Dominion of Dreams, by Fiona Macoed

IN THE SHADOW OF THE HILLS

The people in the Strath above Ardnathonn said that Ivor M'Iain the shepherd had dwelled overlong among the hills. It rnay have been so. The wind and the shadows of clouds had become the images of his dreams and of that which was behind his dreams; and falling water, and the bleating of sheep on the high pastures, and the cries of hawks and ravens had no other sound or meaning for him than the many sounds that had grown into one silence.
At night, when the sky was clear, he travelled miles across the high, lonely moors. Familiar companionships habited there, but no other: the lapwings wheeled, crying their thin poignant cries; or the grouse made a sudden clamour as they flew low, startled by his wandering feet; or a wailing rose like passing smoke against the mountain-slopes, voices of the unresting curlews. When the moon hung vast and yellow above the desolate slopes, or low upon the line where the moors crept into the sky, sometimes strange and unfamiliar agitations filled the night. But there were always the hills, in their deep silence, the mountain solitudes, the solemn passage of the stars.
He was a shepherd because his father had been a shepherd: and was content to be a shepherd, because he had little English, and was strangely disquieted when he heard many voices, or the ceaseless, idle noise of familiar things of which those speak much who have the strange, pathetic, infinite dread of silence and of beauty; and because the hills drew him to them.
When the years slipped one upon another, and Ivor M'Iain was no more a young man, but was forty, and already had more gray than brown in his hair, the clan-folk in the glens and along the great Strath wondered why he did not live oftener in the good stone house, with its byres and potato-fields, that had been his father's, and was now his: and why, too, he took no woman to live with him there, for company and for children, if not because of hungry love.
But Ivor M'Iain had already known love, and how great a thing it is, and how small. He had seen the unchanging stars through the hair of her whom he loved, and had seen them veer and become children of the abyss. He was of the few to whom love is not the sweet or bitter accident of life, but is life. A tall, silent man, grey and rugged, fifteen years ago he had been called Imhir Aluinn, Ivor the Handsome; and had been secretly loved by women, and had loved lightly himself, till he came to the one love.
But the years trampled his youth under foot. Sorrow breathed a grey change upon his hair, and a grey silence into his life; then dwelled with him as his comrade, looking out upon all things, great and small, from his steadfast eyes. This sorrow, that was a grief too intimate to be thought of by him as either grief or sorrow, but had become the colour and sound of life, was because of two things that were both mortal and immortal. The love of the woman in whose little, eager heart he had put his life, as one might with great joy lay the sacrifice on an altar, was one of these; the other was the beauty of her whom be loved, because it was so rare and wonderful in itself, and because it was to him the temporal and visible self of a beauty beyond mortal beauty and of a beauty beyond mortal change.
From the day he loved her he saw a shadow draw nearer. In some strange, mysterious way life gave again what it took from her. Then from too great weakness she could no more go out upon the heather, or stand under the mountain-ash by the brown rushing burn with its birch and fern-shadowed pools, or could no more gather flowers, or watch the wild roses glimmer with falling dew, or the stars gather one by one or in still companies out of dove-grey silences, Ian saw that the beauty of these things, so near and familiar, so remote and beyond all words, so finite alone, so infinite together--- as a breath is at once a thing that dies, and is part of the one Breath that is life---had passed into her. There was not anything lost to her of the falling dew, of the loosened fragrances, of the flickering of leaf and fern, of the little radiant lives of flowers, of the still stars; these passed into her, and were a bloom upon her face, and a mystery in her eyes, and a light upon that which was comrade to these momentary breaths, and to that other Breath, wherein these were neither less nor greater than the shining constellations and the ancient, time-forgetting stars.
Great love had brought great sorrows: and it was not the less great because in so large a part inarticulate. In her, he knew the highest. Life could give him no greater joy, if no deeper sorrow. He was grateful. And in his love she, for her part, forgot that youth was for her a flower that had to be relinquished while its bloom was still unfaded, while its fragrance was most sweet: that temporal beauty had dear mortal needs: and that the unfathomable silences wherein she was soon to sink were a cold bride-bed for desires so limited in hope and so vast in faith.
There are few who love thus. Theirs was that heroic love, not dependent upon those bittersweet claims and satieties which sustain lesser dreams; wherein faith was so absolute that neither knew there could be unfaith, and love so deep that neither knew love's feet could stray.
They had great rewards. She left him, herself glad with august sureties, her memory without the least ignoble stain. And he: he had that for which the crowned and the laurelled have bowed their heads in intolerable, sad desire; and was more rich than misers who stare upon idle gold; and lit daily upon a secret altar a flame more great and wonderful than that which shines upon the brows of ancient cities, being more ancient than they.
To many of us these rapt passions are passions that cannot be, or that dwell only in the moonlit realms of the mind. That they should be possible among the humble is a reproach, and therefore belief halts.
But heroic love is not a dream. And though he was only a shepherd, Ivor M'Iain knew this: and when I write of him, I write of one whom I knew, and of what I know.
It was after his supreme loss that he was seen so seldom, and was yet so well loved, and often longed for.
But thereafter he dwelled more and more among the great solitudes, and dreamed dreams that could not be true for Ivor M'Iain, but could be true for that which passed by that name, and through temporal eyes looked out upon the immortal things of beauty and desire.
Solitary, he tended his sheep day by day and week by week and month by month; and saw moons follow moons, and the sad march of the stars fill the nights, and knew vain, limitless desires; and from winter to spring, and from spring to winter, carried into these silences his patient heart, that little, infinite thing that God appals with the terror of Eternity.

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