I come back to the Hebrides every year. I take the ferry from Oban and over the years I have developed a ritual; starting with a full breakfast right after getting on board although I never go in the morning. By now I am used to kids being ordered to ‘make room for the lady’. The first time hurt. Lady. I haven’t grown into one, have I? It doesn’t feel like I did on the inside.
After the meal I go out no matter what the weather is like. When the crossing is rough one of the staff asks me to go back inside. I don't think they recognise me. Maybe they do and they say “there is this lady who always…” Maybe they now say “there is this old lady... always travels alone”.
I haven’t always. People say I have but I know better. I remember. I come back here every year to remember. These days I stay in hotels and take a taxi over the island but I still walk a wee bit into that grand landscape at night. I listen and I watch and I hope. I take a stone with me to kill a crow should it dare to laugh at my fear and my hope. Every year I hope and I remember.
My love and I were celebrating our anniversary. The day we first kissed. The day we couldn’t help falling in love. We wanted this anniversary to be special. Be somewhere wild. And just possibly romantic. We decided to go the Isle of Harris. Go camping. Or rather: glamping as it is called. Glamorous camping in a yurt. Watching the sea and hear the seals while residing in luxury.
The campground was fantastic. In the middle of nowhere by the sea.
We met the warden at her cottage and she was just like the place she had created. Partly glamourous and partly … natural and wild. Her long grey hair was falling in oily streaks over her shoulder and there was a strong smell of patchouli surrounding her. Her necklace with its shiny, milky white stones stood out. It made me think of finding treasures by the sea. Not the stones themselves but the woman wearing them. Like a piece of seaglass. Smoothed. Turned into a gem by her surroundings and possibly by a life that had been rough at times. She radiated love for the place and a fascination with its beauty that she wanted to share. She showed us to the yurt and it was glamorous indeed!
It was grey and misty as we set up our things. We sat in the entrance of the yurt for a while and stared at the sea. Enjoying each other’s company without saying a word. We watched the sky clear up and a beautiful full moon shining down.
“Let’s go for a moonlight walk. There’s this path to the other side of the island. We’ll walk there and back. Just you and me under the moonlight!”
I stared at him. He meant it. And it sounded lovely.
“And when we get back you will be… sweaty!” there was this boyish grin I so loved. “We’ll come back and I will take off your clothes and feel the heat of your body…”
“What will we do then?” I asked. I wanted to hear it.
“I’ll feel the heat of your body and I’ll watch you. I’ll watch you going down to the sea in the moonlight. You’ll give a little squeak when the cold waves lick you. I’ll watch you and wait for you to come running back.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“No. I’ll watch. Waiting for you to come back. Goosebumps on your skin. Shivering. I’ll be shivering too but not from the cold.” How could I ever hope to resist that grin? Or the thought of his eyes on me?
“Why would you be shivering?” I wanted to tease him. Wanted to hear more.
“In anticipation. I’ll warm you up with my hands. With my lips and my body. Find out how quickly I can make you hot. I’ll get lost in your eyes and kiss you. Remind you of that first kiss….” His voice trailed of in a sigh. “Let’s go darling! Let me take you into the wilderness and back again!”
We set off. I liked the idea of going somewhere. Walking, eager to come back and find out just how sweet this promise would prove to be.
We met the warden. She was picking herbs. Probably adding some sort of esoteric strength to them by doing it under a full moon.
“Where are you going luv?” She asked.
“There is this path shown on the map. Looks like a lovely walk in the moonlight!”
“The one over the hill to the west side?” She raised her eyebrows. “You might like that. It is pretty. But it has a sad story…” She looked eager to tell it so I looked at her questioningly. “Back in the days“, she went on “when people were driven from the good land on the west side to make space for sheep they had to make a living here. It was hard. Barely any soil covering the rocks. But they managed. They survived. Well, some of them did. What they couldn’t do was bury those that didn’t. So they had to bring their dead to the other side. Where you can dig deep enough for a grave. Carried the coffins on their shoulders all the way.”
I gulped. That was very sad. I wasn’t sure I wanted a sad walk tonight. I squeezed my love’s hand and looked at him. I could see he wanted to walk but would give up on the idea for me. The warden smiled. “Don’t let that hold you back. It is a lovely walk and you will think of them. Those that died and those that carried them. You will feel how they remembered all the joy they had when the dead were still with them. How they said goodbye to the sadness of their loss to remember the good.”
I nodded; she went on “It will lead you through the valley of the moon. Just before you get to the quarry the path turns slightly left into a narrow valley. A dark place that only sees the sunlight in midsummer. But the light of the moon fills it when it is full and high up in the sky. It’s a magical place in a night like this.”
A wave of patchouli hit my nostrils. More moon magic than picking herbs?
“How brave are you?” She looked at us quite sincerely but then broke into a smile that made her eyes twinkle. “It is said that you will meet your greatest fears in the valley of the moon when it is lit by its light.”
We just nodded and said thank you, we might feel brave tonight.
I didn’t. I was a bit superstitious but he teased me. “Let’s give it a go darling! We might see each other’s deepest fears. Trust me not to laugh when I see yours. It’s probably speaking in public with… I don’t know... your nose running and no tissue at hand.” He laughed out loud.
But what if it’s true? “OK. If I face my greatest fear, I want to do it with you. Holding your hand.” I meant it. Superstition and hippy gibberish but if…. just IF it was true… he’d be there! We set off. Breathing in the scents. Salty sea and kelp. The cocos smell of gorse in full bloom. This wasn’t easy going. We did bring torches but it was so much nicer to walk in the black and white, silvery light of the moon. The rough path sometimes hard to make out. I imagined the weight of a coffin on my shoulder. It felt as if I really remembered them. The people who carried their dead. I imagined the pain of their loss growing with the added pain of aching legs and hurting shoulders as they walked on. Remembering the moments they would never again share with the dead... Saying good morning. Waking to a smile. I felt them crying for the moments they had imagined in the future. That they would never have. Sharing laughter. Growing old together.
We came to the quarry and I stopped. Looked at the narrow path leading into the valley. “Kiss me honey!” I felt silly for hesitating.
His kiss felt soft and firm at the same time. I thought about going back later and about more kisses.
“You made that sound, darling” he said.
“I didn’t!” I said. Just to contradict. “I am always quiet”
“Yes. Except when you … nearly moan. Makes me want to kiss you some more. To hear it again. That sound you don’t make.”
“Well I don’t”
“Makes me want to find out what other noises you don’t make... I remember some of them very well”
He smiled. And suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me onwards. “Let’s find out how brave you are first! No wait!” He stopped so abruptly that I walked into him. “Let’s take a picture! Of us being scared by what we fear most! We’ll take another one at the end and compare!”
He put his arm around me as I got the phone out to take a selfie.
“Come on darling! What are you afraid of most?”
It was hard not to laugh at the two of us trying to look pretend scared. I couldn’t have said what my greatest fear was even though I was sure I’d soon find out. Not because of some magic spell on the place. Just because my brain was rooting through all its subconscious memories to find the worst of them all!
We walked in silence. I was straining my ears for scary night sounds. But there weren’t any and nothing scary happened. Until a scruffy dog appeared on the path and gave me a fright. I am not afraid of dogs!
“Is that your fear?” I asked jokingly.
“No! Must be yours! Come here puppy!”
The scruffy dog wasn’t a hellhound. It was an old sheepdog who came to us, tail wagging
. We laughed. The hound of the Baskervilles had turned out to be a nice little fella. With a broad doggy smile.
“Well, that wasn’t that scary!” I noticed that my voice was just a little squeaky. It does that when I am nervous and I hate it. Giving my nervousness away to a mindful listener!
The path was winding along. The granite stone lit up by the moon made it look like a burn running through the valley. Carrying us along. A blackthorn was stretching a branch over it like a hand with long, gnarly fingers. We ducked under it without going slower. As if we were riding along in a small boat.
There was the sound of a flapping wing behind us and I felt my hand being squeezed and his pace quicken. I stopped and made him stop too. “You are not afraid of birds! And neither am I!” We kissed and the sound stopped. I felt his heart beat close to mine. I could have got lost in that moment. But I didn’t. I opened my eyes and looked into his. Blue like the sea on a summer day. Without that dark rim around the iris that most people have. They always made me think of how people used to believe that the earth was flat and sailors could fall off. Go over the edge with no rim to hold them back. I could do that in these eyes. Lose my way and get lost forever.
“This is beautiful”, he said. “She was right with this being a magical place on a night like this.”
But you and me… we didn’t bring fear. So we can’t meet any. I couldn’t say whether that was his thought or mine. Or ours.
I stopped straining my ears to detect scary sounds. I stopped looking for scary sights in the shadows. We stepped out of the valley and walked up a steep hill. That was it. We had left the valley of the moon.
There was the caaing of a crow behind us. It seemed disappointed. In my imagination it was a scavenger that picked on people’s fears. We hadn’t given her any to feast on.
I started sweating on that steep hill and felt the weight of a coffin on my shoulder again. By now those people must have nearly run out of strength. But they had to go on. When we reached the top of the hill I gasped at the sight. The beauty of it brought tears to my eyes. The hill gently stretching down to the sea. Green meadows, white sands, and water that shone in a luminescent turquoise.
“This is paradise!” I whispered.
“Yes!” He seemed as smitten by the beauty as I was. “Imagine those people who carried their dead…”
So he had thought about them too. Of course he had. “Imagine”, he went on in a husky voice, “how they set off. From their barren place of hardship. Full of sadness and loss. Finally coming over this hill. They must have felt as if they had carried their dead all the way to paradise themselves!”
We sat down and held each other's hands. Suddenly he squeezed mine and leaned over. “Let’s go back”, he whispered in my ear. “I’ll show you another paradise!”
We walked the same way back. Talking and laughing. The valley of the moon held no fears. Not for us.
I heard that crow again as we came out of the valley. Shouting insults after us. I smiled and nearly turned around to stick my tongue out at her.
I wanted to skip. Do a cartwheel. I could never do them but I felt so happy. A little exhausted too. And the night wasn’t over yet. He started to run, stopped, and turned to me with this boyish grin. “Let’s see who is back first! Showered and sweet smelling and… well, we missed out on the greatest fears…” he started to run as he shouted “I promise you won’t miss out on the greatest joys, darling!”
I laughed and ran after him. Feeling my bad leg giving in I couldn’t keep up for long. “You won’t escape me honey! You better have your breath back when I get there”. I followed a little slower. It was only another mile to the campground
. You better get your breath back before I make you breathless again.
The moon was still shining brightly when I reached the campground. I stopped for a moment to smile at it. As I came close to the yurt I called to him. “Honey, do you mind me coming in without getting all cold from a dip in the sea?”
He didn’t answer and I went in. The yurt was empty. Still showering? I went to the showers. Silence. No one in. Where else could he be? In the little hut that was there for the less glamorous campers to warm up in a Scottish summer rain?
I went down to the sea.
Where are you? I couldn’t have passed you on the way
! I started to run. Stumbled across those stone piles that people feel obliged to build. Knocking one of them down. The sound of the falling stones rang through the night.
I shouted out for him. Silence. The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore.
Where are you, my love?
I came to the cottage and nearly ran into the warden. “Oih! You alright?” She must have heard me calling.
“Have you seen my friend?”
“Yes! The friend I came with!”
“You came alone there, luv! I saw you coming back a wee while ago” she said. Looking concerned.
“Yes! Just now I came alone!” I felt anger rise! Stupid old hippy! You damn well know who I’m talking about! “The friend I came with this morning!”
“Come inside with me and have some tea. We’ll sort it out!”
I glared at her! I didn’t want a ‘nice cuppa’. I wanted to be in the arms of my love! And I was starting to get worried.
She took my hands in hers. Her hands were huge. And rough. Like sandpaper.
“You were alone when you came this morning.”
I pulled myself loose from her grasp and ran back to the yurt, stumbling on the steps leading down to it.
There was my sleeping bag. And my other things. And nothing else. I felt my eyes filling with tears and my heart beat faster and faster as my panic rose.
I ran back to the cottage.
“We both signed in!”
She silently took the ledger and turned it so I could read. My name. My name only.
I remember that day. That moment. I remember taking my mobile out. Dialing. “The number you have called…”
I called my mum then. A very sleepy voice answered my call.
“Mum! Where am I?”
“How am I supposed to know? I hope you are where you are meant to be! You said you were going to Harris and Lewis. Taking a break!”
“Who am I with, mum?”
“Are you OK babe? You said you were going on your own. Spend some quality time with yourself! Is this your way of telling me that you have met someone? I’m happy for you if you did but couldn’t that have waited till the morning?”
I hang up on her. Checked the photos on my phone. We had made that selfie just before entering the valley of the moon! The two of us looking pretend scared. We didn’t take that other one at the end. But that first one was there…. I stared at it. I had really tried my best to look genuinely scared. My eyes wide open and my hands over my silently screaming mouth.
There was just me…
My parents came to take me home. They smiled and patted me. They held me. They called me ‘luv’ like that warden did. But nobody ever called me ‘darling’ again. And nobody sees that there’s a hole in the sky. Where the moon used to be.
“It’s always been like this”, they say.
They didn’t let me go back for many years. Serious looking people talked to me about fears and dreams and wishes so strong that they seem real.
Do I not wish hard enough?
One day I will walk through the valley again. Maybe backwards. Walking backwards and wishing backwards and remembering backwards. Feeling the weight of a coffin I never carried.
Do I wish hard enough? I am scared that I don’t and will lose more. Lose myself. Never to have existed either.