Legends root deep here. It’s why, while the wind keens her Gaelic lament outside, I find myself accepting tales I might otherwise not.
“And a splash of water from this ‘Well of Age”, or Tobar na h’oige ,” Allison stumbles over the Scotch language, “will wash away the years on one’s face, healing ailments and returning the faithful to the blessings of youth.”
“Preposterous,” James dismisses the information she’s read aloud to us.
The Englishman has already scoffed at the prediction that Christ’s second coming will begin on the battered shores of this Scottish isle. After hearing that Mary and her son, probably, traveled here prior to His crucifixion, James gasped. The questionable location of Macbeth’s gravesite received a sarcastic chortle
But I can easily picture these mythical stories, because I am lonely and heartbroken, in need of a little magic. Like me, this place has been waiting patiently for relief from the enveloping greyness. It seems natural that local imaginations – trapped indoors by tempestuous weather – would draw extraordinary events closer into the ordinary environments of cozy hearths.
Iona’s isolation helps. An island off an island off an island, the journey here is completed in soggy segments. A ferry from the mainland, a wind-lashed drive across the Isle of Mull, and a second bumpy boat ride from a nameless port to the isle’s sole community.
When St. Columba brought Christianity onto here in 563, did the landscape look any more despairing to him than it did to us, as we finally flopped onto solid ground?
“Let’s find this fountain up Dun I,” Allison suggests, closing the book.
“Naïve Americans.” James again, mumbling into his mug of tea.
I want to tell my boyfriend about the adventure we have planned, but the weather is wrecking the internet. And, I must remember, he is no longer my boyfriend. He’s just a person I once loved. Maybe our retreat here will help me move on; or, maybe, all these stories will prove to be as easily damaged as my last relationship.
* * *
Several yards up Dun I, the footpath disappears. It doesn’t end, so much as peter out into hoof-trodden grass – as if the powers that protect this spiritual fortress mean to distract casual climbers from the well above.
Allison picks a route that looks least muddy, pointing her worn gym shoes upwards.
But our ill-chosen footwear sinks into marshy soil, making each step part of a balancing dance. Droplets spit against our woolen jackets, as a moody wind joins in guerilla warfare.
“Crap crap crap!” Allison suddenly wails behind me.
“What is it?”
“Literally, crap crap crap!” Her pupils stare down at the landslide of sheep poop she has sunk into on hands and knees.
This, too, feels like the trickery of supernatural beings.
“Look, the top is right there.” I offer Allison a glove, noting the feces streaked across her forehead.
“This better be worth it.”
I now doubt that whatever we find will be worth the misery plastered on her face.
Still, we drag ourselves the last hundred yards. And there, in the center of Dun I, is emptiness. Rock slabs, more dung; a worn stone pillar sits off to the west. Water has pooled inside its shallow basin, but nowhere is there evidence of a Fountain of Youth.
We both sigh heavily. “I need a shower,” Allison whispers.
I am glowering at my reflection in the disappointing puddle, Allison is dabbing at her stained jacket, when a shadow lifts behind me. The blue eyes in the pool are blinded by sunlight.
What would James say, if he could see the vision below us? Miles of green grass, where raindrops glisten like jadestones. A rainbow bridge, its colored footpath carrying all of Iona’s rumors and truths up to heaven. There is such optimism in this vein of clear sky that a chuckle catches in my throat; were we fools to believe in fairytales, or is this break in the clouds a different sort of reward for our faithfulness?
Allison is a sunflower, her face tilted toward the golden light. Opening my mouth, I let the laugh out.
Maybe I’m not ready for a full smile – after all, there is no real healing well – but I can try for a grin. The start of something better.
On a rare afternoon just like this, when the world was lit as if by spotlight, the newly-converted Picts showed their gratitude to St. Columba by sharing with him their island home. Or, so I hear, the legend goes.
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