On Watching Colum Cille

Sometimes, the young and near-sighted wear on the ageing man, who has never quite been able to cool his face from the ball of fire which, as a boy, stood above him while he slept. Often, acolytes say it is as if the fire never went away, such is the ruddiness of his cheeks and brow. They think it has nothing to do with the seafaring, island living or sun basking (on the occasions there is sun), that take up large portions of his life. When he dies, this ruddiness will not leave for some time and the same acolytes will say his face is that of an alive man asleep, brightened by the angels. But still, today the ageing man has read enough balance sheets and corrected enough glosses, plus he is sure the fine weather will have changed by this time tomorrow. Now is the time to search for a spot in the woods with the claim he has a need to be further from man and closer to his Lord. He leaves through the kitchen door. There is bread, cheese and an apple in his bundle. A scripture, too.

At present, there is an abundance of trees on Iona, or, as the ageing man knows it, the Ioua, but the are many other names you may know it by. Such a tiny island, the trees will go quickly, from farming and strong wind. He walks the sheep trod path for a while, then, at the tug of his soul, veers off on a trail no more than a serpent’s width, towards the shore. He finds a clearing where the sun breaks through the boughs and makes a warm pool in the moss and leaves. Here he settles. He prays briefly, then takes the bundle in his lap, praises his Lord for his lunch and props the scripture against a tree buttress. And so he begins to eat. 

Though the ageing man cannot quite see the sea, mid-way through eating he hears scraping, splashing, yelling. A furore on the beach. The monastery is not expecting visitors. He rises and pushes through the yew and willow until he reaches a vantage point. Now, I must make an admission. For although he does not do all those after him claim he does, he has, unfortunately, a way of seeing things he should not. Or, rather, things other men cannot. So he sees coming up the beach towards him, not surprise guests in the form of Gael or Pict, but a scouting party, which is not made up of men at all. Those like us. And I know they come from further east, beyond the Ce and across the sea, from where the glaciers still gouge the mountains. They have not seen him. He is rigid in the gorse. 

While he hesitates I decide whether I should let the scouts on the island and let my thoughts travel through the yew. The others always listen. If I do, their men will follow some time after. These men will bring yet another language, will strip the land and, by the smell of the scouts, burn most things that are not edible or shiny. They are all death and killing. But they think in terms of the many like our previous men did and will inevitably plough back in all they strip. We do not understand these monks. I watch the ageing man often, as he strains his eyes reading in the dark, makes his back crooked at his writing board. The monks whisper of the one, the Lord, which I have never seen, or felt, or smelt. This Lord comes from so far away. However, though they take our men away, they leave the land to us and we settle in it, grow it, how we like. And we are old now.

The ageing man jumps from the gorse, snags his habit and pulls the thorns with him, so he is beaded with yellow flowers. He shouts in Gaelic, then Latin, then Gaelic again. He makes the sacred sign of his Lord and spits prayers at the scouting party. The scouting party is at first startled. A man can see them and they did not expect this. They turn aggressive and thunder down the beach, but only get so far, hesitating over what must be my scent. It would be unwise to charge any closer, as their scouting party is small and they know they could be ambushed from the trees. I stay hidden. They remain focused on the ageing man, throw spears which fall short, shriek curses to deafen him. Illusionary snakes and dragons are sent forth and soar through his body, producing screams. For a long time this stand-off continues and I wonder where his Lord is. Whether I, and the rest, as we are gathered just out of sight, will see this greater one. One who apparently made all. 

Nothing comes. Although I know they cannot really harm the ageing man, the scouting party drives the soul near derangement. He trembles and gestures and prays himself hoarse, has half-buried himself in the sand from shuffling about on his knees. And I pity him, for the scouting party no longer attacks, are bemused. They just gawp, propped on their shields. Some are tiring and edge back. However, one has broken away, and walks a distant ark around him towards the woods. 

I intervene now. Step out into late afternoon sun and release a sound of a thousand bull roars. The others follow behind and stand along the tree line, making a wall of light. The ageing man is brought prostrate by the sound and the warmth on his back. We slow march towards the shore, slowly hemming the scouting party against the waves, shepherd them towards their boats. As we step past the ageing man he scrabbles on hand and knee back to the trees. I do not see where he goes. Probably right back to the abbey. There is no point in negotiation with the scouting party, they will not know what we say. But the idea is there: You are not welcome. We a bigger than them. We are many. We are ten-fold of them at least and this is not the half of us. As we step they back away. There are many islands they can look to. Back into the boats they go. 

This story goes down, written by Adomnan, as one of the ageing man’s visions of angels and demons, construes this event as a battle for the souls of the monks. Not us, we are neither of those things. And those from across the water, what came were not angels or demons or anything much, just those whom men cannot see. They will return though, in two hundred years. They will return with their men and take everything but bones and faith from the monks. We are numerous, but we are old. We die too. 

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