The chugging train slowed, then sighed to a halt over the England-Scotland border, the so-called station a mere strip of platform engulfed in endless verdant meadow dotted with clots of creamy sheep. A black-and-white sign read GRETNA GREEN.
I had barely a moment to sling the clear plastic bag with my pouffy wedding dress over my arm and pull my fifty-pound suitcase and thirty-pound backpack off the bottom step before the train rolled on, snorting steam. Its whistle faded as the train disappeared north, abandoning me in the gloaming lowlands.
It was 1999.
We spent that year cringing and bowing before the taciturn gods of technology the way ancient Romans burnt offerings in temples. In the flip from nine to zero, the century’s clocks threatened to obliterate civilization. Some anticipated the new year like Armageddon; my boyfriend and I decided to get married.
A friend had planned her wedding in Scotland, but her groom-to-be dumped her the day of their departure. Rather than a gloomy portent, we took it as good fortune when we inherited her research: Someone oughta get married after I did the hard work. At twenty-five, I had never traveled outside the U.S. My boyfriend wanted something casual and fun—an adventure—after an overblown Texas wedding for his first marriage. Fate divided us on separate flights en route, but we didn’t acknowledge that as a sign, either.
From the platform, I saw no town, just lush undulating grass and meandering gabion walls. The chewing ewes bleated greetings. I faltered, contemplating what lay ahead, and how I would manage eighty pounds of luggage and a wedding dress on a gravel road alone. I startled when I noticed a rugged man leaning on the stone wall, watching me. He looked out of time in rumpled dun-colored trousers, a sweater vest, a navy jacket. After the wedding, I would realize he dressed like everyone in Scotland.
He called out something unintelligible.
Three times I asked him to repeat it.
I hadn’t slept in days, so I nearly wept when his words magically congealed into English, syllable by syllable: Are you lost? Do you need some help?
I tried to laugh off my brain fog, my idiocy. Yes. Please.
His hair a nest of loose strawberry curls, his hazel eyes dashingly chicken-scratched at the corners. Our hands brushed when he took my suitcase. No wedding ring. He smelled of fire, of earth, of grass-fed milk. The man was elemental.
You’re not a runaway bride, are you? he teased, his tongue twisting deliciously with brogue. How fast the omens turned, spitting me into this Janus moment. Are you? he echoed, his joke a ghost in the throat. I couldn’t answer. We never consider the ferryman our destination, only a means to an end.
Twenty minutes later he delivered me, sweaty, exhausted, and wrought, at the steps of the Greenlaw Guesthouse. Flushed with gratitude, I fell into his arms, though I only meant to say thank you. I took refuge in the humid hollow of his neck where, in tangled darkness, I buried my creeping doubts. His breath caught as his arms gathered tight around me, a bittersweet parting of strangers wondering what if as purple twilight fell.
That night as I descended into unconsciousness, I met his specter: salt, peat, acid, smoke. Some portents take years to complete. Others mark beginnings that never stood a chance.