I wish I could say, I’ve just been to Scotland but this is a metaphorical trip involving some fond memories and a Scottish short story. The picture here is of a grassy green harbor on the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced Eye-La, not Is-Lay) which we were lucky enough to visit for a few days in 2016. My son and I took a walk across the hilly pasture among the sheep from this harbor to the next one. It was a bit of a scramble but the views were great.
I’d love to return to Scotland when the pandemic allows (in the summer, though) and have fond memories of walking around Edinburgh and Glasgow, two lovely, historic cities and of touring the countryside. I’d go back to Islay in a flash for the gorgeous scenery and wonderful beaches. My husband would go back for the distilleries.
All of this has little to do with my latest short stories except that I bought the anthology The Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories edited by Douglas Dunn, out of nostalgia for the place. It cost me used 2.99 pounds. Like many books I’ve picked up with good intentions, I only just pulled it off my shelves to read.
Short story #6 is “Violets and Strawberries in the Snow” by Shena Mackay. Mackay has written 9 novels and a number of short story collections and “Violets” is a story that makes me want to read more of her work. The plot is straightforward. An alcoholic spends Christmas on a psychiatric ward and reflects about “his own countdown to Christmas.” Douglas is not a good man but he is observant and thoughtful. He is often touched by kindness, of nurses and aides in the hospital, of one patient to another and of his own daughters who visit him bearing gifts. The daughters make Douglas think of a fairy tale in which a step-daughter is sent to deliver out of season strawberries and violets to her wicked step-mother. The task is a pointless cruelty.
At the story’s end, Douglas stands and thinks of his daughters:
“He stood in the alien kitchen that smelled of industrial detergent and fat and old washing-up cloths, seeing in memory his children smiling and waving at the door, their resolute backs as they walked to the car concealing their wounds under their coats, forgiving and brave, and carrying his own weak and dissolute genes in their young and beautiful bodies. Violets and strawberries in the snow.“
Such a beautiful ending to a moving story. I definitely recommend this story and will likely look for more by the author. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of it online so to read it one would have to buy the Scottish anthology or the author’s collection Dreams of Dead Women‘s Handbags where it was originally published. The Czech fairy tale is available in many places online including here. I hadn’t thought of writing a review of a fairy tale but they are short stories, after all, and perhaps this will be my 7th review.