The Works of Fiona Macleod, Vol. IV, Studies in Spiritual History
THE SMOOTHING OF THE HAND Glad am I that wherever and whenever I listen intently I can hear the looms of Nature weaving Beauty and Music. But some of the most beautiful things are learned otherwise--by hazard, in the Way of Pain, or at the Gate of Sorrow.
I learned two things on the day when I saw Seumas McIan dead upon the heather. He of whom I speak was the son of Ian McIan Alltnalee, but was known throughout the home straths and the countries beyond as Seumas Dhu, Black James, or, to render the subtler meaning implied in this instance, James the Dark One. I had wondered occasionally at the designation, because Seumas, if not exactly fair, was not dark. But the name was given to him, as I learned later, because, as commonly rumoured, he knew that which he should not have known.
I had been spending some weeks with Alasdair McIan and his wife Silis (who was my foster-sister), at their farm of Ardoch, high in a remote hill country. One night we were sitting before the peats, listening to the wind crying amid the corries, though, ominously as it seemed to us, there was not a breath in the rowan-tree that grew in the sun's way by the house. Silis had been singing, but silence had come upon us. In the warm glow from the fire we saw each other's faces. There the silence lay, strangely still and beautiful, as snow in moonlight. Silis's song was one of the Dana Spioradail, known in Gaelic as the Hymn of the Looms. I cannot recall it, nor have I ever heard or in any way encountered it again.
It had a lovely refrain, I know not whether its own or added by Silis. I have heard her chant it to other runes and songs. Now, when too late, my regret is deep that I did not take from her lips more of those sorrowful, strange songs or chants, with their ancient Celtic melodies, so full of haunting sweet melancholy, which she loved so well. It was with this refrain that, after a long stillness, she startled us that October night. I remember the sudden light in the eyes of Alasdair McIan, and the beat at my heart, when, like rain in a wood, her voice fell unawares upon us out of the silence:
Oh! oh! ohrone, arone! Oh! oh! mo ghraidh, mo chridhe!
Oh ! oh! mo ghraidh, mo chridhe¹
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~¹Pronounce mogh-ray, mogh-ree (my heart's delight--lit. my dear one, my heart).
The wail, and the sudden break in the second line, had always upon me an effect of inexpressible pathos. Often that sad windsong has been in my ears, when I have been thinking of many things that are passed and are passing.
I know not what made Silis so abruptly begin to sing, and with that wailing couplet only, or why she lapsed at once into silence again. Indeed, my remembrance of the incident at all is due to the circumstance that shortly after Silis had turned her face to the peats again, a knock came to the door, and then Seumas Dhu entered.
"Why do you sing that lament, Silis, sister of my father?" he asked, after he had seated himself beside me, and spread his thin hands against the peat glow, so that the flame seemed to enter within the flesh.
Silis turned to her nephew, and looked at him, as I thought, questioningly. But she did not speak. He, too, said nothing more, either forgetful of his question, or content with what he had learned or failed to learn through her silence.
The wind had come down from the corries before Seumas rose to go. He said he was not returning to Alltnalee, but was going upon the hill, for a big herd of deer had come over the ridge of Mel Mòr. Seumas, though skilled in all hill and forest craft, was not a sure shot, as was his kinsman and my host, Alasdair McIan.
"You will need help," I remember Alasdair Ardoch saying mockingly, adding, "Co dhiubh is fhearr let mise thoir sealladh na fàileadh dhiubh?"--that is to say, Whether would you rather me to deprive them of sight or smell?
This is a familiar saying among the old sportsmen in my country, where it is believed that a few favoured individuals have the power to deprive deer of either sight or smell, as the occasion suggests.
"Dhuit ciàr nan carn!-The gloom of the rocks be upon you!" replied Seumas, sullenly: "mayhap the hour is come when the red stag will sniff at my nostrils."
With that dark saying he went. None of us saw him again alive.
Was it a forewarning? I have often wondered. Or had he sight of the shadow?
It was three days after this, and shortly after sunrise, that, on crossing the south slope of Mel Mòr with Alasdair Ardoch, we came suddenly upon the body of Seumas, half submerged in a purple billow of heather. It did not, at the moment, occur to me that he was dead. I had not known that his prolonged absence had been noted, or that he had been searched for. As a matter of fact, he must have died immediately before our approach, for his limbs were still loose, and he lay as a sleeper lies.
Alasdair kneeled and raised his kinsman's head. When it lay upon the purple tussock the warmth and glow from the sunlit ling gave a fugitive deceptive light to the pale face. I know not whether the sun can have any chemic action upon the dead. But it seemed to me that a dream rose to the face of Seumas, like one of those submarine flowers that are said to rise at times and be visible for a moment in the hollow of a wave. The dream, the light, waned; and there was a great stillness and white peace where the trouble had been. "It is the Smoothing of the Hand," said Alasdair Mclan, in a hushed voice.
Often I had heard this lovely phrase in the Western Isles, but always as applied to sleep. When a fretful child suddenly falls into quietude and deep slumber, an isleswoman will say that it is because of the Smoothing of the Hand. It is always a profound sleep, and there are some who hold it almost as a sacred thing, and never to be disturbed.
So, thinking only of this, I whispered to my friend to come away; that Seumas was dead weary with hunting upon the hills; that he would awake in due time.
McIan looked at me, hesitated, and said nothing. I saw him glance around. A few yards away, beside a great boulder in the heather, a small rowan stood, flickering its feather-like shadows across the white wool of a ewe resting underneath. He moved thitherward, slowly, plucked a branch heavy with scarlet berries, and then, having returned, laid it across the breast of his kinsman.
I knew now what was that passing of the trouble in the face of Seumas Dhu, what that sudden light was, that calming of the sea, that ineffable quietude. It was the Smoothing of the Hand.
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