By Gabriella Bennett
Clouds came. I walk under them, wondering if you too were walking, had walked, would walk. It had been seven months since we last spoke. In that time clouds had formed and dispersed here: cumulonimbus grouping over old mountains with wrinkled faces. They assembled quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes preceding inclement west coast weather. As nights passed they darkened into the sky, only to fall silently before morning.
It was impossible to tell how many times this process had happened between our last phone call and now. The water cycle shows it takes nine days for the atmosphere to regenerate. Deep groundwater takes 10,000 years to find its way up and back down again. At two to six months, rivers better represented our silence. As I walk I replay the last conversation. I had replayed it so many times that it had risen to the top of my brain like warm air.
Clouds came. I drive under them, wondering if you too were driving, had driven, would drive. Harris emerges through the windscreen half-drowned in lochs, each with their own fierce environment eroding the land around them, pulling chunks of matter inward. Every loch was recorded on the ordinance survey map, no matter how small. Most of them had names, no matter how insignificant they looked to me. Maps couldn’t show the heather, though, dull and out of season but still startling to native tourists like me. As I drive, I think of how this place was supposed to soothe a worn-out soul, but how the constant pursuit of a ferry takes away from the peace. How the electric effect of anxiety still lights up, how its muscle memory binds me to behave in a certain way even now.
I swim beneath clouds because they make different shapes on the sea than they do on the land. In the water, you’re left with no choice but to focus only on yourself. There, nothing else matters: no family loyalty or responsibility can save you if you begin to drown. Sculling, there are streaks of strata above me, possibly chemtrails but it’s difficult for untrained eyes to tell. On the shore, just before the water, I went mad for a minute, charging back and forward, the ripples of tide-moulded sand painful on the soles of my feet. I used my big toe to draw my name in soaring letters, reminding myself that it was possible to be here, so removed from a natural habitat, without perishing. I could exist in the sea with unknown aquatic organisms underneath my oil slick of a body and seaweed pulling on my legs. The small sips of water my wetsuit allows in leads my body to perform miraculous feats of nature. Warming them up, the sea acts as insulating layers around me, hot springs sandwiched between neoprene and the whiteness of my skin. The very thing I am fighting in order to stay afloat is an ally in my survival. Clouds came, and beneath them my name darkens in the sand like an SOS signal.
Beneath Harris skies I stop at a cairn chamber at the roadside. The spiral staircase was made for people with smaller feet so I turn mine sideways to climb. At the top, the island’s edges bow under a sky full of gloaming. Its weight brings you briefly back to me. I buy you a bag at the Harris Tweed shop I think you might like: big enough to hold an A4 jotter and probably a file. The cashier tests it with a bookkeeping folder and the cord neck ties snugly above it with plenty of space for a pencil case, a purse big enough to climb into, lip balm, tissues. A mother’s kit. On the way back to the car the wind finds its way in through layers of clothes I had used to try and close myself off. I pull up heather from the roadside and wrap its roots round my fingers in the hope it might bring me luck.
Sand is a by-product of rocks and the sea. When water dashes minerals on the shore or against each other, fragments are left as a reminder of power. I feel it under my toes as I stand on the spine of the Outer Hebrides. At the edge of the world, these grains are what unites the islands into a continuous flex of a thing. Each stretch of white sand made famous in VisitScotland adverts functions not only as a hangover of angry weather but as a bond. This archipelago and I are the same: defined not by what is solid but what is shifting.
The beach at Griminish was private to the blackhouse I had rented in that it could be accessed only via land belonging to a farmer who was friendly with the property’s owners. I find half a black shoe and an enormous hunk of hollow blue steel. I throw rocks at it, trying to get the metal to yield. It had floated through 4,000 miles of cold, unforgiving sea to reach here, carving notches into the undersides of bungalow-sized glaciers before bobbing on. Orange rust pooled on its surface like lava. It will not buckle for me.
The islands’ geology is a convoluted school lesson, but one noteworthy discovery is a particular kind of igneous mass more commonly found on the moon. After the world’s insides are shown they cannot fade from sight again. Exposed to air and other elements, their secrets solidify and the earth learns to wear them like baubles, decoration that serves no purpose but to encourage adoration. This is where humans differ. We show our magma then act as if it is something to be ashamed of. We turn away from each other’s igneous masses rather than learning to carve them into idols.
On the west side of North Uist, the standing stones are celebrating their four millionth birthday. Down a muddy path that runs alongside a hotel, their inauspicious location is compensated with views over the leaking land. I swing my legs over a wooden gate secured with string and walk, almost giving up until the path curves left to reveal them. I run my hands over their bodies in the same way as the islanders had done when they were first brought here and aligned to echo the solar system as a primitive solar observatory. They stand as statues under clouds, across from sand, on land, made who they are by all of these things. A few had fallen over yet even lying down they remained integral to the function of the circle.
It is a natural inclination to want to push one down and assert a place in the universe, but there was no need to feel important in front of a stone. I didn’t want to have to apologise one day for something that had changed the course of history.
Gabriella Bennett is a writer and journalist living in Edinburgh. Her short stories have appeared in Gutter, the Cadaverine and Valve. She likes visiting islands, growing things, and eating.
Photograph by Conor Lawless, CC 2.0.