Authors: Anita Fennelly
STORIES FROM THE ISLANDS
…it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.
n June, I settled into my tiny stone dwelling on the Great Blasket Island. The bad weather moved in with me. The clouds rolled in from the Atlantic, shrouding Slea Head, Dún Chaoin and the Three Sisters in a blanket of mist. Below the mist, white spray exploded on the dark cliffs of the Kerry coastline.
On the island, the ruined village was just visible under the cloud topping. The ferries stopped that day, leaving four Canadian tourists and me as the only overnight visitors. The Canadians disappeared over to the hostel, which used to be the home of the writer Peig Sayers in years gone by. I settled into my cowshed home, catching the leaks from the roof in a bucket and saucepan. My great plan to explore the island would have to be put on hold for a few days at least, the weather forecast being terrible. I resigned myself to reading and inventing endless menu variations of tinned fish and rice.
After two days and two nights, the relentless roar of the surf breaking on the White Strand was as familiar as my heartbeat. I insulated my cowshed by squashing wet moss and peaty soil into the holes where daylight gaped through the stone walls. I hung an old blanket over the door in a vain effort to keep the wind from whistling through the cracks. At times, the blanket billowed horizontally into the room, making nonsense of my endeavours. During the brief respites from the rainfall, I walked along the White Strand and wept. The roaring of the waves drowned my cries.
Three seals monitored my daily progress, ducking and bobbing in the rollers close to the shore. When I shouted, they came closer, eyeballing me curiously. They came so close, I could see their long white lashes and huge dark eyes. Looking into those eyes, I could believe that seals truly are the souls of drowned fishermen. At times, they lifted their heads and as one, turned their snouts away from the next wave. Occasionally, I could catch the sound of their barks over the waves. Early on, I christened them the Beverley Sisters.
Apart from the Beverley Sisters, my interaction with other living things was non-existent. Since I had waved goodbye to the ferryman and collected the key from the weaver, I had not spoken to another human being. I had noticed four colourful sets of Day-Glo rainwear bowed into the wind on the northern cliffs, beyond the strand. They had to belong to the Canadians. A man and woman moved frequently between the hostel and the cafe. Presumably they were the owners. I had not seen my ferryman since he disappeared into the white house on the southern end of the island the day the ferries stopped running. There seemed to be some other people in the white house too. From time to time, strains of fiddle music drifted on the wind over the island. An ache of loneliness cut through me every time I heard it. I wanted to go closer to the house to listen, but I never could. I could not handle the prospect of being invited in and having to make small talk. Back home, during the school term, I managed an Oscar-winning performance as teacher, comedienne and counsellor. After work, in the evenings, alone, I was consumed by the black comedy that had become my life. For several years I had felt as if I was observing my life from outside a window. I turned away from the ferryman’s window and retreated into the sanctuary of my hut. It was easier that way.
From the one tiny window I could see the nearby island of Beiginis laced with a collar of billowing surf. Between it and the Great Blasket Island the red and blue ferries dipped and rocked helplessly. The Atlantic roared in the pit of my stomach. I sat on the sheepskin on the chair. Thirty minutes must have passed before I realised that I was staring again. My eyes had been fixed on the ferns and the pennywort plants growing from the walls around the bunk. For that half hour I had seen nothing, as my mind was dragged through the past few years yet again. Without my usual frantic distractions, the horror gripped me. Sickened with shock, I stood up and pulled on my saturated walking boots and raincoat. The rain drenched my face as I opened the door. I had to tire myself physically before I could sleep.
I headed up and around the south end of the island, the headland they call An Gob, leaving the ferryman’s house far below. The fiddle was quiet. I imagined the two ferryman brothers having dinner with parents, wives and children. Once more, I could hardly see anything through the blur of tears. Salty water was what made the seals cry but I could blame the wind and driving rain. I leaned into the southwesterly wind and concentrated my mind on every laboured footstep as I climbed. The critical timing of breath and step obliterated the swirling grey world around me. Breath and step. In and out, on and up. Survival depended on clinging to the beat of breath and step. How long could I dull every cell in my body with the rhythm before a jolt of realisation, a lurch in my stomach winded me?
Suddenly I was forced to stop. A black-headed ewe blocked my path. She eyed me curiously, her soaked head cocked. I stared back at her helplessly. I wondered what she saw. Was I physically there at all? She did not move. The cloud had come right down on the cliff path before me. In the sea mist loomed the silhouettes of Inis Mhic Uibhleain and Inis na Bró. Darkness was falling quickly. The ewe held her ground.
She waited until I had stepped aside, defeated, before she trotted off the path into the mist and disappeared.
The cloud swirled around me, shrouding me in a cocoon of greyness. All definition and depth disappeared. One foot sank deep into a rabbit hole. The other foot struck an invisible rock, jolting my back. I had no sense of where I was. I stood silently as the sky floated by me. Through the veils of mist filtered the muffled thud of surf on the rocks far below. It became the one reality in my dark world. I stumbled in shadows. The rhythmic boom of the waves became the only thing to focus on. The sound was my salvation. I staggered blindly to the cliff edge.
Suddenly, the rhythm of the surf was broken, as voices pierced the cloud from close by. Giggles and chatter filled the air. As the mist drifted, I became aware of two small shadows above me on the path. They must have spotted me, for they were standing, facing my direction. I turned away from the cliff edge and struggled back up in the direction of the path, cutting in a safe distance ahead of the voices.
By the time I had rounded the headland, out of the mist and into the view of the deserted village, it was dark. The last of the grey light to the west of Inis Tuaisceart revealed the shapes of rocks, shoreline and the ruined village. As I came to the bottom of the path, and turned right past the well, I could see the yellow candlelit square of the weaver’s door. I stopped and stared at the wonder of it for a while. Suddenly, the weaver’s figure stood in the light and drew the darkness across it. I felt desperately alone.
As I fumbled with the bolt, I heard giggling behind me. The pair from the path had caught up on me. I couldn’t open the door fast enough. I would have to turn and acknowledge them. In the rain and the darkness two figures came strolling down the path from the direction of the cafe. At the ruined cottage called the
, just above my hut, they stopped. Were they looking at me? I couldn’t tell if they could make out my form standing motionless in the dark shadow of the hut. On the other hand, I had the advantage of the western sky acting as their backdrop. They were young children. The taller of the two silhouettes had long skinny arms and matchstick legs under a knee-length dress. The smaller girl was the giddier one. They seemed to gaze in my direction for some time before the skinny one, squealing with delight, pulled her friend off down the hill. I heard one call the other ‘Lish’. After they disappeared into the darkness, I went inside, lit a candle and put a pot of water on the gas stove. I felt shaken and strangely relieved.
The few words I had heard them speaking were in Irish. Maybe ‘Lish’ was short for ‘Eilish’. The ferryman and his brother talked and joked in Irish. When they spoke on the VHF radio on the ferry, it was in Irish. Just like the young children on the pier in Dún Chaoin on the day I had crossed over to the island, these little girls spoke Irish effortlessly. When the little boy on the pier fell and cut his finger that day, wails and sobs punctuated his tragic account of the accident in Irish. When I tried to console him in English, he looked at me, confused, and ran off crying.
Next morning I was woken by a gentle scratching sound. I did not move, convinced that I had a mouse nosing around the shelf above my head. Only when I heard a chirp did I dare to look. A cock robin had come in under the eaves, and was investigating my bag of Flahavan’s porridge. Having satisfied himself with that, he fluttered down onto my walking boots and pecked busily at the wet clay on the toecap. Then, for no particular reason, he flew back up onto the shelf, ducked his head under the eaves and was gone.