Anecdote XI. Holy (Rocky) Ground

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Just after my 14th birthday, my mother and I joined a university group on a trip to Scotland. Lucked into it, really, by fundraising, and who knows what else. I was 14. I didn’t know how I was getting there, I was just excited.

Lask was excited too. We talked about the trip for months ahead of time, agreeing on exactly what we would take. He demanded I pack his black cape (the only article of clothing I owned at the time that was “his”). I promised I would find a way to get it into the suitcase, no matter how my mother might side-eye me. I also managed to cram into my suitcase a full-length body pillow, which was his “placeholder” next to me at night. We hadn’t yet become lovers, but I’d grown accustomed to feeling him next to me at night. He’d spent every night with me since the night I’d thought about suicide. I don’t know if he was afraid to leave me in the dark hours, if I silently asked him to stay, or if it was just an unspoken agreement that something had gone between us that night, and things were different between us now. Either way, our travel accommodations were important– particularly to him, for reasons unclear to me at the time.

“We will be on holy ground,” he told me. “Ancient power sleeps there. Many have gathered to bask in its light.”

“What are you on about?” I asked, forcing the suitcase zip around the mass of our belongings.

“Iona,” said Lask, “The island, where we’re going. The monastery there. The ancient stones. It’s a place of great wonder.”

I eyed him, but decided not to question further the real wonder I saw in his eyes at the thought of the place.

I don’t know why I doubted him. The pilgrimage there was by car, airplane, train, and tossing ferry (green-faced Lask dangling over the rail again beside me the whole way across). The journey itself was a wonder. It seemed like I saw the whole world unfold outside a window. All I had to do was sit and keep my eyes open. The U.S. capitol, city lights, the Statue of the Liberty, endless oceans, the ruins of the Titanic and countless others lost below. Islands, fields, people, factories, castles, mountains, cascading rivers, moor, and loch, and all the things that call to the blood in my pale veins.

When I stepped off the ferry onto the ground of Iona, I knew immediately what he’d meant. There was magic. Old magic, there had to be. People were pushing by me, but I just stood, looking out across the quaint old buildings, the abbey in the distance, and the rolling raw island beyond, and I felt it there. Quiet. I glanced down, and realized Lask was knelt next to me, a hand on his heart.

“What are you doing?” I whispered.

“It seemed wrong to tread without first greeting it.”

“What?”

“The Light that is here.”

“Are you coming?!” It was my mother calling over the crowd.

I hurried after her, toting my bulging suitcase. Lask followed, the winds of the island blowing his hair and his cape out in fluttering banners of black.

We spent a week there, living in the monastery and adjoining buildings. We’d go into town for tea and biscuits at the local inn, and borrow their wifi. We’d binge-buy chocolates at the abbey store. We would work with the monks and other residents peeling vegetables for dinner. Occasionally, we would attend worship services, and lend our voices to the old Celtic hymns. The first time I tasted wine was at their communion.

But the times I liked best there were the times when I roamed “alone,” with nothing by the wind, the silence of the place, and Lask for company. I was eager to explore the ancient abbey first.

“Are you sure?” Lask inquired as I reached for the heavy door handles.

“They said we could go wherever we wanted. People live here. We’re like residents, yeah? It’s not locked…” I hauled the door open and slipped inside.

“But…” he lowered his voice as he entered the sanctuary with me. “Are you sure you want to… dive this deep so soon? Wouldn’t you rather go explore the island outside first?”

“Nah.” I was already gone down the length of one ancient stone wall, toward a lit glass case, pulled along as if by a tractor beam. I paused and stopped before it, breathless.

The Book of Kells lay open before me, an elegant archway unfolded in infinite scrollwork. I faintly registered the wings that framed it, enchanted by the black and red script, words which meant nothing and everything to me. Lask prowled to my side, his steps silent, breaking not a fraction of the crackling quiet.

“What wonders my eyes have seen,” I said at last.

“Is it not beautiful?” he replied with a smile.

I could only nod.

“In the beginning, there was the Word,” Lask crooned, “And the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”

I was moving through the sanctuary as he spoke. The afternoon sunshine moved in rippling waves of brilliant color through the stained glass. Lask had paused a moment, knelt before the book, murmuring, “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made…”

I trailed my fingers over the smooth carved wooden pews. Lask’s voice continued behind me,

“Without him nothing was made that has been made… Without him there would be neither earth nor sky, nor man, nor spirit of the air…”

I don’t remember that part, I remember thinking vaguely as I progressed up the aisle.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.”

I paused and looked to the right, my attention drawn by the beam of suddenly white, uncolored light streaming in. I realized it illuminated a tomb. I approached to investigate. Lask crept up behind me, whispering,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

My eyes wandered over the smooth marble features of the long-dead Lord of Argyle and his Lady. They were lovely. All at once, the light seemed to flicker– perhaps merely a bird had fluttered past the wind– and my eyes snapped up to see a man standing there.

I went cold, and found myself with the inescapable urge to kneel. I sank to one knee in front of the tomb, looking up at the new arrival, the glimpse of a spirit, a man I had a seen in marble. He smiled at me, almost amused at my gesture of genuflection.

But a ghost, his eyes seemed to say.

He glanced up at Lask, and gave him a faint nod. Lask bowed his head in return.

All at once he was gone, and it was like a draft blew through the sanctuary. I heard the faint scraping of fallen leaves brushed across stone. The figure was gone. Lask smiled at me, and I felt myself relax under his sunshine. We walked up to the altar, admired the communion table, the baptismal font, but I did not linger. I felt, if anything, the urge to be out of the lofty place.

The next day or two I lingered in the cloisters outside the sanctuary, admiring the scenes of fish and fowl and flower carved into the pillars. It seemed to tell the right story as I paced my way around the perimeter of the courtyard.

“That’s the point,” Lask observed.

When we did get around to venturing out into the wild land of the island (and I say that loosely; the whole place is maybe 4 miles long), I wandered the rolling paths past ancient crosses and sheep pastures. Lask and I sat on the rocks, watching the ferry cross from Mull, the hustle and bustle of fishermen on the other side of the water. Sometimes I would look over my shoulder to the great stony hill at the crown the island.

“Wish I could climb it,” I remarked one day.

“Why don’t you?”

“My mother doesn’t want me to,” I sulked. She had suggested I might (might) be allowed to go with the college students who were traveling with us if they went hiking that way, but damned if I wanted to be out alone on an island with a bunch of co-eds ten years my senior. Lask didn’t argue my preference for solitude.

“So?” he countered.

I turned wistful eyes down from the hill to look at him. He wore that look I liked– that arched brow and crooked smile, that bright spark in his eye– one I hadn’t quite yet found the right word for at the time. (Later I figured it out: it’s sexy.)

“Shall we?” he stood up and offered his arm.

“You devil,” I said. “No! My ass will be grass.”

“Who’s going to know?” he asked. He held a hand up to his eyes, shielding them from the sun to peer at the tall jut of rock in the distance. “You can manage. You’ve climbed worse things in your own backyard. When else will you get the chance to see that view?”

I glanced back at the hill crest. He hopped back across the rocks to the beach and took off up the rise inland. I sighed and looked back across the water for a moment, then couldn’t stop a smile from creeping up my face. I raced after him and caught up to his long-legged saunter, just a bit winded. He grinned at my arrival.

“Care to join me, then?” he teased.

Not “the” hill, obviously, but a smaller one when other people were around to take a picture.

I linked my arm with his, hearing his cape fluttering in the wind. I always unpacked his black cape and wore it whenever we went roaming alone. People gave me funny looks in the dormitories, but I was only slightly embarrassed. Lask’s enthusiasm far outweighed the social awkwardness. Besides, capes are cool.

We trotted across the pastures, through the grazing flocks of sheep, and began winding our way through the ever-steepening rocks. I knew the way was narrow, and that it would be a disastrous tumble if I should slip, but the stones were dry, and still a bit grassy in places. Lask kept easy stride with me. I never felt less than sure-footed. When we made it to the top of the hill, I found us a good vantage point and took a seat, catching my breath. Lask plopped down next to me, fluffing his cape out to fly off the drop behind us. He grinned at me, breathless from the climb, and I smiled back at the tousled look of him. He put an arm around my shoulders and pulled me into the warmth of him, warding off the chill of the wind on the heights.

It was beautiful, the idyllic spill of the island out below us, like a lazy brushstroke through the sea, someone’s artistic afterthought or dot up an already spattered coastline. But it was perfect. My eyes found the abbey and dormitory in the distance, where I knew my mother was. I wondered if she could see me if she looked hard enough. I decided I didn’t care. I didn’t know when I’d get back to Iona, or if (as of writing this, I haven’t), but I wanted to say I had seen the best of it. And I did.

“Wonders,” Lask whispered there, “We move through a world of wonders.”

I smiled up at him in the sunshine.

“We do,” I agreed.

 

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