I have told no-one this before.
Above the valley, where the trees dwindle to a few gnarled birches, a rowan overhanging the burn, are the ghosts of villages. Their shapes emerge through the early snow; a ghillie's cottage, a shieling. Some are nothing more than the traces of walls, a nettle-covered midden, the gap-toothed absence of a fireplace or a doorway. In some lights, they appear wistful and elegiac; in others, sad and abandoned.
We heard of one building with a sound roof and a wooden floor, left open as a bothy. It nested in ochre folds of land at the base of a towering, windswept hill, the dark shape like a presence of a benign spirit. Beyond, the knuckled ridges of paler hills stretched to the head of the Loch.
We walked in, three of us, through the long December twilight, the gathering dusk of short highland days. We travelled as light as we could: food for a few days, warm gear, a bottle of malt whiskey. We had no plans, as though to be in the presence of that huge hill was enough. I took a book to read, relished the idea of a few days of stillness and solitude, the wide views which can be found in the highlands in winter. By the time we arrived at the bothy, the light had paled from the sky, colour leached from the land.
The first night, my friends fell asleep quickly. I could hear their rhythmic breathing as we lay, side by side, in the old byre at the back of the room. I lay awake, drifting in and out of that liminal space between sleeping and waking, listening to the sounds of the old building creak and settle, its timbers easing into night.
Somehow, I knew there was a figure in the doorway, a paler shape against the darkness. I could not hear or see it, but I knew it in the way that one is aware of being watched, or of the presence of a loved one. I was not afraid; my mind was still slipping towards sleep, my thoughts unanchored.
The figure crossed the room slowly, soundless on the wooden floor. Above my head, over my left shoulder, it paused briefly and leaned over me. I felt the lightest kiss on my forehead.
I snapped into consciousness, fumbled for the torch. I was breathing hard, but still not afraid. The kiss had felt like an electric shock passing through me, a call to alertness. I was aware of not wanting to wake my friends, although I did not know whether this was from fear of appearing foolish, or from a willingness to hold this fading sensation which tingled through my body. Even in the darkness, I knew that there was no other person in the room; the door was still clasped shut. I felt disoriented, confused, but strangely enlivened, listening to the sighing of the silent bothy, aware of the sense of absence in the room. After a few minutes, I lay down in the darkness. Soon, I was drifting into sleep again.
The next morning, clouds had gathered above the hills, darkening the slopes of rock and heather. We walked to the lochside, listened to the limp wind stirring ripples beyond the pebbled shore. The dark hill rose above us like a nagging memory, a presence of something which could not be forgotten. We threw stones into the Loch, listless and unsettled, unwilling to climb any of the high hills as the weather worsened. I could feel the kiss on my forehead like a burn, like a benediction.
We left the bothy later that day; the weather had turned and the last threads of snow had melted from the tops of the mountains. The sky was overcast, bruise-coloured, threatening rain. On the long walk down, I was aware of the mountain over my shoulder, an implacable presence, like a figure in a doorway.
At times, I can still feel the sensation left by that kiss. In quiet moments, when I am far from the hills, it seems like a sense of promise, as though some agreement was sealed in that darkened bothy. When I think of the hills, I sometimes touch my forehead as though it is still wet, as though the mark of an angel has been left there.
I have told no-one this before.