A boatman crossing Yura Strait
Has lost his rudder, and the boat
Is drifting with uncertain fate,
Like love’s course, indeterminate. (Sone no Yoshitada’s Love’s Course)
My mother taught me almost everything I perceive today – shapes, patterns, nature, taste, etc., Horizontal lines were taught in juxtaposition with the road ——. Vertical lines with electric poles | . Sun was a yellow zero with a face 🙂 . Eggs were amputated zeroes 0 when we broke them. Rain – broken lines ||||||. Mountains were horizontal row of zig-zag lines /\/\/\/\/. The sea was shrunk blue mountains /\/\/\/\/. ‘Don’t know’ was a faceless zero 0. Interestingly zig-zag was also the equivalent of uncertainty as opposed to straight lines which stood for certainty.
The sea in front of me leading into the Bay of Craignure was a compilation of several blue horizontal zig-zag lines lapping against the ship and each other. I had stood out on the deck all the while from Oban looking at a landscape I had no childish perceptions to perceive with. It had no uniformity, even this sea in front of me which was made of waves like my mother had taught me was different shades of blue all at once. People on board the ship were talking about impending storms, unreliable weather conditions. But the sun was in the sky, smiling and yellow. Back home, most of us had a belief that if the sun was out, all was well.
We were just two. Both writers – carrying laptops, books and hopes of writing. Glasgow had ruined us two nights in a row and left us tired, hunch backed and in need of sleep. After a dose of a quick nap on the train to Oban, we rushed on to CalMac’s ferry to Craignure on Mull. It was an uncertain start for the Christmas season. Our tickets for Glasgow to Oban hadn’t reached us and we had to book them again. The Caledonian MacBrayne had announced that there’d be cancellations and changes to the ferry schedules. My family was in a state of shock that I had chosen to spend Christmas on an island over spending it with them. As for me, I wanted to quench a sudden urge for a distant place. With the fag end of the year on us, people coming and going, I wanted to get away, stay away and feel close to myself. I wanted renewal of faith for the New Year.
When we found Iona on the map, it was barely a speck. Almost invisible next to the bigger letters of Tobermory, Fionnphort, Talbert and Craignure on Mull. We looked at some pictures and in minutes came to the conclusion that we’d spend Christmas on Iona. Iona where St. Columba landed to build an Abbey. Iona which Jesus and Mary Magdalene may have visited, which could be the birth place of their son. Iona which could be redemption for two forlorn writers.
All through the ferry, we wondered if the next one to Iona from Fionnphort would be cancelled or not. There were fifteen pilgrims who were travelling to the same island with us. Amongst this group of Iona goers, we were the youngest. Plans were made – if the ferry was to be cancelled, we’d stay in a B&B on Fionnphort. We could also come back to Craignure for the night, stay in the Inn near the ferry pier. Adam and I stayed quiet in this group, in an anticipation of what was to come. If there was anything we had learnt from our wanderings, it was to let the winds play with us. ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,’ I tell Adam who seemed to be more interested in the Oban we had just left. ‘Oban will always be a port, won’t it? We’ll always pass by it, but never stand for it,’ he said. One after the other, thoughts such as these captured and let go of our minds. Like the waves it was made of, the sea carried them in and out, making us forget and remember, forget and remember.
Once on Mull, we did not stop to look around. The goal was to catch the last Bowman’s bus to Fionnphort. It was a 37 km journey and we had no car to make it. We ran from the pier to the bus stop, away from most others who were headed to Tobermory and Salen. The bus driver was standing outside the bus, in the crowd of the Iona goers, ‘pilgrims’ as they identified themselves. The driver asked us all to remain silent and began to speak about the uncertainty of what lay ahead of us. ‘I hope all of you know that there is no guarantee of a ferry to Iona.’ We all nod. ‘I hope you all know that most hotels are closed for the winter. Here, on Fionnphort, everywhere on this island.’ Yes. ‘You will all buy return tickets which you can use up to a week.’ Yes. ‘Now, on board.’ He rushed back into the bus and one by one people boarded as they bought tickets. When it was our turn, the driver reiterated – ‘There is no guarantee of a ferry.’
Even though the crowd in the bus was primarily Episcopal in nature, jokes about never reaching circulated. Adam and I chatted, pointing to black highland sheep; temporary gatherings of water flowing as rivers onto the road, and the nearby mountains, trying to guess which of them was Ben More. But as the bus steadied pace into the curling and rising terrain of Mull, we fell quiet.
Between Craignure and Fionnphort was a landscape that threatened. Struck by winter, only the skeletons of trees had survived, black, keeping true to its colour. The sky above us was a blue-grey but there was a distinct darkness that had flooded the mountain ranges and valleys between them. This darkness had seeped into every colour – haystacks looked pale, shrubs meant to look an Islamic green had the colour of dying asparagus. The mountains bore several shades of brown, ranging from a rusty brown to an ochre, to kakhi, fallow and ecru. A lake expanded to our right and the mountains coloured the waters in two opposing shades of blue by casting long reflections. The water covered by the reflection was a dark oxford blue whereas the rest was a light blue-grey, same as the sky. With every passing second, the terrain thickened and isolated itself more from colour. This reduction of colour – a paleness of the landscape entered our minds in the rawest manner possible. It seemed as if we were being drawn into a circle, a winding which drew us further into the landscape from which there was no return. But there was nothing in us for it to take away. We were empty and in a way so hollow, that in passing the terrain, we may have threatened it more than it could have hoped to threaten us.
Half way into Mull, the scene changed. The wound coil was beginning to unwind. Nevertheless, the enchantment remained. To our right spread out the blue-grey sea, mirroring the blue-grey sky. If the mountains and valleys on Mull resembled our insecurities and lacks, Loch Scridain was a reflection of our aspirations. For the first time, in the entire journey from Glasgow, I wanted to somehow reach Iona, that very night. With the coming of the Loch, it seemed to me that it wasn’t the single-tracked road which led us anymore. It was the uncertain seas that led us further, through the A849 past Bunessan, past the Loch Na Lathaich and into Fionnphort where the bus stopped to let us face the Sound of Iona.
The bus driver announced that he would wait for fifteen minutes; if the ferry was cancelled, he could take us back to Craignure. Adam and I ran past the pilgrims to the blue waters as they strummed slowly at black rocks. The zig-zag waters came to us too calmly, touched our boots and retreated, calling us forward. We sat there smoking, wondering where the storm was and where the winds toppled ferries. Such seas could never torment, could they?
There is something very beautiful about a Sound. Perhaps it is the brevity of it when you say it – a word which could have been two syllabled but stayed put with being one. Geographically, a Sound is a narrow stretch of sea in between two land masses. But Sound reflects the meaning of the word we are so used to, when we say it. The connection between the word Sound and the meaning of the word sound which is descriptive of the vibrations that lets our ears hear, is without awareness established. And when I stood in front of the Sound of Iona, there was the sound of the sea and a breathtaking brevity of the sea which is otherwise broad and without borders. The sky was not allowed to touch the sea, to create a horizon and a beyond. Iona, in front of us, interfered with this union. Adam said to me, ‘It is only a sound now.’ True, on the shores of Fionnphort, it was only the Sound of Iona that separated us and yet made us one with Iona.
After two hours of waiting, a ferry reached to pick us up. Most of us shouted in joy, clapped, embraced each other and ran to board the ferry. Only when we were in the ferry did we realise the strength of the winds.
I had told Adam about zig-zag, straight, uncertainty and certainty when we had been on the other side. Now, on the ferry, we turned around, to look across the Sound. The two people who had sat there smoking, staring at the Sound from the point of ascent were no longer there. But I could hear them speaking:
‘I like zig-zag’
‘Because it’s the sea.’
‘But it’s also uncertainty.’
‘Uncertainty is good.’
‘You know la, how the heart beats in those hospital monitors? There, dead is a straight line. Zig-zag is alive.’