Wish-stone at Dunnottar

By Neile Graham

Twice I have assailed these walls. On the third besiegement

I pay cold cash for entrance. The stacked stones slighted

and somewhat restored, damp and green-stained in cold

streaks, are home, I find, to nestling gulls (stench

and squawk) and starvling beauty. There's more of that

in this stark stone splendor—castle and walls above

the brightest grass atop the huge gray promontory,

where only a thin path leads to the one locked door.

(Where I pay my fine, enter, and explore.) I read that it suffers

the usual bombardments of history: owners changing

in the shuffle of politics, prisoners and revolt, crown jewels

hidden and saved. Mary, Mary quite contrary (Queen of Scots)

walked above this sea, confined; Ninian (saint) built and dwelled;

William Wallace (hero) fought and won. Cromwell's men

starved the castle eight months. One hot summer hundreds

of Scottish Covenenters were packed and tortured into the cellars.

This is more than enough to explain how as I stroll the peaceful,

empty, touristed grounds and find a palm-sized grey stone begging

to be slipped into my pocket, I do. Its weight dogs me, bumps

my thigh as I (a humble, guilty thief) walk back out the gates

and drive away. I have the stone. It reminds me with each step

I take away south as I make my escape. At dinner I pat my pocket,

hope to calm it. That night in my soft borrowed bed I (don't

put it under my pillow, don't rub it until I dream) leave it

pocketed but not forgotten. All night it speaks to me from across

the room, complains and mourns, itching my sleep till I'm fever-

scratched, hallucinating devastations, treachery, bloody wars, stones

blocking the breathless in. Next morning, first thing, I dress and cross

the lane. At the edge of the field I toss it in. But things like this

are far more easily grabbed than let go. My fever dreams continue

for a day, nights I do not sleep or sleep so heavily I never quite wake.

This is how what you take and hold will haunt you, even when

you're days past letting go and have tossed all that disturbance

with your strongest arm into the most peaceful (tilled and muddied)

field. How years later I can still remember its dark weight,

its one sharp point surprising the smooth peace of my palm,

how the memory of this castle (no matter how picturesque and how clear

the light above its walls) brings visions of stinking hunger, mouths

open (beyond wide: squawling, thirsting) in the feverish dark.


Neile Graham's poetry and short fiction have been published in the U.S., England, and Canada. She has three full-length poetry collections (Seven Robins, Spells for Clear Vision, and Blood Memory) and a poetry CD, She Says: Poems Selected and New, forthcoming in 2007. You can see more of her work at her website and in our archives, or send her email at neile@sff.net.