Greenland

A few days ago I saw an image on the internet that imprinted itself on my subconscious. It was all the more shocking because I was exploring something entirely different, and as a result I was quite unprepared for what I saw. It was a small picture at the bottom of my screen of a starving polar bear attempting to climb onto a thin fragment of ice. The bear looked to be a quarter or even less of its normal weight: there was little left of the creature. It was the remains of a polar bear.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Greenland. It is a wondrous country: the biggest island in the world with just fifty thousand of a population. There are no roads in Greenland: the tiny communities that hug the coast are linked by sea. I have thought of it since as a child’s fantasy kingdom: when you look up at the mountains you can hardly believe the height of them, or the sharpness of the peaks. It is the most hauntingly beautiful place I have ever seen.

I spoke to a man from one of the villages who remembered his childhood. He said that when he was a boy they drove round to visit friends in winter. Not by road – there were no roads then any more than there are none now – but by sea. They got into their cars and they crossed the sea ice to visit friends. Now, he told us, there is no sea ice. Not that it is too thin for such driving: there is no ice at all. He told us the ice is retreating a full ten miles each year.

Before I left Greenland I bought one souvenir – a tiny carved polar bear. A long time later I wrote this poem, remembering the precious days of our stay and thinking of the future. I thought of it the other day, when I saw the image of the starving polar bear and all day could not put it from my mind.

Last year in Greenland I bought it
Under great whales of mountains by a sea of ice,
From a table of things all carved from shining:
Little men threading water, their softstone canoes,
Walrus rearing at harpoons in mid-roar.

Now, all this time later, that place
Remains like some story from a book.
I turn it in the light, my polar bear on a pad of ice,
And think of the world wilting in the sun’s wrath,
And nowhere left for the polar bear to go.

Kenneth Steven www.kennethsteven.co.uk
From Salt and Light, published in 2011 by Saint Andrew Press

Games

I find that I have to write this before the end of the Olympic days in Brazil. The news bulletins here in Britain have spoken of little else for weeks: the gold medal by one or other British athlete is the first headline each morning. 

And hidden somewhere in among the end-pieces of the news, there are sometimes stories from Syria. Almost like tiny fragments of debris: things found among the ruins. I keep wondering – as I have done almost since the beginning of this war – just how huge the aftermath of it will be. The longer it continues the greater the shadow somehow, and the more terrible the stories that emerge. 

But we do not really care. I continue to have this awful sense of the way in which we rank human beings: somehow there is an order of importance. We know that white Europeans essentially come top, and news from other places has to be pretty desperate before we take much notice. Even with all the horror that emerges concerning Syria in the end, I do not believe for one moment that we will be changed by it. We may think we learn for a time; the truth is that we will forget once more. 

So what is the point of writing at all? I sit beside my computer screen in the tranquillity and late summer beauty of Highland Perthshire in the north of Scotland. I have the freedom to write what I want; as is evidenced by what I put onto the screen. It is a kind of prayer for the forgotten people of Syria; a cry into the darkness that we might look and listen and remember. 

Somehow the suffering I see on my screen and at the news stands puts all my petty concern into perspective. I think of my beloved five year old child – for whom I would do anything, were it necessary – and I think of the fathers of Syria who can do nothing for the pain and cruelty and hunger that their equally beloved little ones are suffering. 

Here in Dunkeld, in this most beautiful corner of Scotland, we are known for our music. I had the idea of gathering together some of the better known musicians to give a concert in our Cathedral, on behalf of the Syrian cause. We found a charity called Edinburgh Direct Aid and we asked them to come to speak to us about the work they were doing to alleviate the suffering in Syria. We hoped that a few would join us from the local community: this is only a small rural village. 

The cathedral was so full that we had to find extra seats for people. There were over 500 present. That day, after a magnificent concert, we raised £5 000. We were pleased: it had been worthwhile. Then came the amazing news: someone present had been so moved by the event and what had been created that they were donating £20 000 to Edinburgh Direct Aid. Mighty oaks and little acorns.

 

Living Room

Living Room

Now the storm of last night’s passed;
everything lies torn in early morning

like a ship left tattered on the sea,
her rigging all in shreds, decks strewn with debris – 

yet the storm itself forgotten, meaningless
beneath the glass-clear sky of morning.

You lie asleep, your hand curled white,
your breathing barely there at all;

and I come close on soundless feet and see
the shouting strewn about the floor, 

the twisted arguments, the accusations – 
I hear the echo of the long, slow crying

before the silence fell and we both crept away
to the corners of the dark, to gnaw the silence

and hear our hearts until we slept at last. 
Now we have awakened into this strange day

and will not know what we should say or think
but look away, pretend, do everything

as if in some unwritten play, and acting badly –
wondering what happens next, how everything will end. 

From Kenneth Steven’s newest collection of poems, Letting in the Light,just published by SPCK in London;
a volume about the pain of marital breakdown and the parting from a beloved child. 
ISBN 978-0-281-07670-3

Helen

I’ve not written for a few days now, mainly because I haven’t had the heart. I lost my dear sister to cancer and despite having stood at her graveside in Sutherland, in the top left hand corner of Scotland, I can’t believe she’s gone. I won’t truly believe that, I think, until I’ve landed on the Isle of Iona and know that she won’t be there to greet me, to tell me of some new adventure she’s planning, or to take me on a walk to somewhere I’ve not known before. I keep saying that she was the youngest person I’ve ever known. That’s why my family’s still struggling to believe it’s possible she’s gone: she had such extraordinary vitality, such a huge sense of fun and laughter, that no-one can understand how it could be taken away. Somehow I think of her as the human embodiment of an otter: they are always on the move – for all the hours of the day they are frisking and searching and diving and sliding. They are water come alive; flowing in every direction. Somehow that sums up Helen. For all the last days I have felt numb and have written not a word. Then at five thirty this morning phrases began tugging me, and after three hours of scribbling I felt the poem had found its way onto the page.

My Sister Helen

She was Scotland to me:
bedtime stories that woke me
to the history of Wallace and Bruce,
would have had me up in a saddle,
galloping back in time
for the bits of the border we’d lost.

She lived down endless long windings of bumps,
in cottages with attics and owls –
the hope of conkers in the morning.

She drove me one August night
when the skies were orange and bruised,
till the storm was flickering booms
and we came back in the silvering rain.

She was drives at high speed
down roads that should have closed long ago,
in cars that were held together
by the hope of a better tomorrow.

She would coax a whole ceilidh
out of a candle and an old bothy;
she was songs and tin whistles
in the middle of the worst of blizzards.

She was a beach where you could always swim,
and a place you’d not known before;
she was a fire that would set you alight,
an adventure that was yet to be planned.  

Kenneth Steven 2016

Gaelic

Although I write in English, and English is the language I grew up with, I sometimes remember that I should have grown up with the Gaelic language too. My mother’s family were all from the West Highlands of Scotland: they were crofting people – sheep, hens, a little arable land. It was a struggle against a constant fear of poverty, and that was the way it had been for hundreds of years. Although my mother was brought up in a household where English was the first language, both her parents – my grandparents – had plenty of the Gaelic language in their blood. But by the first decades of last century, it was a language that had been actively persecuted for a hundred and fifty years.

The Battle of Culloden, the final half hour of slaughter at the end of the second Jacobite Rising, fought in 1746, sealed the fate of the northern half of Scotland for ever. It led to the Clearances, where hundreds of thousands of Highland Scots left the country for America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The whole Jacobite story is a mighty complex business, not something that can be neatly described in a few paragraphs. But it’s a story worth exploring nonetheless. Many modern day Scots have a dangerously oversimplified view of this story as having been a fight between England and Scotland. That view is not helped by the Hollywoodisation of history through films like Braveheart. The simple truth is that it was most complicated.

What is much clearer is the aftermath. The Hanoverian forces, fresh from their victory at Culloden, set about bringing the Highlands into line. Villages were burned and innocent people, whose only crime was to speak the Gaelic language, were hanged. Some of the Highland survivors of the battle were taken down to England and hung, drawn and quartered. The message was clear: never was this kind of rebellion to happen again.

In the years that followed, two very clever strategies were employed to enforce that message. The first was the building of military roads into the wildest parts of the Highlands to ensure that soldiers could reach every corner as quickly as possible. The second was the establishment of tiny schools in every glen for one purpose above all others – the teaching of the English language and the suppression of the Gaelic tongue. Gaelic was the language of the rebellious Highlanders, so Gaelic had to be brought under control.

It was a strategy employed elsewhere in the Celtic countries, and it was most successful. I sometimes think it’s amazing any Gaelic at all remains in the Scottish Highlands, so efficiently was the programme carried out after 1746. What happened in the end was that many Highlanders came to hate their own language: they refused to pass it on to their children, seeing it as a handicap compared with ‘useful’ languages like French and German. By the time my mother went to school half an hour from Inverness, her headmaster – a fine speaker of Gaelic himself – believed that any child speaking his tongue should have the living daylights beaten out of him. And that kind of thinking was seen as joined-up.

There’s something of a revival in Gaelic in today’s Scotland, but it’s by no means an easy story of success. There are pockets of progress: that’s all one can say. But there’s a long way to go.

AFTER CULLODEN

The wounded wandered home in Gaelic
by rivers and back roads;
all they had fought for
unsure and broken.

Hoe long before they saw
their language and their land
like a limb that’s tied too tight,
still there but dying all the time.

Or like a wildcat caught at last
not killed, but tamed;
de-clawed, castrated –
then stroked and told to purr.

Willowsdays

I don’t remember when I discovered Skype. All I do know is that I was in the depths of despair about seeing my little girl Willow who had gone back to the south of Germany with her mother. I was haunted by the fear I would lose touch with her completely, that things would become more and more distant until I hardly knew how to relate to her, or she to me. Telephone calls were all very well, but a really young child can’t remain interested on the phone for more than a few minutes, especially when her first language is not yours.
I do remember the early Skype calls and how nervous I was. I feared I would fail at this; I had no idea how to start. There isn’t a book for every child and your life with them: that book is written by you each new day. I’m sure I was awkward and lacking in all kind of imagination during those first sessions – and I’m a writer! Then my cousin Ali gave me a set of finger puppets. He’s an actor and he told me to start making up stories. That was the first step: seeing a way forward. It was the beginning of a whole new world of stories. Tiny ones, but stories just the same.
Now Willow runs to different cupboards, bringing out toys and books she wants to show me. Last night she made play pancakes and I acted out the part of a repair man who was going to have to come and see about her fridge. Often problems are solved only when her unicorn with the magic horn has intervened, putting all the efforts of helpless mechanics and tradesfolk to one side. And then Willow will lean in close to the screen to tickle me, or wait until I have been lulled into a false sense of security to boo me. And finally she will give me a hug through the screen, this beloved little girl of mine whom I miss with such hugeness, who has been given back to me by Skype. These days of the week aren’t called Tuesdays and more; instead I think of them as Willowsdays.

Fian

I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago concerning my newest novel ‘The Well of the North Wind’. But I’m aware that I didn’t include anything from it, and this time I want to do so. The strange thing is that the novel started out as a short story, and for a long time nothing more than that first part – the short story – was put onto paper. It was only when I was back in Arctic Norway, working on an entirely different piece of writing, that Fian’s story came back into my head and I realised it was not finished. The conditions in Arctic Norway were perfect. I was staying in a college where I knew nobody, but there were students all around me. I had absolute silence for much of the day; quite a lonely silence that was only broken now and again by the howling of husky dogs outside. There was still almost a metre of snow around the college that April, and often the temperature must have fallen to below minus twenty. But it’s not nearly as miserable a cold as I know here in northern Scotland through the winter: here the cold is damp and biting – in the north of Norway it’s crisp and clear and diamond sharp. Even though it was into spring, on occasion the students would come and tell me the Northern Lights were showing and we would go out and watch them rising and falling, like the spirits of long dead horses. So it was here that the remainder of the novel was written in just four weeks. Stories work best for me like that: they pour out of the pen without undue self-consciousness on my part. The more aware I am of the process and even of the story the more I get in the way. The story wants to be written: it must have nothing getting in the way of reaching the page and coming alive at last.

One night, one spring night, they sang not in the chapel but out on the limestone pavement. They sang there because the stars were falling; on every side there were bright trails of silver, little fires that shone a moment and were gone. A wind blew across the night, clear against their faces, but the beauty of the skies was too much – they had to behold it. It was a night you could see to the edges of the world; Fian turned all round and caught a hundred landfalls, each one of them crested with a sharp edge of snow. Even here on the tableland, a few footfalls above the sea, snow lay in the crevices and the stones were polished with ice.

‘What do you think it means?’ Fian whispered to Lua, looking right up into the blue-black night. A great white tail streaked down the sky.

‘I think we will find out what it means,’ Lua whispered back, bending to Fian’s ear. ‘I think tonight it means the world is special.’

It was almost midnight and still the boy did not feel tired. The dry wind blew around them, fierce, and as he held his head high he felt as though he was no longer standing but rather flying. The stars darted this way and that, and somehow he was among them, he flew with them. The monks sang on and on, their voices did not pause or break, and the words flowed through his head, carried him. He did not want this to end; he did not want to fall to earth again.

‘How would you like to wait up and watch the dawn?’

He was so far away in his thoughts he did not properly hear Innis’ words at first. Nor did he realize that the others were drifting away now, still singing, departing to sleep. There were not so many stars now, just one or two, and they did not seem as bright as before. But still he was tired; never in his life had he felt so awake. He turned and nodded, whispered his yes and looked back at the sky.

‘The night is long,’ Innis said, and the boy heard the edge of a smile in his voice. He said no more than that but led him over to a little knoll, a place to which Marua had always gone to pray. Marua who now could not speak; he who had given so much with his words.

They sat there, facing out west to sea as Marua had done, and still Fian’s face was turned upwards into the sky. He saw the strokes of the falling stars and all at once they made him think of all he drew in the sand, the letters and pictures. It was on his lips to tell Innis and then he stopped: the words froze and he kept them to himself. But it was as though a giant hand was writing on the cloth of the sky. He thought of all the stories he had heard of God and imagined this as another, that once in the crossing of the wilderness they had looked up and read the letters that were drawn in the sky.

From The Well of the North Wind, published in London by SPCK, and available also on Kindle.

Glen Lyon

GLENLYON

All January the hills curved with perfect snow;
now this morning the grazed eyeball of a moon
rolls into blue silence. A sunlight,
frail and liquid, sluices all the fields.

A tattered huddle of a lamb
rends the day with sadness.
The trees whisper, lift and fall;
there flutters on the breeze sleet, soft as wool.

Kenneth Steven
from his collection Coracle, published by SPCK in London, 2014

The Healing

The old man looked at him wearily in the half-dark of the stone cell. He had been up since five that morning, and the ache in his left hip had not lessened in the least. But still he did not allow himself to sit to pray. Now it was almost ten and he ached to lie down, to stretch out and let sleep carry him away. Had he battled against such things as this for fifty years with such futility?

‘I am asking if I can go to the island.’

The young man was only a shadow in front of him. He stood and did not move, and did not know what it meant to be sore and old. Silence lay between them and as a paw of wind came and caught the tower so it shuddered, they heard the pattering of snowflakes against the glass. The track would be buried by morning, and the last of the wood was still to be brought in.

Only eight were ever chosen each December, and six of those were there year on year: they did not ask if they might have a place. His hip throbbed so he wanted to weep; a dull, deep drumbeat. The candle fluttered and he found himself nodding, though he did not look at the boy.

‘Why do you want to go?’

He tried to keep the question steady and was not sure he had managed. The boy was seventeen: once he too had been seventeen and sure of nothing but the knowledge the sun would rise the next day. He looked through the gloom to find the boy’s face. If there had been no kindness in his question then may there be some in his eyes.

‘My sister.’

Just a whisper, and the young head bowed and shuddered. The boy wept. It took the old man by surprise, caught him almost like that breath of wind and knocked him softly sideways. He did not know what to do or say. He waited and heard his own heart. He watched and waited.

‘All right,’ he said in the end, quietly, hearing the strangeness of his own words. ‘You may go.’

*

The chapel on the island belonged to St Lucy. It had been hers since the days she lived herself (leastways that was what the farrier would have said, had you disturbed him at his labour on a good day and he had the time to answer). The chapel belonged to St Lucy, and the legend was she went there herself, however many hundred years back into the darkness of time. A family lived on the island, survived on what little they grew and on the sweet fish from the lake. The youngest girl fell ill with fever (local people still maintained it was at harvest, for the father was gone to help in the mainland fields, though how anyone knew that was a wonder). But word went out of the girl’s fever, that she was sick unto death and nothing more could be done for her. In those days children were like apples from a tree; carry a bunch in your arms and you could be sure one or more would fall. But word went out of the girl’s illness, and perhaps with the father himself as he went to gather the harvest. For that part of Russia was a land of fields, and whether the seas went dry or the wind stopped blowing, the fields must be delivered of their harvest.

So it was Lucy herself heard of the girl’s dying, and came to the village as night was falling. (The farrier would tell you how many generations ago that was, for his family had been there since Eve put them all out of Eden). But the boatman wouldn’t go near the lake: there was no moon that night and all manner of stories of beasts that lived in the deep. The truth was he probably feared the fever himself, had no wish to bring it back to five sons and a wife.

So she walked. Lucy left the ferryman’s house, went into the moonless night and down to the shore and walked. Even now the farmer will tell you there were three that stood and watched as she started onto the water as if it was no more than a dry path. And they say she walked barefoot, shoes in her hand; that her mouth moved and she prayed as she went. All the way to the other side and the island shore.

She went to the house where the girl lay in the last throes of fever, babbling words of nonsense. And Lucy’s hand smoothed her forehead and she spoke soft words over and over, like the dripping of cool water, till at last the girl was still. But she was not dead, she slept.

*

The boy had been the third son. He had almost not survived, came into the world like a bundle of lamb that slips into the sleet-white grass with the tiniest cry. Born a month early and it was his sister who watched over him until at last he was stronger and the flags of the daffodils blew triumphant in the spring wind. Only five she was and she watched over him, for their mother could do nothing that first month, so ravaged was she from the long birth. That set a bond between them for ever, a bond that ran deep and strong. He was often ill in those first years. He struggled to breathe, to climb the hill of each new-drawn breath. It was she who sat with him through the long hours of the night, drawing the forefinger of her left hand across his cheek, slow and gentle, whispering the name she’d given him.

She would not let him be scolded. When the birch rod was raised by a mother half-mad with tiredness in a house with too many children, the girl shrieked and implored her to stop. That only maddened the mother the more, and set her against the girl. In summer the two escaped into the hills behind the house like leverets, laughing; the tin pails they carried for berries clanking against their thighs as they ran.

Their mother called them outlaws; she carried the washing out shouting at them still though they were far beyond hearing. They came back home, barefoot and weary, when the moon was orange in the river and the windless skies were all but dark. There was no point raising the birch rod then; she knew it was far too late.

Was she punishing the boy by sending him to the monastery or thanking God for the miracle of his birth? By that time his sister had gone to work as a servant at the big house of the landowners from Petersburg. She did not want to go, but there was no choice, and she sent home one silver coin every second week to her mother, despite all the years of the birch rod. The boy found the world strange without her, and in those first days he struggled to sleep at all. He said nothing aloud; did everything he was asked as always. But her absence was in his face, and nothing his mother said could hide it. When he went to the monastery he knew he was travelling in the opposite direction; he felt his sister growing distant behind him though it was dark and starless and the road twisted many times. It was she he missed, not his mother.

*

It was when he was out by the well he knew she was ill. The wind rushed through the autumn trees and he thought of them running in the thrill of it as once they’d done, and as he dipped his bucket into the stars on the surface he knew she was ill. Not just that she was ill but that it was something on her right side, and he touched the place with his free hand as he set the pail down with its shining.

He knew he should pray for the world, for its suffering, but he prayed for it somehow through her. When he knelt and words poured through him like a wild stream’s babble it was her face he saw beyond him. He even prayed something of his strength might be given to her, that he might give it back all these years later.

And so he was told he could go to the island. As if by magic, the days froze and the eye of the lake glazed a strange white. He heard the ice crystals in the trees at night, the high song of them playing in the darkness. The sun climbed into the sky but it was a snowball, weak enough to look at full. And there were wolves; somewhere in the hills their voices held and echoed. He thought of them as the living sound of the Northern Lights; he told no-one yet that was what he thought.

She was weakening. She had fallen and was weakening but he was kind to her. Those were the words he woke with, one morning when he rose and went to the window and six slow geese beat a path into the light. It was only six days till St Lucy’s Day, until they went to the island.

*

And so they walked across the ice. They held their shoes, in memory of St Lucy, and walked in bare feet. At first the pain was almost too much to bear, until he realised that he felt nothing at all. He looked at his feet and thought they were like marble, and remembered the one time he visited the Winter Palace and saw the sculpture of the angel.

The men who walked with him now were old. He felt that as they walked they carried not only their shoes but their stories. They had lived through the story of Russia and grown old, and knew now this was the last time they might visit the chapel. They wore white robes and they were the only things in the night’s darkness, and the only sound that of their feet and their breathing. They did not talk; they looked ahead towards an island they could not see, and that itself was a kind of metaphor. The chapel must be in darkness when they came to it; as though they could not even be sure as they crossed it was there at all. Light and fire were only to be found and made later, once they had reached the other side.

He knew somehow that he loved them even now, those men, although he had been with them only days. He did not understand the meaning of years as they did. The one who fed the birds at dawn, who held fragments of bread in his cupped hand until they came and ate without fear. The one who was all but blind, but who sang in the morning with a voice as sweet as a child’s. The one who did not talk any more, who had gone so far into silence words were not needed now. He had found a place where there was no more fear or anger.

That night the moon did not shine. There were stars, yet not as he had seen them before. Now they were like breath across the sky; a mist far beyond counting. The monks did not look back as they walked; that was also a part of their pilgrimage. And the ice was strange and patterned; he thought of the Northern Lights, and it was as if they had been imprisoned there, a moment of their fire frozen for ever.

It was only when they reached the other side he knew how cold it was.

*

It was two days later, when they had returned to the monastery, that he woke from a dream and knew he must go. He dressed in the dark, hands trembling, and fled down the stone steps as though the dream had not ended at all. It did not even occur to him to ask if he could leave.

It had snowed in the night and the silence left behind was bigger almost than silence itself. When the spines of dawn came, it was as though a bonfire burned somewhere ahead of him; a conflagration setting fire to the trees. When the sun had all but risen into the woods, its brightness was so great his eyes could not bear it. But he knew he was walking the right way; he knew he must walk into the sun.

He had no sense of time. He had walked countless miles with her all those years of his childhood; they had not known what time meant. For hours now he walked straight on; no path except the one his feet found. But he knew he was right; he knew without a shadow of a doubt there was no other way but this. He came at last to the road; looked left and right and listened. He held his breath and heard the rustling of birds in the trees. Everything was dry; made of tinder dry fragments.

He turned left and knew now he was not far away. And it was only then he seemed to waken and wonder what they would think and where he had gone. Then he saw a house and forgot everything as he began walking again. He could not walk but had to run, so hard his chest seemed burning and about to burst. He staggered on because he knew it was there, that she was there, that he must get there. And a beautiful garden and a long drive and the scent of wood smoke and at last, after however many hours, a doorway and his fist on the hard wood, hammering and hammering and hammering.

She answered, for she was a servant there. And her face smiled, even though she cried.

‘Sasha,’ she said. ‘I knew you would come.’

Copyright: Kenneth Steven 2016

The Deer

Something moving happened the other day. Real winter came here two weeks ago: suddenly the rain changed to snow and the nights became frosted with stars. In the morning, the pond at the bottom of the garden was covered with a pale white ice. Now it is so thick that I can stand on it and walk across.

And the cold lasted. In these new days of climate change, the temperature is seldom stable. One morning there’s frost; by that evening we are back to rain. But now, at last, several days and then many days with snow and fine skies and stars at night. The cold was intense: the temperature fell to minus nine on one night.

One morning I saw the deer behind the house. There is a path that leads into the woods by a wicker gate; that is why I christened the house Little Narnia. And there they were, perhaps twenty or thirty of them, looking at me from the edge of the trees, their eyes watching and their ears ready to catch a single click. As soon as I opened the back door they had fled further up the slope; they move softly and beautifully, grace in every movement. And there they stood and looked down on me, in every sense. I spoke to them; my voice soft and gentle, as I might have spoken to my child.

I went back into the house and found vegetables, anything that they might eat. I tore at shelves and cupboards and found things that they could have. And I went back out, still talking, and walked out over the snow to the fence and tipped everything down onto the other side. Then I went back and closed the door and stood there, watching.

They slid back down the slope, the bravest first. And they came to the bottom and started on old pieces of this and that, greedily finding all they could as fast as they could. And me, like a five year old child, with my nose pressed against the window, watching, happy.