Westray, Orkney Islands, Scotland | October 2, 2007
At 59° North, old Kirkwall sank into the sea behind us. Earl Sigurd’s great engine churned the blue-black ocean and bravely carried us to the fringes of the Orkney Islands. Shapinsay, Rousay, and Eday drifted past as we baked in the rare, hot sun, their masses like the upturned hulls of long lost Scandinavian demigods. The tree-less islands appeared as the pates of drowning sailors, scarcely cresting the sub-arctic waves, the archipelago itself the somber detritus of a tectonic shipwreck. This was a journey to the westerly and distant island of Westray, the final breath of our honeymoon.
The terminal at Rapness marked the border of the kingdom of gulls and hares. Here, all men were foreigners and their creations seemed to fall into disrepair with shocking quickness. Inside the passenger van we patted dry our damp skin and counted sheep as we sped down the spare road to Pierowall, a pocketful of buildings that was the closest thing to a town on the island. In the village, hanging beneath the overcast sky and wheeling like a child’s mobile, dirty sea gulls stuttered their familiar laughing calls. The van expelled its contents and the driver kindly carted us the rest of the way to our self-catered cottage overlooking the sea.
Free of our belongings, we reemerged into the maritime blue air. The heady smell of salt water accompanied us as we tromped over the grassy cliffs of Marwick Head Nature Reserve. A disappearing path led us to the northwest through hollow fields rife with rabbits and along cliff faces draped with rare nesting birds. Ragged sandstone pillars towered above the water and colossal flagstones pierced the earth at acute angles. Beneath us, the sea persistently thundered against the rocky foot of the island. As with most things, it was only a matter of time.
At the Noup Head lighthouse we stopped to catch our breath and released body heat from zippered layers. Day rotated toward evening as the sun dipped below the cloud cover and burnished the waves spread around us like the spears of an indefatigable army. Its breath become our breath, our sweat, our cooling winds.
We stood on the edge of a world in the midst of reclamation. At some point, Sarah and I clasped cold, red hands and shared more silence. Staring into that expanse, I couldn’t help but feel time was short: for us, for this little rocky island overflowing with seagulls and rabbits and lambs, for everything.
We simply breathed deep blue air, hugged each other, and started back down the rocky path arm in arm.