A few small clouds, like rough combed wool, passed slowly across the rich clear sky. Gently rocking and rotating slowly in the cool supporting waters, the sun made shifting patterns through my eyelashes, and then came into view, like a late mountain sunrise, in the pass between forehead and cheekbone. The momentary blinding light was like a Damascus revelation, washing my soul as the sea washed my body, before my eyelids instinctively closed, turning the sun into a dark shadow across a pink veined womb.
After cleaning, as well as I could Uncle Liam’s bedding and coat, I felt in need of cleansing myself, not just the external contamination, but wanting to wash away some of the stain of memory. I had claimed my womanhood, and cut down the giant hero of my childhood to a whimpering child.
Except for Uncle Liam, unconscious in his cottage, the men were out fishing, and anyway there were bays on the far side of the island that few visited except the seals. So I had slipped across to the most secluded, where Aunt Maggie used to sing and where I had sung myself, facing near due west towards the faerie lands, and maybe America too, the two part mixed in my imaginations.
The waters covering my body were at first a form of expiation for my own and Uncle Liam’s failings, and of new birth, a baptism of sorts. Would I emerge fully grown to womanhood, with wisdom to know how to protect without destroying, chiding without belittling, or like those bathing in the spring of youth, returned to childhood, the years peeled back, the thick mantle of growing shed like a selkie’s seal skin, or Uncle Liam’s soiled coat.
My outer clothes I had cast off and scrubbed as clean as I could with grass soaked in the stream, before slipping into the sea, my petticoat floating around me like kelp in the incoming tide. Now I lay, the searing sun and gentle rocking soothing and comforting, clearing away the day’s tensions and travail as surely as they bleached and washed my blouse weighted by stones above the tideline.
My face, breasts, and the swell of my belly rose above the water and bathed in the warmth of the afternoon sun, while the rest of my body acclimatised to the cold Atlantic ocean. Arms outstretched I would occasionally waft myself to avoid floating too far from or too close to the shore, feeling safe in the small bay, its rocky arms, like a protecting mother, embracing me, holding me close to its pebbled shore.
The slow waves rolled the smallest pebbles, creating that swell of shingle voices, each too small to hear yet together a comforting choral background. My ears sank below the surface, so that even the shore music was muted, my own heart merging with the rhythmic beat of the sea.
A single seagull soared above, I watched myself through her eyes, my unbleached white petticoat spread as a shell-sand beach, hair the colour of seaweed tossed gently by the waves attached to my sun browned face, like a small rocky islet, one more amongst so many in the Hebridean archipelago, a floating island, like many sea stories, tied neither to land or sea floor, knowing no home other than the home it carried in its heart, complete in itself.
I rose and fell with the waters, the slow long waves lifting me with them, the smaller ones rippling down my thighs and legs, soft flowing as when Mother washed me when I was small. A small wave broke over my face, making me half raise my head and as I shook the water from my nose, my hearing cleared and the distant cry of gull and song of seal told me I was still human before I submerged again and cold water flowed once more into the dark sea caves of my ears.
I could have lain there all day, on my back, the sea supporting me like a seal basking, but I knew I needed to dry my petticoat before the heat of the sun faded or else if I would need to sit damp through the evening.
I slipped out onto the rocks, spread my petticoats and bloomers on the rocks and then slid once more into the water.
Despite the secluded spot, I felt too exposed floating naked, so took to diving amongst the salty forests and copses of the bay as if I had joined the seals in their play. Strands of kelp, like sea-folk hands caressing, tempting me to sink into welcoming arms, “be one of us, live forever in the depths, a child of ocean and tide”. Then, as I struck back to the surface, stalks would twist around my ankle, resenting my rejection, holding me back by force if needed. They fell off with the merest flick of my legs, just a gentle reminder of the ever-present promise and threat of the sea.
Tired at last, I dragged myself back onto the rocks, into a small hollow hid from land and sea, but where the sun could still touch me, making vapours rise from skin and hair like spindles of smoke from glowing peat. Still damp, I was air, fire and sea at once, and felt my weight merge me into rock and earth.
I rolled occasionally letting the sun sweep down my back. I can still feel the tickle run along my spine as sun dried wet gathers into tiny drops that one-by-one lift on the soft down of young skin. Ah, so many years ago, no feather could be more gentle.
I woke to a field of scattered smoke-red cloud, a chill moving in the air rapidly cooling the last memory of sunlight from the day warmed rock. Raising my head over the edge of the cleft the dying sun flashed fire across the line of the horizon, low cloud to the west suggesting the possibility of overnight rain. And across the rocks, towards land and sea, the seals lay, where they, like me, had dragged themselves to share the late afternoon sun, perhaps mistaking this small still sleeping body for a giant sea otter.
I hardly dared move, but needed to dress to save myself from chill and return before mother wondered what had become of me. I didn’t want to break the spell, but then, whether because my waking had been spotted, or simply that way with animals when they move as if with a single mind, they all shook themselves, and unhurriedly flowed back into the sea, like a thick falling tide.
My underclothes were dry, with just that slight damp chill of washing left too late on the drying line. I put my skirt and blouse back on, and collected Uncle Liam’s bedding and coat from where I had left them to dry. Not wanting to return to Uncle Liam’s I left them overnight to air in the empty schoolhouse, spread over chairs and benches, the white sheets like a funeral shroud. I crossed myself at the thought and made my way home to the distant sound of curlew song.
I saw a church that had been hit. Perhaps to be clear I should say a church that is still standing at all, there are few, and fewer still that have not been damaged.
Part of one wall had fallen in and the inside all burnt. I couldn’t tell if it was Catholic or not. I have peeked inside some of the Protestant ones since being here, and normally they look very different, but the fire has burnt away the differences.
About three quarters of the roof was still there, blackened by fire and with gaps in the tiles. It may have to be demolished or may fall down, I was careful not to go too close. The day was overcast, the days we often have here, grey clouds that stretch out as far as you can see. Very different from the islands where weather comes and passes before you can change your clothes.
As I looked up at the roof, the sun broke through the clouds.
I was in the shadow of the roof, so couldn’t see the sun directly, but every gap in the tiles became a shaft of bright light. It was like searchlights on the clouds, only the lights played across the charred pews, making patterns so that what had looked like destruction had a strange beauty. One beam shone to the far end of the church, where the altar would have been and made a glint. It was a metal cross, half buried.
Aunt Mary would be furious with me. Maybe when you are old enough to read this and the war is long over, I will be brave enough to tell her.
I walked into the building, stepping as carefully as I could over broken beams and stone.
I know it was foolish, the roof could have fallen at any moment. Thinking now I shouldn’t have risked you, but it seemed so right.
Although I wear a crucifix I have never touched a cross in a church before. I was a little scared, it felt too Holy. I half expected a bolt of lightening, like the story I heard once in church that when someone touched the Ark of the Covenant they were struck dead.
I am not dead, although as Aunt Mary would say, “more by good luck than good judgement”.
As I cleaned the dust and soot from the cross, I realised there was no Christ on it, it was a Protestant church and I wondered if that meant I was more or less likely to be struck by lightening.
In some places the heat had fused wood ash and stone dust into the metal, leaving it pitted and rough, in other places I managed by spitting and rubbing to make it shine. It feels silly now, but each time I spat on the metal I braced my back as if the thunderbolt would come, it felt so irreverent, almost blasphemous to spit on a cross.
When it was as clean as I could make it, I propped it upright against the wall at the far end. By this time the sun had gone back behind the clouds, and the spell, it was like a spell, broke. The roof above looked very heavy and very precarious and I half ran back down the aisle and out.
As I looked back one, the sun made one last attempt and just for a moment a single ray caught the cross, it was tarnished, burnt and bent in places, but where I had rubbed it shone brightly.