Missives from a Scottish Cemetery by Jalyn Renae Fiske

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Jalyn Renae Fiske, author of “Sweetbreads at Midnight,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.

Where overcast skies and jade grass meet, there is a place called the Necropolis in Glasgow, Scotland. Tombstones, mausoleums, and monuments decorate the hill in tribute to those who came before. I visited one summer with my friends and former cohorts from graduate school, Meghan and Tawnya, thirty-somethings on the brink of new beginnings. Both are pursuing their PhDs in literature, one in Scotland and one in England.

BRINK (n) \ˈbriŋk \

1 : the threshold of danger

2 : the point of onset : verge or boundary

3 : edge, especially the edge at the top of a steep place

I travelled across the Atlantic in search of my brink, because life stalled in the year after earning my MFA in Creative Writing. My thesis languished, not-quite-good-enough, in some forgotten drawer, and every professor application compiled and submitted with my new credentials likewise languished, not-quite-good-enough, in trash bins (virtual and literal) across the United States. At the time of my travels to Europe, I was, in fact, newly unemployed by choice, and therefore free to accept any offer that came my way – but in that freedom, I was locked in place, required to wait and wait and wait. Writers often battle such melancholic paradoxes, and I was no different, so when I looked forward and into my future, I did not see a happy horizon at sunrise. Sunset was all around me. Oh, there was an edge. A sharp edge, sharp as a knife. And when I peered over its glinting line, I peered into an abyss. 

ABYSS (n) \ ə-ˈbis, a- \

1a : intellectual or moral depths

1b : an immeasurably deep gulf or great space

2 : the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old cosmogonies

Glasgow is an ancient place, nestled beneath a canopy of dark clouds. When it rains, and it often rains, the water soaks the dark-stoned buildings to black. If Gotham existed, this would be it. Tawnya knows of my love of Batman and told me that Joker’s iconic slashed cheeks are in reference to the sadistic mutilation performed by Glasgow’s razor gangs of the 1930s: the Glasgow Grin. Intrigued, I peered into shadows in search of some dark knight to tell me what I sought/wanted/needed/was missing, but no one and nothing emerged. 

My friends and I climbed the Necropolis, an edge at the top of a steep place, and from its summit, we saw what others glimpsed two hundred years ago when the city of the dead was first conceived and constructed overlooking the cathedral and its fine stained glass: the chaos of the old cosmogonies. Cosmos, as in the universe. I do not know the origin of the stars, or life, or the world, but I know that it must one day come to an end. Is that why I went to Glasgow? Was the thing I was looking for hidden somewhere in the end? Graveyards contain the dead, but they also contain their long-ago memories engraved into each stone. Chiseled missives, ready to be read.

MISSIVE (n) \ˈmi-siv \

1 : a written communication : handwritten letter

The meandering path that weaved among the gravestones brought us to many age-old epitaphs, as fractured and fragmented as the sentinels which guarded our journey. Headless angels with arms outspread, wings clipped from cold and wind and time. They cannot speak, as the dead cannot speak. Rows and rows of damp headstones carved into obelisks pierced the sky in silence. Yes, it was silent, but the air weighed heavy with something to say. The gravel path clung to the echoes of our footsteps as we walked, encouraging wayfarers to listen unencumbered. By listen, I mean sense. I mean know. And for me, the things I know are the things I write, so I collected the words that remained etched upon crumbling, moss-covered surfaces, and recorded them in my emerald green notebook, the size of my hand, worn so badly in the corners and edges that the fibers gave up their hiding months ago. 

Most of the inscriptions were too worn to be remembered – even the stone had forgotten them – but I tried nonetheless. Three disparate messages from three distinct stones emerged:

Worthy, Kind, and True

She studied the happiness of others and found her own

Thy saints take pleasure in her stones and favour the dust thereof

My pen bled black as I transcribed the words. Happiness seemed to be the matter at hand. It was the reason I quit my job teaching eight-grade English, wished to write more, to learn more, to live more, and dreamed of a different career in higher education. My newfound credentials meant nothing to the wider world, despite the fact that earning an MFA had once been my Holy Grail. What good is a talisman if it brings you no power? No happiness?

The air was damp and cold – vastly different from the desert-dry triple digits I left behind in Texas – and this thought of home stopped my pen. I wondered if I’d been looking in the wrong direction for my new beginning. Forward has always been my way, but the chaos of the old cosmogonies seemed determined to make me stay. Could it be that I was exactly where I was supposed to be – in Texas, teaching public school, working on my novel and short stories by figurative candlelight?

Meghan, Tawnya, and I stopped at the nearby Drygate Brewing Company for a pint. I don’t remember which beer I chose on tap (maybe it was a cider), but I remember it tasted of hemp. We sat outside, the sun peeking through the clouds, and toasted our friendship, forged from our two grueling years together in graduate school. I wouldn’t have ever met these exceptional women if I hadn’t pursued my Holy Grail when I did and where I did. Meghan is Canadian, Tawnya is Washingtonian, and I am a Texan, born and raised. 

Again, I’ll say: these are exceptional women. Worthy, Kind, and True.

I studied them and their happiness as our glasses clinked together, three thirty-somethings on the brinks of our beginnings, having a pint in Glasgow of all places. I flipped through my emerald notebook to re-read what the Necropolis had whispered, and I noticed that the very first page documents my first days in grad school. My wide-eyed, hopeful self had been reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I’d written that I’d never read her before, and she made me want to add more poetry to my writing. 

POETRY (n) /ˈpōətrē/

1 : writing that gives special intensity to the expression of feelings and ideas

2 : possessing beauty

I smiled to remember that poetry was what I had wanted from my MFA in the first place, and I smiled to know that poetry was exactly what I received. How cliché is it to say life is about the journey and not the destination? We’re destined for the grave, aren’t we? All there is and all that matters is how we get there. 

We finished our pints and headed downtown for dinner and whiskey-tasting. Many more toasts were made in the following days as we cherished the brief time we had together in Glasgow, reminiscing about our past and dreaming of our literary futures. The Necropolis, in its own way, had made a toast to us, as well: May thy saints favour the dust thereof.

In the meantime, write. I say this to myself, to Meghan and Tawnya, and anyone who will listen (because the more I say it, the more I believe it). Write. Wherever you are physically in your life, metaphorically in your life, emotionally, spiritually, whatever the case may be: the time to make things happen is exactly now. 

The saints won’t bless a blank page.


Jalyn Renae Fiske is a high school English teacher and creative writing instructor in Midland, Texas. She serves as Fiction Editor for James Gunn’s Ad Astra magazine and earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in 2017. She has a thing for dragons, musicals, Batman, cemeteries, and international horror films. Her work has appeared in such publications as The OvercastTypehouseThe Future Fire, and in the Transcendent anthology from Transmundane Press.

ON TIME is coming in September 30, 2020. Be sure to follow us on Amazon.


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