visit to the Isle of Ancestors on All Souls Night
I stood on the quay at Duwamish looking out to sea. Although it was dark, the moon had already started to rise. It was now almost full and the night was so clear that I could see a silvery path of moonlight across the sea almost to where I was standing. The sea water slapped against the old timbers and the outgoing tide sucked at the weed growing there. I could still hear the last calls of the rooks flying home to roost. There were several barges lined up along the quayside and occasionally they bumped against each other. One eased its way out of the group and nosed its way towards me. A tall figure in the bow invited me to step aboard. As I climbed on to the barge I could see that the figure was a woman. She was much taller than me and her limbs were heavily muscled. She was wearing a sort of tunic, girdled at the waist by a strip of cloth or a thick cord. She had sandals on her feet. I settled myself as best I could and stared eagerly ahead of me as she pushed us off.
We followed the moonlit path across the sea. Silhouetted against the moon I could soon see the rise of a small island. The ferry woman beached the barge and I clambered down on to the shore, wetting my feet in the process. At the top of the beach I could see a grove of trees and, as I approached, I could see they were apple trees. With the moonlight shining on them they could have been the mythical silver apples of the moon and the leaves clinked together with a metallic sound whenever the light breeze blew. I followed the path between the trees and realised it was a continuation of the moonlit path on the sea.
Ahead, there was a mound. In the middle of one side was a doorway made up of two immense upright stones topped by a massive lintel. This must be a tumulus or a long barrow I thought to myself for I had visited many as a child. Torches burning at the door cast enough light for me to see the beginning of a passage and, at the end, a faint red glow. I followed this path downwards. The passage was narrow and only just high enough for me to walk upright. Pitch torches were placed at intervals along the walls so I didn’t stumble or fall.
I emerged into a shadowy hall. In the centre were the glowing embers of a fire. A hooded figure was seated with its back to me. I walked around the fire and sat down opposite. “Is that you, Heatherbell?” a voice asked. I realised it was my grandfather, the one who had come to live with us when I was about eleven. “Heatherbell” was his pet name for my mother. I was immediately transported in memory back to the last time I had heard him say that. I had had a car accident and had hit my head, been hospitalised while checks were carried out on me and then released. My husband had been away from home at the time so I had gone to my parents’ house. Although they were both out my grandparents had been at home. “Hello grandpa. No, it’s Carol. I’ve had an accident and hurt my head” I said, in my memory. “Grandma is just making me a cup of tea”. “I thought it was your mother. I wasn’t expecting you” he said, still in my memory. In the cavern I put out my hand to clasp his and felt the warm, papery skin of his hand. I was living away from home when he died and didn’t get back for his funeral. “I’ve come to say goodbye. But before I do, there are things I want to talk to you about and I want to ask your advice”. “Don’t talk for the sake of talking and unless you have something nice or useful to say, don’t speak”. He had learned the art of economy of speech. He let go of my hand and slipped off his wedding ring – a wide, plain red gold ring – and put it on one of my fingers. He had very fine hands, not much larger than my own. Did he know I’d always coveted his ring? Now it was his turn to ask me something. “Are you using your voice?” I twisted in my seat, uncomfortable in the telling of my tale, for my voice or rather my creative voices were the problem. Later I felt something hard against my hip. I had forgotten my hip flask. I took it out of my pocket - spirit for a spirit. I held it out to him and he breathed in the fumes of whisky as he unscrewed the cap. It had been his favourite tipple and Grandma often refused to let him have any. “I can’t drink this, but thank you anyway. It still smells as good as I remember it. Come and sit by me for a minute before you go”. I would have sat on his lap again if I could. As a child I’d spent many a happy hour on his lap watching TV – as children we were limited to one hour an evening. Once I got too big to sit on his lap I would sit on the floor leaning against his knees.
It’s only now that I realise how much I have missed him. But I’d had a new life to lead. When he and grandma stopped talking, he spent a lot of time sit ting in the greenhouse in the garden. My sister and I each had a small garden plot next to the greenhouse and it was from him that I learned my love of plants and the countryside. I spent hours in the greenhouse with him listening to tales of his childhood - amongst the bulbs, compost, fertiliser with my tabby cat. Tales of how he and his brother had used an old door as a raft on a pond and it had sunk. How one of the boys had got his arm stuck in a hole in a tree trunk when they had gone bird-nesting.
I sat there holding his hand, as close to him as I could get. Eventually he said “it’s time for you to go, my child. Remember how important it is to communicate, to sing with your heart and use your gifts. You must talk, it’s no good leaving things unsaid or they build up until something breaks and people can't read your mind". I wanted to hug him tight to me but he was so frail I thought he might break. Tears stung my eyes as I turned to leave. By the time I got to the entrance they were streaming down my face. I stumbled out into the night. A cold re-birthing after the warmth of the womb-like cavern I’d left behind me. I was on my own again.
The ferry woman was waiting in her barge for me on the beach. “Welcome back my dear” and her strong arms encircled me and helped me back in. “It takes most of them like that, going back inside”. I sat down again and she steered the barge back to that other, harsher world. I realised I had returned to the womb of memory.
Many years later my mother gave me his wedding ring and grandma’s.
Re-reading this, I am reminded of White Owl Island and the journey through the labyrinth. It seems to me that they could, in fact, be one and the same place .....