Posted on October 22nd, 2012
Through a series of accidents, most of them intentional, I once found myself alone on a sparsely populated island a little ways north of the 60th parallel. I had survived for a month on other people’s muesli, withered green peppers, and an occasional bean-and-macaroni pie, but I was none the worse for it. The almost interminable daylight filled me with a bustling chemical energy that made food seem irrelevant. And drink—drink felt like a thing intended for another species. Giddy from the subarctic summer, my brain was drunk almost constantly on salt and latitude. For a month almost nothing stronger than well water touched my tongue. A dram of whisky once at a school regatta. A perplexing glass of sake at an equally perplexing late-night sing-a-long of classic country tunes. Otherwise—water. In pints, in bottles, in glasses and in teacups. An old man eyed me askance at a bar in Lerwick as I gulped a half liter of water without coming up for air. “You have a great thirst,” he said.
I hadn’t expected this. I’d thought I was traveling to a land of flagons filled with strong ale, rowdy men in mead halls, maybe rare liquors that one set fire to before imbibing. When my family learned that I was bound for Shetland—midway between Scotland and Norway, battered by the North Sea to the east and the open Atlantic to the west—they showered me with every variety of Scotch available in 50ml samples at the state liquor store, so that I would be an educated northern drinker upon arrival. Back in New England, each little bottle burst with cloudy light, heathery, boggy, smoky, salty. But in Shetland, among the heather and the salt and the smoke from peat fires, I looked back on every sip like a cheap imitation of this otherworldly place where the air itself tasted better than any whisky.
Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Islands, has a ghost. She appears rarely, once or twice in twenty years and generally in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle. I set out with a tent, some minimal vittles, and several liters of water to have an overnight adventure out on the moors somewhere. My plans were vague. Look at birds. Talk to seals. Try not to run out of provisions. Wander around with no particular destination. But as it happened, I crossed paths with a fellow fiddle player in the tiny town of Uyeasound. We ate bean-and-macaroni pies, swapped music stories, chatted, the sort of visiting you do in a small island town.
Then he told me: a few month ago he had seen her. Da White Wife—the ghost of Unst. His story was like all the others. Late at night. One minute he was driving alone. The next minute she was there, ghostly, glowing. She was old. Her teeth were bad. What struck me most was the way he spoke: a little shy, hesitating as though worried no one would believe him. I half did. Later, while giving me a lift to the next town north, he showed me the spot of the road where she usually appears, near a lonely boulder on an empty stretch of moorland, a ghostly place.
A crazy idea entered my head. I had a tent . . . I needed a place to spend the night, and any old patch of earth would do . . . Sure, she usually appears in cars and carriages, but who would be out walking here—or sleeping? We got to town and parted ways. I stocked up on egg sandwiches I hoped wouldn’t spoil and got more water, just in case. Then I set off into the wild. My feet carried me north, into the hills, toward the rocky shore. I wanted to see the ocean beating on the farthest reaches of the islands. I wanted to stare out to sea and know there wasn’t a rock between me and the North Pole. But every footstep took me farther from that empty patch of road I might never return to, that lonely boulder and that pale white ghost.
The afternoon was long and the evening was longer. I clung to steep slopes while angry bonxies screeched above me, skirted narrow lakes, dragged myself over rusted fences and up tall hills before I finally reached the end of the land. The hours passed. The sky grew half dark, and with the north wind at my back I started the long trek back toward town. After a few too many exhausted paces and a welcome ride from a carful of Australians I made it back to civilization minutes before last call at the pub. Finally, now, filled to bursting with the wild north, it was time for a drink.
I looked at the taps behind the bar. I squinted, shook my head, looked again. The salt wind had addled my brain, or maybe I was already asleep and dreaming, or worse. I checked once more and finally had to admit that it was real. There she was, waiting for me where I least expected her, staring from the tap handle: White Wife ale, brewed on Unst by Valhalla Brewery in honor of the local apparition.
I couldn’t have ordered anything else. As I held the pint it seemed to glow with the uncanny light of a dozen possible futures, strange ones where I had strolled along a different road, staked my tent by a lonely boulder, maybe come face to face with a thing from another world that I would have to spend a lifetime trying to understand. And as I thought about the path I had taken—the alien hills, the menacing birds, the immeasurable northern ocean—it didn’t seem so different.
I don’t remember how it tasted. It wasn’t a drink. It was a haunting.