by Signe Pike
“Ten days on the Isle of Man. Now that I look back on it seemed as if the Isle of Man had beckoned from the middle of the Irish Sea…” – Faery Tale
It had been two years since I had first stepped foot on that mysterious island in the middle of that churning sea, a place of gods and Celts and Vikings, of castles and rushing glens and lonely circles of standing stones. It was a place where the events and the people I had met had seemed to unfold in such curious synchronicity, I had come to believe there was indeed a magic to this place, Isle of Man, the domain of mists that locals still believed could be summoned by the God of the Sea.
“But if you go,” she warned, “Be careful. The tides can be dangerous there, will come in, fast as anything. You can get stranded down there, with no way back to the path.” But being Ali, she told us the right time to go, and we headed out for a five p.m. walk, thankful for summer and the long stretched evenings of light.
The path was marked by a sign. It wound through the thick-tufted grass of summer, past a few cottages with deeply shaded trees until it opened up into a winding dirt trail bordered by ferns that led along the coastal path. We followed it, delighting in the gusts of salt smell that blew up off the ocean, zipping our fleeces against the growing evening chill. The path tilted down the cliff side and soon enough we found ourselves emerging onto a rocky beach where the stones had been smoothed and polished by the battering of the ocean. Overhead, the cliffs towered. There were crags where you could tuck yourself away and disappear from view, as though you had slipped into some parallel realm where the gods and dark water-horses and the fair-people of the island still held sway.
A flash of terracotta caught my eye and I bent to sift through the pebbles only to uncover an elaborate chunk of tile that looked like it dated from the Victorian era. A treasure! And then there was another. And another. I scooped them up eagerly, with abandon, feeling the flat cold weight of them as I stacked them in my hand.
I felt I was meant to keep them. I placed them gently into a zippered pocket of my coat. It was then that I looked at the sheltered cove I had wandered into. It was a broad, scooped out hollow of beach enclosed by the crags of the cliff. It felt like a place between other places. Where one could get distracted by treasures and, as the tide swept in, be claimed by the sea.
The sun moved behind a bank of clouds. And it occurred to me in some primal place of knowing that this, this place was not entirely a place of light. I felt a shiver trace though me.
“The tide will be coming,” I said to my husband. “Don’t you think we’d better go?”
He straightened from his own bountiful treasure collecting and looked out to the sea. Nodded.
Our fingers were tinged now with cold, but we left reluctantly, heavy-footed, as though we had stones in our boots. He was heading back up the cliff trail when I felt suddenly struck by a chord of whimsy. I had been studying the concept of genius loci lately for a new book: spirits of place. And as I turned to take one last look at the beach my eyes went to the cove. I should have known better than to ask. But I did not know better, and so I sent out a question from someplace near the center of my heart.
Who is the Keeper of this place?
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t expecting anything. But before I could even form such a thought an image of a woman seared through the eye of my brain, imprinting with a force that felt nearly solid, as though it were the type of illustration one would see in a book – an illustration crafted by someone with skill and with talent, like a dream that could turn to a nightmare, depending on the painter. She was standing at the cliff’s bottom. Her hair was black as a stallion’s mane and her skin was as pale as snow. Her eyes. Were they dark? And pupil-less? Or were they changeable, like a storm on the sea? She was looking at me. She was looking straight through me. Like so many flashes of spirit I’d seen, she was there, claiming that place. And yet there was not a soul to be seen on the shadowed pebbles of the beach.
|(photo: Zhang Jingna)|
“Come on,” my husband said. “Let’s get back up the hill. Open that bottle of whisky.”
I blinked. The spell was broken.
“Yes. I’m coming.” The thought of a single malt warmed the chill that had quite suddenly taken hold of me.
The trees that had felt blissfully shaded now felt shadowed as we made our way up the hill but the air was fresh in our lungs and the stretch on our legs fell into a happy rhythm. At the top of the hill we stopped to take a picture of the two of us and the big, dark feather I’d found. My husband tucked a flower behind my ear.
That evening passed as many had at the Adventure Centre – sitting out by the picnic tables with hot food and a honey-colored glass of good Scotch. We settled into our bunks, satiated and sluggish from a long day of travel and the air off the sea, Eric on the top bunk and me on the bottom one. Soon we drifted off to sleep, the door closed, but the small window near the sink left open to the summer sounds and a cool night in the fields nestled high above the sea.
The dream, when it came… well. I hadn’t known I was dreaming.
In fact, it was as though I was fully awake. Yes, I had woken up because I could hear the voices. I remembered now. I could feel my feet on the rough carpet of the floor. I was in the dark of the cabin. But it was as though I was outside, already, which was what they wanted, the voices. I knew because they kept calling me.
They were eager, their voices soft but filled with a delight that hinted of abandon. Was there music, somewhere? Or was it that their voices sounded like the wind through the chimes, hollow and beautiful, beseeching me. Come outside.
Why shouldn’t I?
It was a good idea, wasn’t it, just to listen, because they were lovely voices, weren’t they? Beautiful, and soft like a breeze in summer. They were urging me. Behind the hollow-throated chime of their voices was a promise. Come outside. And then what? Don’t think. It doesn’t matter. They were sweeping me like the sea, and wasn’t it so lovely to be swept away? The handle of the door glinted dimly silver in the night. I shifted my feet to stand.
But something heavy kept me in my place. I couldn’t move. And still they called to me. Come outside.
But now it was too late. I wasn’t sure how nice they were, after all. In the spell of my sleepiness I was realizing now that I did not want to go outside. It was cold outside, and I was in my bedclothes. I was tired from a long journey, and I had been fast asleep and I DID. NOT. WANT. TO. GO. OUTSIDE!
I woke when my head struck the metal of the bunk overhead. I opened my eyes for the first time. A dream. I had only been dreaming.
The world was fuzzy without my contacts in, whereas before, only moments ago, I had seen the room so clearly. Where the chiming voices had filled my head, the only sound now was the soft-shifting snore from the man who slept on the thin mattress overhead. I had woken to find myself sitting swiveled out of bed, my feet on the rough carpet and my body turned toward the door. My mind may have been addled by sleep but it knew exactly what they’d been up to, and it wasn’t anything good.
That’s not nice, I thought, peevishly, like a child would scold a bully for snatching at their toy. What you were doing wasn’t nice at all. Because when we wake from dreams we sometimes have all the answers, and I knew just what had happened, what they were trying to do. And yet there were still questions that would haunt me, in the end.
How far might I have gotten, had I snuck from that bunk in the mist of sleep, through the unbolted door?
To the driveway?
To the road?
To the cliffside that teetered along the bottom of the lane?
What dangers awaited a woman in the night?
Or if my body hadn’t woken me, would it have been worse if my spirit had taken flight? Out the open window, carried by the chiming voices down along the lane, where we could drift over the top of the ocean as if we had no bodies at all. To a place where a dark-haired woman waited, on the crescent-shaped hollow of a watery beach, far below the shelter of the glades.