Friday, 27 May 2011

Beware! On windblown nights we haunt the park.

   Last night, just a little after midnight we went out to spy aurora borealis, without much hope.  Earlier, on the way home from the store, to buy some things for dinner around ten pm, the sky had been full of the strangest light.  If the sky were a dome, dark clouds sat at the very top, and around the bottom edges, closest to the ground, a clear turquoise light filtered in.  On our midnight stroll in the park, the clouds were still in their places, but since night had fallen they were making an almost white dome now, with edges that scowled darkness.

   The trees were swaying and singing 'ssssssshhhhhhhhelter, sssssshhhhhhhhells, sssshhhhoal, ssssssshhhhhhapelessssssss, ssssssshhhhhhhhiver' in the park, the closest darkest place we could think of.  There were so many clouds that we knew our aurora hunt would be in vain, but geomagnetic forces were high, pulling us from the house nonetheless. 

   Even in the park it was not really dark.  We could easily see more than if there had been a very bright full moon, though there was no moon to be seen.  In a circle of enormous rhododendrons we walked from pink to red to white flowers, pressing our faces into them,  feeling like shades of ourselves that had somehow slipped into a wonderland, where daytime was just a little darker than we were used to, where the flowers almost glowed.  I think some of the clouds fell a little at the end, riding on the waves of leaves that churned and tossed wildly in the treetops. 

   Finally we were brought homewards, hauled in gracelessly by a net of morning commitments.  Away from the strange luminosity in the park, through the rows of little houses where gardens of flowers hummed in their sleep.  Across the empty road, to look into the framing gallery's window, seeing landscape photography in the orange street light.  Pulling misty air into our lungs, because inside the rickety old door voices must turn to whispers as we climb up up up the staircase.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Landscapes in Seafoam

  The house is shuddering and shaking. The slates of the roof are pulling themselves free and dashing themselves to the ground. Somewhere the wind catches on a corner and whistles shrilly as it passes.

The green leaves are being torn from their branches and the gulls are shrinking, hiding in corners with their feathers pressed in close. 

And so, I suppose, am I.

On this evening of roaring and rushing, I thought of the calm place between the sea and the land, of the patterns on the rocks and the weeds that stand sometimes on the ocean floor, and sometimes at the end of the earth.

We walked out across an eternity of volcanic rock to the place where the rocks grow too slippery to walk on.  We tread onward, good sense be drowned.  Creeping and slipping, drinking the salt spray air, we tottered to the edges of tide pools, and very nearly into them. 

My husband brought back a handful of patterned photos.  I grew algae and sea mud up one of my legs and brought that back, to churn around in the desperate storms of the kitchen washing machine.  It seemed nicer somehow to share the photos.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

A Ghost Story

   In March, in the comments to another post, a ghost story was requested.  I didn't forget, but I needed some time to find a good story.  I thought about all the ghosts that are said to haunt the streets of Aberdeen (from the reports, it seems they would probably out number the living population passing through the streets on most days).  But those are not really stories, just anecdotes of sightings, cold draughts, and mysterious footprints or invisible hands grabbing at ankles.  A ghost just walking past is hardly more interesting than any other sort of stranger walking past, really.  So the days rolled by, and the search for a story sat on the periphery of things, waiting for something good to come up.

   In Shetland, we bought a book, The Foy and Other Folk Tales, written by a local storyteller, Lawrence Tulloch who comes from a long line of Shetland storytellers.  There are all kinds of excellently told stories in the book -- trow stories, a tall tale competition between sailors, portraits of people who used to live in Shetland, stories of witches, selkies, and of course of ghosts!  And there was one ghost story in particular that captured my imagination....

    However, the problem of how to tell the tale arises now.  Since, if I had heard the story out loud, I would just tell you my version.  But since I read it in a book, and I would be writing it here for you, it seems a little awkward.  Should I tell the tale in brief summary?  Should I work it around and change it to suit me?  I think I will give you the story as I remember it, without checking back.  But also I want to stress that I highly, highly, highly recommend reading the far better version of it in Lawrence Tulloch's book.

   A young man was engaged to be married.  A week or so before the wedding, he was on his way to visit the father of his bride-to-be to seal the deal with a drink, as was the custom in Shetland.  As he was walking there, he noticed that his dog had been following him, and now they were half-way to the house and it was too late to bring the dog home again.  He shouted at the dog, telling it to return home, but it was no use as the dog was still young and not yet well-trained.  So he ignored the dog, hoping it would get bored and go home on its own.

   A short while later, after they had passed a cemetery, he noticed that the dog was playing with a human skull, throwing it up in the air and chewing on it.  He took the skull away from the dog and buried it, saying "if you were alive, I'd have invited you to my wedding, but since you are not, I hope that you can rest in peace".  Then he continued on his way.

   The week passed quickly and sooner than he could believe he found himself in the happy situation of dancing at his own wedding with his lovely new bride in his arms.  Everyone had packed themselves into the home of the newlyweds to dance the night away to wedding music played finely on the fiddle.

   Late in the evening, a knock sounded on the door.  People living in Shetland at the time were not accustomed to knocking before entering; it was usual just to walk in and announce yourself when you came to a house.  It was perhaps because of this, that when the knock was heard, all music, talk, and dancing stopped abruptly.

  When the groom opened the door, he found a man that he had never seen before standing before him.  The stranger requested the groom to come away with him.  The groom refused, saying he would not leave his own wedding.  The stranger, however, was so persistent and so persuasive that eventually he succeeded in convincing the man to accompany him, just for a short while, mind you.

   The young man and the stranger walked out into the night together.  They walked for quite some time, and gradually it dawned on the man that he was walking past houses that were unfamiliar to him, though he knew the island well.  Eventually they came to a great house on a hill with many rooms, and the stranger invited the man inside.

   The inside of the house was lavishly furnished.  The stranger motioned to the young man to take a seat in a big, overstuffed armchair.  But as soon as the groom took his seat, he jumped out of it again.
Hanging directly above the chair was a millstone, suspended from a single hair.

   Now the young man was alarmed and wanted to know what the stranger was about.  He angrily lashed out at him.  But the stranger remained very calm.  He took a deep breath, smiled, and said "do not worry, I will not let my mill stone fall on you, just as you did not let your dog play with my skull".  He continued that he did not want anything from the young man, but a bit of his time.  Taking hold of a candlestick that was on the table beside him, he scratched a line into it and said that the man could leave once the candle had burned down to the line.

  The young groom wanted desperately to return to his wedding.  Still, he sat back in the chair.  His eyes were fastened on the candle stick now, and he did not say another word to the stranger.  As soon as the candle flame reached the line in the wax, he jumped up from his seat and ran out, and the stranger did not try to stop him.

   He raced through the streets of strange houses, back the way he had come.  Things began to look familiar to him again and he was much relieved.  But when he rounded the bend in the road to the point where he could see his house, his heart dropped.  There was no music coming from the house, and there were no lights, nor any signs of a celebration.  It was still before sunrise, and wedding parties always last through the night. Something was clearly very wrong.

   The young man entered the house and found only an old woman that he did not recognize sweeping the floor.  When he asked where all the people from the wedding had gone she looked confused and said there had been no wedding.  Very distressed, he came back at her "this is my house, it was my wedding". The woman was silent for a moment and she looked at him strangely.  She used all her effort now to straighten out her creaking back and stand up straight.  "When I was young, my grandparents used to tell the story of a wedding that was here many generations ago, where the groom left and never returned."

   Hearing this, the weight of time fell upon the young man, and he changed before her eyes and became middle aged, then he grew very old and wan, and finally he fell into a pile of dust.  The old woman stooped back down again, swept him onto the board she had been holding, and threw him into the fire.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Chacun a le droit à deux sandwiches.

    A week ago now there were a few days where we were timing ourselves to the comings and goings of boats, beginning to grow used to seeing seals everywhere we went.  Seven of us set off north to the Orkney Islands, a tiny moving French village with me as the lone foreign resident.  These years of living in different countries have been a lesson in the strange moving borders that every country has; borders which can accommodate living rooms and basements in other countries all over the world.  And so last weekend, with a few of the teachers at the French school here, a tiny piece of France took off with me in tow, descending on hostel kitchens to make crêpes and conversations.

Greenest grass and bluest skies.  We were followed all through Orkney by herds of cows and swarms of sea birds.

We whispered to calm the jumping and charging of startled bulls, but it's true that often we set the birds soaring and whirling about, all cries and open mouths. 

We crawled on hands and knees through the entrances of cairns, little hills with doors perched high up on the hilltops.

Cuween Cairn

Inside, we slid into the most claustrophobic inner chambers, and we wondered at the stone work that was still standing and keeping out the rain after so many thousands of years.  Sometimes there were carvings in the stones, like the famous runic graffiti left by Vikings in Maeshowe, other times it was just us shining our lights in the dark.

We traced the perimeters of stone circles, clockwise.  We were warned on more than one occasion that to walk in the other direction would possibly curse us for life.  After all, it is really better not to be provocative where lifelong curses may be involved.

   The Ring of Brodgar (above) is said to have been formed when a group of giants were dancing their rounds one night.  They lost track of the time and were caught in the light of the rising sun, which turned them to stone.  Another standing stone a little way off, known as the "comet stone" was their fiddler.

  The standing stones on Orkney are unique.  So flat, so angular.  Stones like these can be seen everywhere on the islands.  Inside the cairns, the ceilings are always big, flat capstones of the same sort, and even modern houses can be found with roofs that are just six or more of these stones laid side by side as giant roof tiles.  Some of the fences on the islands are just rows of flat stones stood up end to end for miles. 

And of course, there is always the stone furniture inside the famous Skara Brae, a neolithic settlement which appeared by the sea after a horrible storm in the Bay of Skaill blew away the mound of earth that had been covering it.

And then all the old cemeteries by the sea.

As the sun set on the last day of April we went to a lighthouse and stood looking out on the ocean from the top of the cliffs there.  Beneath our feet were cities, countries of sea birds nesting in the rocks, all the way down to the water.  There was a lot of wind and bird sounds.  A couple of puffins sat and watched us watching them.  Best of all were the many seals in the rough water, coming ever closer, more and more of them arriving to join in the meeting.

In Orkney, and in Shetland, the word for seal is "selkie".  And in these islands there are many stories of selkie people, who can change from seal to human or human to seal.  Stories of selkie women forced to marry men from the islands and stay in their houses until the day they escape, back to the sea and their own husbands there.  Stories of families of selkies, alone and wary of persecution.  Stories of women who fell asleep on the beach and nine months later bore strange children which made them outcasts in their communities.  Sad stories of complicated domesticity and longing for other lives. 

These are stories that are not easily forgotten, and I find that I go over them again and again in my mind.  They are eloquent statements of situations that one would not necessarily be willing or able to describe straightforwardly.

   And then again, they can also be enchanting, mesmerizing, like the sea.  Even as a child, stories like these fascinated me.  I spent a good part of my childhood praying, Praying, with all my might that I would somehow be allowed to live underwater.  My mother couldn't drag me from the lakes in the summer.  Swimming from morning to night, she used to bring lunch to the end of the dock, so I could reach up to her and take handfuls of grapes or crackers to eat without leaving the water.  I still have traces of a silly sort of envy of fish, seals, and otters, similar to how some look at birds and wish they could fly.  So the resonance of these stories is both deep and shallow.  Perhaps I should say it grows with age and with our ability to make sense of our emotions.

This is one of the few trips where we have had a car.  Car trips are all starting and stopping, I think.  One place followed abruptly by another somewhat unrelated one.  Everything was beautiful, every place invited lingering.  It was lovely to eat lunch each day on another and yet another white sandy beach.  And while I really, really appreciate that we were invited to come along in the car... still, how nice it is to feel a place get into your bones, to approach a place from far off on foot.

Church built in a hangar by Italian prisoners of war during WW2.  The inside is all painted with trompe l'œil and angels.

There were so many things.  One day, we were walking down the main street of Kirkwall.  We were just passing in front of the big, red cathedral and watching people posing for photos in their hats and dresses and kilts after a wedding ceremony, when a dim roar coming steadily closer announced a blackening.


I had heard of blackenings before, since they still occur in the North East of Scotland, as well as on the islands, and one of my husband's classmates is writing a thesis on pre-wedding customs... but I had never seen one.

   The faces on the happy wedding-goers went a bit pale as a group of young men covered in black muck and beer hauled their soon-to-be-married friend kicking and fighting out of their truck, stripped him, and bound him on to the cross that stands in front of the church.  They proceeded to pour more beer on him and taunt him before climbing back in their truck and driving away, banging boards on the side of the truck and shouting.

   Then, after a few stunned moments of silence, the wedding-goers slowly started to shyly make their way over to the unrecognizably filthy, drunken man on the cross so they could pose for photos beside him before his friends returned.  This stretched on for a while, with the friends joyriding in circles through town again and again, only stopping at the church to harass their friend, and it ended in the sea.

I suppose there are always some things that you just can't anticipate when you are planning a wedding.   

Ruins of the Earl's Palace

But, as always, there is far too much for a short telling... even a short telling that is a long time coming.  We've been back in Aberdeen for a week and a half and we've been so busy.  I've been working on this post in the spare minutes at the end of each day, and so now I find that it starts and stops, a little like a car trip.  Before you know it the whole thing has passed, and there you are in your living room again, with memories of a whirl of sights.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

All the rainbows end the next street over.

   A few hours ago, painting by the window, a bird flying by cast a giant shadow.  We looked up to see two rainbows arching all the way across the sky and then back to earth again.
    For a few moments there were five of them, four pressed up against each other, and the larger one floating above.  Slowly they faded out.  About an hour later they returned just as full and strong for one last stand before sunset poured all its colours into the sky and turned it black.