Eilean Shona

A Ghost Story

Eilean Shona Hill. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Eilean Shona Hill

‘The isle is full of noises.’

And so is the house. There is laughter in the wardrobe in the bedroom opposite mine. There is scraping in the wall behind my bed, there are shadows in the corners, and something passes over my closed eyes as I try to go back to sleep.

We are twelve women on Eilean Shona in the inner Hebrides. Before we knew there was something amiss in the house, we had heeded the island’s call and gathered like disciples for a decameron. Different in age and experience, but alike in openness and search, we have retreated to write and tell our stories. After a few days our connection to the island and to each other is strong. City sounds and have been replaced by tidal trickling, and below the silence we have learnt to hear the symphony of Shona.

She is a goddess rising up between loch and sea. In the water, on land and in the air life swims, crawls, walks and flies. They bark, splash, belch, roar, crunch, bang, beep, tweet, sing, flap and call. The trees, the fern and the heather rustle and stretch and creek, the water rushes and gushes and the wind shakes and whistles. Below this, the fairies laugh and the selkies sing.

Shoe Bay. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Shoe Bay

Every morning we dispel the night spirits and greet Shona with shouts and yells as we enter the loch and share her cold bath water. Back in the house I run my own hot bath, place my head beneath the surface and through the pipes hear another woman in another tub share the experience. She coughs, reaches for the soap. But deeper down the chrome I hear moans and faded screams none of us would make. I wonder who it is, envying us our baths. I dry and dress while the radiator clonks. The rest of the morning we spend around the crackling fire, sharing our stories of woe and wonder, as Shona and her spirits, the house and its ghosts, listen and wander.

We tell each other of our childhoods, of loved ones long gone, of addictions and disabilities, of travels and experiences. We write and read aloud to the group and find our voices. One story is about the tidal island in the loch opposite Shona, Eilean Tioram. From the sitting room we can see the ruin of the ancient castle upon it. During the reign of Donald, 13th chief of the Clan Ranalds, some silver coins were stolen, and Donald accused his own daughter of the crime. Without proof of her guilt he had her tied by her hair to the rocks below the castle, and waited for the tide to drown her. He was said to have been haunted by an unnatural toad for the rest of his life.

Castle Tioram. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Castle Tioram

Another story is about James Barrie, the author who came to Eilean Shona in 1920. He worked on a play called Mary Rose. In it, a young woman disappears on a Hebridean island, and returns twenty-five years later without having aged a day. Her baby son, Harry, has by then run away to sea. Another twenty years on, Harry is a middle aged man finding his childhood home haunted by the ghost of a young woman looking for someone she can’t remember. Harry meets the ghost, but she doesn’t recognise him.

In an early draft of the play, Mary Rose would then hear the music of the island once again, and Barrie’s most famous creation, Peter Pan, would join her. Merrily they would dance away together, ghosts frozen on an island in time.

‘Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises’, said Caliban.

But I was afraid, when I heard footsteps climbing stairs leading nowhere. I was afraid when I sensed a darkness like an open void in the bedroom opposite mine, and learnt that three of the other women had sensed it in the same spot. I was afraid when the woman sleeping in that room began to sleepwalk. I was afraid when I smelt burning sage in the middle of the night, and when the sound of a slammed door echoed in my closed room. I was afraid when the fairies and selkies left, and I am terrified when I dream of the five ghosts that dwell in the house, and a man from Mary Rose’s island speaks to me. His name is Alex – like one of the ghosts from my past – and says he will take five of his, for one of ours. I understand what he means, and begin to prepare.

That day, after the stories about Donald’s daughter and Mary Rose, I had contemplated my kinship to Shona. I have written before about islands and blended waters. I grew up sailing in an archipelago where sea and lake meet, and I found my heritage represented at a cape where the Big Sea meets the Small Bay. Shona is like me; separate but not alone in blended waters. She reminds me of me, she reminds me of home, and when night comes it is up to me to protect her.

Shona woods. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Shona woods

In the dream, it is time for the ritual. All twelve women have seen the ghosts now. They are also all female, disturbing the peace. To summon them all at once we chant as the man has instructed. We hold hands in a chain and walk around the house, calling the ghosts forward. The louder we chant the deeper we enter the trance; our eyes roll into our heads and our chests vibrate and our hair fly free. The five ghosts arrive, and only I know what will have to happen.

A woman with red hair is at the beginning of the chain; she has no name and will be our sacrifice. The one of ours for the five of them. We hold her out, far from the rest of us, by her hand and then by her hair, as if tied by rope and hanging off a cliff. The man Alex leads the five ghosts towards her, and invite them to enter her skull. The vibrations from the chanting shake the house when I nod to Alex, and thus seal the woman’s fate. He nods back, and the ghosts take possession of her red haired body.

She screams in pain despite her trance, and the trapped spirits inside her fight to break out, but we have closed the portal. There are sharp, high pitches like screams and chalkboards and terror in a chaos of deafening sound. The ghost shepherd I call Alex disappears too, and as we leave our trances we become aware of the screaming, squirming body in front of us, her red hair like flames by our feet and hatred and fear in her eyes. Slowly it quietens. The house is empty of malevolence and sound, but the girl is possessed. It is the darkest hour before dawn, and we must sleep.

When I wake, my heart is racing and the sheets are wet with my sweat. The silence echoes. I dare not leave the bed or the room. But it suddenly feels lighter and brighter in the pitch black of pre-dawn night. My breath becomes deeper, and I hear nothing in the walls, above, or outside. As I strain my ears, I begin to hear the noises of the island again; the birds, the wind, the trees. I relax and fall back asleep. In the morning, the rising sun lights up the mists by the beach as all twelve of us go down to swim. We splash and laugh. The fairies end their happy night dance, wave to us and sing. The selkies put their sealskins back on and return to the waters with a smile. Peace has returned to Shona, and with it, life.

Sunshine on Shona. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Sunshine on Shona

I am not afraid.

The island is full of noises.

And the house remains quiet.

Eilean Shona appears. Photo: Jessica Zarins, 2017
Eilean Shona

 

All photos by Jessica Zarins, September 2017

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