Short story XII
Not a breeze stirred the air. The sun sank to the western horizon in a blaze of gold, painting streaks of vermillion on an almost waveless sea. Demure waves flopped onto the yellow strand, with the foam spreading out soundlessly over the sand. The grass on the dunes beyond stood to attention, seeming to listen. The very land itself seemed to hold its breath, with only the sea continuing its endless breathing motion in the surf. Darkly, the mountains marched along the northern horizon. Like a lonely dog, the island loomed up a mile or so offshore, near, yet so far. The sun touched, then seemed to meld with the horizon. On the very moment that it disappeared from view, a green flash of light sprung up above the point of setting. "That's where Tir nan Og lies", I said to my friend. He laughed. "Such rubbish", he scoffed. But I shook my head. Could there be truth in such tales? However, I didn't want to spoil the beauty of the evening with an argument, so I beckoned to John to follow me back to where the canoes lay by the dunes. The temperature was starting to drop now that the sun had gone, and a chill began to pervade the air. As we prepared to launch the crafts, the foot of mountains on the horizon began to be covered in a slight haze, something that seemed to emanate from the sea itself. I glanced over at John, but he was not too concerned. "The wind will come up", he stated. We weren't going on a long trip at any rate, just the mile or two across the water to Taransay, and the long summer dusk meant that it would not become completely dark. We carried the canoes to the tideline, then into the low surf before we climbed into our canoes and started to paddle. As the minutes ticked by, the outline of Taransay seemed to become inexorably less distinct. After half an hour, it had disappeared from view. As had the shoreline at Horgabost from where we had set out. "Right, where is the compass?" John demanded to know. A sinking feeling preceded my embarrassed silence. "You're not telling me that you forgot?!" I had to admit my mistake. The compass was still in the car. "No problem," he grated out between clenched teeth. "At least you didn't forget to take the stars", and he glanced at the heavens. Not a star to be seen. Although the fog appeared to be shallow, it completely obscured the sky. We had no means of navigation. John did bring his GPS, but he discovered that the batteries had run flat. "We're both bleeding idiots" he said. "No point not rowing, this current will take us where it wants. It is an outgoing tide, so it would takes us parallel to the shore and hopefully towards Toe Head". But Toe Head was not going to be where we would end up, neither would it be Taransay.
Carried on the long, low swell of the Atlantic, the canoe bobbed on barely perceptible waves. The sky slowly turned dark - but not completely so. The sun kept a presence below the horizon, but in the foggy conditions that night, it was not much more than a hint of light. No land was sighted, no land was visible - no land was near. Gradually, daylight crept up the sky, and the fog lessened to a mist. The sky was now blue overhead, although horizontal visibility remained poor. The canoe seemed to be almost stationary as the light of the rising sun suffused the mist with a golden hue. The greyness of the Atlantic appeared to lighten, and although there was no known land in the vicinity, the waters appeared to shallow out. As the mist thinned, the canoe gradually ground to a halt. It was stuck on a sandbar. Ahead, out of the rising wisps of fog, a beach rose up to dunes - but no hills beyond. There were no hills in sight anywhere. The canoe of my friend John was nowhere to be seen either.
I awoke from deep slumbers to find my craft motionless. The tide appeared to be ebbing, and I had been left high and dry. I stepped ashore, unsure of my location. There was no place, facing east, anywhere near my point of departure. But, that too, did not bother me unduly. I pulled the canoe higher up the beach and decided to explore the vicinity - when a figure appeared from the dunes. I waved, and she walked towards me. "Ah, you have come", she said. "We have been waiting for you."
"We saw you coming out of the mist", the young woman said. "You must have travelled far. Come and join us, my father has the kettle on". We walked across the firm sand of the strand, our shadows projecting ahead of us. Upon crossing the dunes, an old building could be seen at their foot, with a square tower, almost like a church. Grass took over from sand, and a sward of flowers of all colours spread to the walls of the edifice, and all around it. Beyond it, a line of pine trees screened off the prevailing winds from the ocean, which would blow in unimpeded. No wind was blowing this morning though. The thunderous voice of the Atlantic spoke from the far side, a couple of miles away. The sky was that infinite blue that can only be found at the higher latitudes, but the western horizon was fringed with dark grey. "Welcome, friend", an older gentleman in a white suit spoke when I entered the building. "My daughter, Mary, spotted you coming in from the east. Our table is set for breakfast, and we would like you to join us". I sat at the table, which was set with a rich spread of breads, fruit, meats, milk and cheeses. Hot drinks were not offered, and I did not think to ask. "My name is Calum", the gentleman continued after briefly saying grace. "I'm known as Calum the Church here. However, Mary and I are currently the only people here. You have come to join us this morning".
After Mary had cleared the table of breakfast, Calum motioned me to follow him into the body of the church proper. A staircase, made up out of the same rocks that had built the church, wound up into the tower and that is where he took me. At the top, the wind wafted in from the Atlantic. It now became clear that I had landed on an island, but a niggling memory told me that no sandy islands existed in the immediate vicinity of south Harris, and no islands with a church. It bore a fleeting resemblance to the old church at Rodel, in the far south of Harris. The island was not very large, and seemed to be mainly covered in grass or machair. "I came here", Calum presently said, "after I left my home town some years ago. My wife had died and although I did not want to go far, I did not want to be reminded." He did not specify where he had come from. "Mary joined me at the time, but she is seeking to leave". He sighed deeply. "The only thing is, she can't". Calum walked over to the west facing side of the tower. The breeze, coming in straight from the Atlantic, appeared to be strengthening. The strength of the sun was no longer sufficient to abate its chill. "Who would look after things here? Only she can take over from me." I saw a few houses near the dunes on the western shore of the island, and asked Calum about the other islanders. He shook his head. "They are very loyal folk, and quite happy to maintain their existence here. But they cannot take over from me. Neither am I in a position to hand over to anybody else - other than Mary." A strange chill passed down my spine. High cloud was now spilling in from the ocean, and a bank of dark grey loomed in the west. I followed Calum down the staircase. Back in the church, he briefly stopped to acknowledge the statues that loomed in darkened recesses, and the altar at the front. My uneasiness continued to grow, but as yet, I was not able to put my finger on its exact cause. Was it the apparent possessiveness of Calum, perhaps as a father, towards his daughter? Was it the empty horizons, all round? It was a very bright and clear morning, but no land had appeared in any direction.
I left Calum in the church, and went in search of Mary. An attractive woman of about thirty, with a ready smile. She was outside, tending to some livestock and poultry behind the residential part of the building. “I’ll show you round the island,” she offered. The place looked fertile enough, with some cultivated patches near the houses that stood by the dunes in the west. Mary spoke lovingly of the good works that her father had initiated in the island, encouraging the residents to tend to the soil as well as the animals. However, she could not, or would not, shed light on past family history. “Have you ever been away from here?” I asked. It did not occur to me to ask for the name of the island. Mary shook her head. “But surely, it is not that far to go to...” She interrupted me. “I cannot go. I cannot abandon my father. His works will die with him if I’m not around”. That sounded preposterous to me. “Surely, one of the other islanders could take over?” Mary became agitated. “You do not understand. Only I can take over!” I completely did not understand that, but also realised that I should not press the point. “Is it possible for you to go away for a little while?” Mary did not immediately respond to my question. Her eye strayed east, the direction from where I had come. “You could come back after a few hours, or days...” Her agitation faded, and she stood still. Forlornly, Mary turned round, away from me and glanced round the island. Its greenness glowed around us, made all the more conspicuous by the rising wall of grey from the Atlantic. “I never thought of it like that. But even that is not possible...” Her voice trailed off in the distance, and her eyes seemed to mist over. “Ach, come on,” I insisted. Ill advisedly.
Mary accompanied me to the eastern beach. I had spoken insistently to her, and she was still hesitating as I jumped in the craft. “I cannot...”, she once more said. “Don’t be silly”, I cajoled. A gust of wind helped to push the canoe away into the surf, and Mary sat immediately in front of me. “You don’t know...” she was still saying, but clear water had opened between the canoe and the island. It slowly disappeared into the veil of rain that had drifted in off the Atlantic. As the light faded, the wind gradually picked up and pushed us further east. Mary began to be very uncomfortable, but that was the least of my concerns. When I met her, earlier that day, she had appeared to me to be a woman of about thirty years of age. Her rounded features seemed to undergo a disconcerting transformation, and after about half an hour, with the rain streaming down and the wind howling, her hair had turned grey and straggly, her face haggard, wrinkled – and tears were running down her cheeks. “I warned you”, she cried, sobbing disconsolately. “Turn back, please. I’ll die...” An icy hand gripped my heart as the realisation dawned on me. “Tir nan Og”, she whispered. The Island of Eternal Youth. “Take me back. You must...” With considerable difficulty, I turned the canoe around. I had to paddle hard against the wind, but fortunately, the tide was now with me. The rainy squall passed and the clouds tore open, allowing the setting sun to shine down on us. I had to work very hard to make progress to the west, and I did not have an opportunity to look at my passenger. But when we ran aground on the eastern shore again, I saw that Mary had regained her youth. Calum was standing on the beach, arms folded. “Friend, that was not a good thing to do”, he said, but refrained from further admonition. The look on my face probably said enough. “Come back to the church, dry off and warm up”.
The daylight had faded by the time I had warmed up in a bath, and my clothes were sufficiently dry for me to put them back on again. “You could not know,” Calum said when I rejoined him and his daughter in the dining area. “However, Mary, I’m sure, will have warned you against taking her away.” I had to admit that. “You were able to come”, the older man continued. “And you will be able to leave, if you so wish. Neither of us will hold you from departing – the time is not yet - but we cannot leave.” The wind ruffled against the windows, although the night stars were shining brightly. “Ours is the mission to tend to those that come here, not to leave again. In order to do that, we have been granted to privilege of being above age. It is restricted, however, to this place.” My face must have been a picture of incredulity. “I’m sure you have heard of Tir nan Og”, Mary joined the conversation. There was no reproach in either her voice or her manner. “You are there today. If such is your wish, you can leave, and you’ll find yourself coming back to the point where you started your journey. One day, you will return, but you will not going away again that time.” The concept went way above my comprehension, but one question did arise with me. “Why did I come here – why did you know I was coming?”
A hand on my shoulder woke me from deep slumbers. Calum stood beside my bed with a candle and beckoned for me to follow him. I put on my clothing and went with him. The early morning chill became a little more pronounced outside, but the eastern horizon was already showing a hint of dawn. “Do not speak”, Calum cautioned. “Look on and listen.” As the light grew, a strange craft approached from the east. “Only about two dozen people live here permanently”, the older man spoke quietly. “Those that pass through here, come between night and dawn.” A chill descended, but not what you expect first thing in the morning. The craft faded into a wisp of fog that blew ashore, briefly shrouding the island, before disappearing into the west. I had not paid attention to Calum, but as I turned to him, he was standing head bowed down, arms spread out into a majestic gesture of what could be seen as welcome, or perhaps blessing. “Only Mary and I can perform this duty,” he quietly explained as the eastern horizon reddened, then turned orange, then gold. As the sun appeared above the horizon, the easterly breeze subsided. An all encompassing silence ensued, even the swell on the beach made no sound. “We are of the Island of Eternal Youth. We pass it on to those whose youth is spent, so they can revive and live in perpetuity, beyond the waves,” Calum explained. It was a deeply religious context, which rather went over my head. However, deep down, it did affirm the one certainty – the one nobody cares to think about. The golden disc of the sun had now risen fully over the horizon, and as the chill faded, a westerly breeze rose. “Join us for breakfast,” Calum said, now smiling in the light of dawn. “Then you may decide to stay with us, or return east”.
A tender, soft whiteness wreathed itself along the west coast of Harris, enveloping beaches, rocks and sea. As the sun rose, so did the mist. The indistinct outline of Taransay materialised to the west, and gradually rose up out at sea. As the first rays of the sun touched the east coast of the island, it also touched a small tent pitched above the tideline. Tucked up beside it was a one man canoe. Upon glancing outside, John was mightily relieved to finally find the fog had lifted. But he was gravely concerned for his friend, who had disappeared the evening before, as they were crossing from Horgabost to Taransay. Only a mile or two, but John had been the only one to land on the island. Quickly, he stowed his gear in the craft and pushed it into the water, anxious to get to Horgabost - and to a phone. The tidal current pulled his canoe off to the right, forcing him into clear water southwest of Taransay. The mist was still hanging on there, but it was gradually thinning. As John glanced to his right, a ghostly image materialised in the fog. Not a ghostly image. A canoe, with a man in it. Paddling slowly, as if every stroke was almost too much. Upon approaching the craft, John realised with a shock he recognised the occupant.
We stood on the beach at Horgabost, watching the last vestiges of fog lift from the sea, and the surrounding coastline. Taransay emerged last, its double hill slowly taking shape as the seafog dissipated. A westerly breeze sprung up, but out to the west, beyond Taransay, nothing was visible. Only the pale blue of the northern sky, which was paling further as a screen of high level cloud moved up from the Atlantic. "That is the strangest tale I have ever heard", John finally said. I had expected him to laugh out loud, but he had assumed an unusually pensive episode. I turned to pull my canoe further up the strand and up to our vehicle. As I turned it, a rattling sound came from the inside. With a bit of movement, the object inside came into view. It looked familiar. I had seen it, the night before. It was a broach. The one that had tied Mary's hair.