers, and knocked on the door. It was with great restraint that he entered, willing himself not to inquire about the photograph. As a boy the vicar had kept a scrapbook with various pictures of the monster. The predominant shot, centered squarely on the page had been the one Hamish shot nearly fifty-three years before.
The house was a lesson in modesty. Three pears were sliced, and served to the vicar on a white teacup saucer. There was a place for everything. The wall adornments were pleasant pen and ink drawings of farm animals. Fiona shuffled around the room in a long skirt, and men’s socks. She was seventy-nine, and still rode a bicycle like a ten-year-old. She had little bird hands, always alight in service, fluttering effortlessly through a steady stream of chores. The vicar sat down noisily on the wooden chair next to Hamish’s bed.
“I’ve had soda water,” the Bastard said, in his crumbling voice.
“Good for you, Mr. Collins,” the vicar said, making an effort to be pleasant. He took this as a good thing, as in I’ve taken my medicine…
“Not enough to disturb his stomach,” Fiona said, reassuringly.
“Well, Mr. Collins,” the vicar said. “You certainly are a well known man.”
The Bastard thought long and hard about this.
“Yes,” he finally said. “I am.”
“What a life you must have had!” the vicar said. He could hear the exclamation point at the end of his statement. It seemed very first-year seminary, that kind of enthusiasm. It was all he could do not to direct the conversation in the matter of his interest. He reached deep inside his pocket, his fingertips grazing the torn page from the magazine with the famous photograph. He couldn’t believe he was sitting in the same room with the man who had captured Nessie on film.
“The children will be here tomorrow,” Fiona said. “It’s been six years.” She smiled at the vicar whom she knew to be uncomfortable with all sorts of unpleasantness.
“Well, Mr. Collins,” the vicar said. “Is there anything you would like to talk about? We haven’t had the opportunity to get to know one another, but your wife is one of my best customers.” He smiled when he said this. A light touch was always appreciated in these circumstances.
Fiona let her long, silver hair fall down around her face, attaching the hair clip to the sleeve of her sweater. Hamish appeared to be thinking. He had, in fact, tuned the vicar out, finding his voice a bit jarring.
“No,” he finally said.
“Tell me, then,” the vicar said. “About the monster.” As soon as he said it, the vicar was convicted—he knew his obsession with Nessie didn’t fall into the realm of spirituality. He leaned over, pulled his socks up straight and crossed one leg over the other. This was at best, an icebreaker, an invitation to put another man at comfort, he reassured himself.
Hamish turned his head to the side. It was the one thing that seemed worth the effort, despite the pain, despite the bad odor of death.
“You believe?” the Bastard asked. Even still, with the sickness setting up house in the narrow passageways of his heart, his body remembered the anticipation of the telling, the purposefully crafted details which could only be defined as a strange love.
“Of course I do,” the vicar answered. “It’s a bit of a passion with me—the aquatic life of our lochs. And I have to admit, I’ve anticipated this moment since I was a boy.” The vicar shifted in his seat. He was full of expectation. “You have a way with a camera, Mr. Collins. I’ve imagined the original image was clearer than the newspapers’.”
“Brilliant,” Hamish said. “It was a brilliant picture.” He pressed his side when he said that, feeling for something palpable to call his pain. He longed to recount the story of Nessie—how he’d been walking that morning, unaccustomed to the sun on his back, his slicker still slung over his shoulder in a half-hearted way. How he’d tossed a stick into the Loch and another one until there were none to be had. He wanted to tell the vicar the color of the monster’s skin, a color he himself had invented, because after all, it was his monster. It was a sort of translucent blue, the color of a bubbling brook on a cool day. He wanted to relay the absurd beauty of this bumbling large creature with the curious neck and fist-size head. He wanted to describe the ease with which it moved through water, shedding ripples of sunlight down its slickened back. And lastly, how he’d been standing on the bank when a quick breeze caught him by surprise, and for some unknown reason, he discovered he was shoeless. During all the excitement, he had slipped out of his boots and stood barefoot on the sandy bank, his toes in the lapping water. It was a story he’d come to love. He felt his heart quicken with the detail. The pain in his chest had become excruciating. He felt for the bit of cloth and rubbed it against his thigh, wincing and then crying out in his weak, child cry. What he was left with after the fit, was a deep disinterest and no energy to properly enjoy being disinterested. He had nothing to say about Nessie—she was what she was. His punishment was in the not telling. He almost laughed aloud. If there was a god, He was a predictable one.
“Is there anything troubling you?” the vicar asked.
“To have sin,” the Bastard said, coughing, “presupposes one believes in sin. I believe in consequence. The rest is up for debate.” It took a tremendous amount of willpower to deliver such declarations.
“What is sin but consequence?” the vicar asked.
“It started with my arm,” Hamish interrupted. “Shot down my entire body.” The Bastard grabbed his elbow. “Not two weeks later, I was in bed.”
“Are you saying this ailment is a consequence of something you did in your life?”
“It’s not an ailment. It’s death.”
“Well,” the vicar said. “Let’s not be hasty.” The vicar always placed a lot of emphasis on hope.
“Is it true,” Fiona asked. “There’s nothing we’ve done in our lives that we can’t be forgiven for?”
Hamish shot Fiona a look—the one he reserved for frivolous spending sprees and poorly told jokes.
“No sin is too great for the Creator,” the vicar said. “Tell me, Hamish. Are you at peace?”
“What does that mean?” Hamish asked. At some point, he had decided to be difficult. He had come to terms with faithlessness. The Bastard excused himself from sin on a number of grounds, the first being he wasn’t a believer, despite a fifty-six-year marriage to a fallen Catholic. The second being the monster wasn’t a hoax. People wanted to believe. And what he had tried to convey was something of beauty in the world in the form of a disproportionate beast. Admittedly, it hadn’t been his intention so many years before. And yes, he had indulged in a few beloved horses and held a comfortable bank account, but what he had given was more than he received. He didn’t believe in a higher order, but decency, and sometimes that meant sustaining a decent lie.
Fiona paced about the side of the bed, carrying a ladle.
“What he means,” Fiona said in deliberate calm, “Are you right with your maker?”
The vicar started to cough. He wouldn’t have been that direct.
“You want to know about Nessie,” the Bastard said, turning his head to face the vicar. “I’ll tell you a story.”
Fiona put her hands over her face and wept. The flutter she’d felt, the surge of purposefulness had diminished. She was, she realized after all these years, married to a hopeless cause. The things she’d attributed to him, were in fact, things she had admired about herself, only was too modest to claim. She couldn’t hear the story one more time. It wasn’t as if he had ever told her it was a lie. It was simply she knew him to be lying. How could she have been so wrong about the flutter? And yet, she looked at Hamish, with the odd tuft of hair that still retained some of the copper hair dye, and felt for the first time in years, she could possibly love him, if not pressed too hard.
“Have a seat, dear,” the vicar said, standing. “Let me get you a glass of water.” Fiona was done with tears. Her eyes felt strangely hollow—she had trouble focusing on the bed.
The Bastard watched his wife out of the corner of his eye. He was mystified by her behavior—a woman who had slaughtered a sheep and knit a baby bonnet in the same day; who once passed a kidney stone while hauling sack feed to a neighboring farm. She had always been a little unreal to him, but textured to the touch. There was nothing about her he didn’t associate with weather and the elements of a good soil. The pain gripped him, shook him loose like an uprooted tree. He rode it, feeling for the cloth, reassured by the faint smell that was Fiona, a mixture of good cooking herbs and damp wool. It occurred to him he had not looked at his wife for a very long time. He had few romantic notions, but seemed to recognize something about her hair, its silvery threads and her wind-worn face that carried summer year round. She looked at him kindly, her eyes flecked a deep blue like ground heather. She wiped at her face, shook her head and sighed.
“Do you have peace?” she finally asked.
The vicar returned with the water, his face flushed and worried.
“Drink up,” he said to Fiona.
The Bastard felt around his stomach. He found a spot that seemed to be the precise location from which all the pain radiated. He pressed on it, wondering at how so much sensation could come from such an insignificant place. He pressed again, and again was flooded with pain. The more he pressed, the more he longed to feel the pain again. His mind wandered. The vicar chatted idly with Fiona. They seemed unaware of his discovery. He’d found the source. It led him back through the years. He remembered the strange intolerance his hair had for sunny days. He tasted again warm chestnuts his father had thrown into the fire. He recited a simple prayer he had learned from a young girl with a bandaged leg. The more he pressed, the more he remembered. He remembered his baby sister Mary being pushed in a pram and the stream of ribbon fastened to the handle. And how when she didn’t come home, asking his father what had happened, and being smacked in the face. He was neither detached, nor overwhelmed by his childhood. There was no resurgence of innocence, or even a tenderness to the boy called “Hami.” There was only a vague, empty feeling the pale color of loss and a kindness gentle as water keeping him afloat. Fiona stroked his hands, calling him back to the present. Hamish looked at her. Her lips were pressed tight in worry. A little dog-eared moon shone through the small window, shadowing the rooms in velvety blue light. He reached with his long fingers to catch a loop in her sweater sleeve. t was a fine green color, with the usual generous weave so air could cool her hard working body.
“I like this,” the Bastard managed to say. Then he managed to smile.
The vicar’s head loomed in the background like an insistent holiday float. The Bastard waved him away. He wanted to look at her. After fifty some odd years of marriage, he knew what she needed.
“Are you at peace, Hamish?” she asked.
His head was cloudy. He pressed his side.
The pain made him clear. The vicar got down on his knees beside the bed.
“Do you have something to say, Mr. Collins?”
He looked at his wife, her shaky hands folding down the blankets.
“It was a fake,” he said. It was the first time he had spoken these words aloud. It might have been alarming had he not felt such a flood of relief. He pressed the spot again and almost cried out in pain. Fiona held his hands. He concentrated on the gentle chafing of her fingers.
“What was?” the vicar asked.
“The picture of Nessie,” the Bastard said. “It’s a fake.”
The vicar wasn’t prepared for this sort of nonsense. Fiona beamed. She squeezed Hamish’s hands with her own.
“What do you mean?” the vicar asked. His mouth quivered. It became impossibly dry. “I saw it myself. It was in the news. The authorities have found it valid.”
“It was a good fake,” Hamish said. “Better than I thought.”
“What’s this? A fever?” the vicar asked. He looked first at the Bastard, and then Fiona.
“It was a waste,” the Bastard managed.
“Go on, now, Hamish,” Fiona said, reassuringly.
“Impossible,” the vicar said. “I read about it when I was a boy. I know the whole story. I was nine, busying myself with coins, stuffing them in the slats of our kitchen floor, when my father came in with the paper. He was flushed. ‘There,’ he said. ‘I told you. The damn thing’s living in that loch. Even smiled for the camera.’ He flung the paper on the floor. Mother squatted down, her toenail coming through her stockings, her hands covered in flour dough. We read it there. She said people didn’t make up details such as these: You were walking alone on a cool morning, when you came upon a stick or tree limb of some sort. I recall it had a peculiar shape, a curved handle that you likened to a terrier’s snout. And as you were marveling over this bit of wood, the monster reared its back and yes, his head too, only the head was thimble-sized. My God—you were fifty feet from the monster, and somehow you had the presence of mind to snap a picture.”
“Twas arranged,” the Bastard said simply. It was the last simple thing he said.
The vicar paced the length of the cottage. He moved his hands about, gesturing and finally, tucking his hands into his armpits.
“And all I could think,” the vicar said. “Was what in God’s name would that fellow have done if Nessie had come out of the water and onto the bank. You mustn’t forget I was nine. But I still remember.”
Hamish coughed a few times.
“And what you said about Nessie being flanked against a golden Scottish sky—that was poetry. Those were the words of a man who saw a monster. The part about it being timeless, and yet fraught with the confines of a moment—I tell you. You saw a monster!”
“I lied,” the Bastard managed to say.
“What do you mean?” the vicar asked. He was confused, scratching a persistent patch of dry skin on his knuckles.
“Thank you for coming, vicar,” Fiona said. She stood up and tugged on her long skirt. “You’ve been a godsend. We won’t keep you.” She tried to scoot him along, as one might an untidy pile of kitchen scraps.
The Bastard drifted. It had been years since he felt so light, as if he might float away had he not been rooted to the bed by Fiona’s ferocious will.
“Wake up,” the vicar said. “I’ll not have this. There are others. I’ve seen pictures. You’ve been on shows—that man in Surrey. What about him? Tell me the truth. Is there a monster?”
The Bastard looked at the vicar. A few courageous whiskers sprouted from his chin. He marveled at the vicar’s tie—how bountiful the colors—a regular cornucopia of squash and gourds. The vicar gently shook the man on the shoulder, though his inclination was to shake the daylights out of him. “Hamish,” he said, “Enough. I need to know.”
Fiona came alongside the vicar, smoothing over the general unpleasantness.
“Have a seat, vicar,” she said. “It’ll be all right.” It was easy to reassure now that she had reassurance. Her heart was open.
“Please,” the vicar said. “There’s a parade.”
Hamish knew he was dying. He kept his hand on the spot. In his pain, he was incapable of venturing from the inevitable.
“Look at the mosquito,” the Bastard said.
“Pay attention!” the vicar demanded. “I have to know!”
The vicar slammed his fist down on the little bedside table, knocking The Death of Ivan Ilyich on the floor. “What is it that you want Mr. Collins?” the vicar stammered, running his fingers wildly through his thin hair. “Why are you doing this?”
“I’m dying,” Hamish said. It felt good to say. He pressed harder into the pit of his stomach. He knew it was time. He no longer saw Fiona, but smelled her as she walked by, felt the cool breath of air from her movement. He longed to see her again, the way he’d seen Nessie with a clarity he’d take to the grave. Fiona put a damp cloth to his head. He was feverish. The Bastard imagined he had risen above his moderate house with its well-kept trellis and herb garden. There he hovered over a pond, watching a school of blue fish skittering, their scales glinting like mirrors. He stretched his arms out to the side, birdlike, his pale legs dangling like balloon strings. A long shadow was cast over the loch. A wild wake pounded against the rocks. Below the ripples, a craggy humpbacked beast, with a scope-like neck made its way through the water. It was neither awkward nor graceful, but swaggered with the precision of things unmeasured.
The Bastard managed an “Ah,” though it was more acceptance than realization. “Ah,” he said again, this time merely expelling the last of his breath.
The vicar stood over him expectantly. “He’s in a stupor. The dementia’s set in. I’ve seen it before.”
“Hamish,” Fiona said, calling him back. Calling him to supper. Her voice was not woman soft, but wistful. She got down on her knees, letting her silver hair fall over his leaf-like hands. The sound of his own name took up residence in the Bastard’s sickly shell—pushing him forward, calling him home.