Too long ago we set out from the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides toward Staffa. Even Helen, who suggested the trip, at first seemed insensible to the frothy water near our boat, but now we feel tired and slightly sick. James wanted to bring some Scotch, but we took one look at his red eyes and insisted he leave it at the inn. Our eyes are raw from the sea spray. The skipper’s voice rises above the beating waves and tells us we won’t have much time to see the caves, hardly more than an hour or two. He doesn’t need to tell us the sea can be unpredictable and there won’t be time to leave if the waves change their tune. The waves speak of lost ships and lost lovers. We wonder where they went.
We pull our coats tighter and, in spite of the wind and cold and salt, we begin to feel giddy about our adventure. We feel a sense of fellowship. The black cliffs are upon us now. They tower so large above the sea that if we reach out, we can touch them. We’re still hundreds of meters away, says Richard. He refers to the distance in metric, though it means nothing to us. We smile complacently and steady our feet to spring from the boat as soon as it docks.
The boat turns, and we brace ourselves. It’s a slippery slope to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Chloe points to the entrance of Fingal’s Cave. The water goes right in, she says. Can we pull the boat into the cave itself?
The skipper says no, too dangerous. But danger is what we want, and we can’t help but feel sympathetic when Chloe crosses her arms and pouts. She is the only one standing, braving the biting wind. The boat sputters and water slops onto the deck. Richard lunges to catch Chloe’s wrist. She winks as Richard insists that she sit next to him for the remainder of the journey.
Even on this, the island’s calmer side, we feel the romance of the rocky shore. Strains of Mendelssohn’s Die Hebriden enter our ear, and we look around for a ghostly orchestra until we see that Helen hums the tune softly.
Do you remember the Turner painting we studied in art history? she asks. We don’t, but she obligingly recreates the yellowed turbulent sky. Her voice takes on a strange quality, like she has been rehearsing this moment since we planned the trip but now realizes it could not possibly live up to her expectations. Still, we admire her for the forced smiles and frequent glances to the cave’s mouth.
James is the first off the boat, followed by Chloe. He gives her his hand, which she takes with a squeeze of her fingers. He begins to trail behind her before remembering Helen, still stuck onboard while waves churn. He smiles. Helen takes his arm, pausing a moment to see if we have noticed. Richard is the last to leave, the skipper staying while we explore the island.
Now that she is the head of our expedition, Chloe skips along the crags that will take us to Fingal’s Cave. Richard huffs and puffs behind her, struggling to catch up and holding his breathe when she narrowly misses tripping over a mossy stone.
Come on, she calls. Now that I have my land-legs back, I want to see this famous cave before I freeze to death.
How can you breathe in this cold? asks Richard. His face, naturally pinkish, now looks positively wind burnt. The capillaries stand out and even from a distance, we see his skin has begun to age prematurely.
Luckily James is here to solve the dispute. He steps between Chloe and Richard to give her his jacket.
I could just kiss you! says Chloe. We hold our breath—but she does not. Instead, she laughs and takes off running.
Over the moss and thin blades of grass we run, forgetting the uncomfortable sea journey and the cold for one moment.
Then we see it. Sharp hexagonal columns made when lava created the island thousands of years ago frame the entrance. It looks like an imperial palace.
Oh, James, says Helen. She takes his hand.
Chloe stands with her hands on her hips. Would you look at that? The cave’s roof is over seventy feet above our heads. Our voices die in the gaping black entrance.
We begin picking our way into the cave, stepping on one ledge to the next. Chloe leads the way. James is next, followed by Helen, who tells us to be careful. The water is deep, she says. How deep? Hundreds of feet.
It’s not possible. And yet our breath catches when we make the next jump.
The cave’s silence roars in our ears. We turn to see that Richard has not followed us into the darkening path ahead. We see his small outline at the entrance of the grotto. He sits on one of the basalt pillars, head in hand, the perfect image of contemplative despair. What to do with Richard? What haven’t they done without him?
From pillar to pillar, the light slowly fades. A giggle, an echo. James has a box of matches. He strikes one, and then another. The flames burst into life and then fade, illuminating the ghosts who live within the rock. We run our hands over the walls, searching for faint carvings of Romantic verse, perhaps, or engravings from a more ancient time. But there is no graffiti, and we resist the urge to become the first to mark this restless spot.
A match burns down to the quick, and James flicks it to the floor with a gasp of pain. Black day returns. We have gone too far—we have not gone far enough. Chloe continues walking, followed by James. Helen trails behind. We can no longer see Richard. Our footsteps can no longer be heard from the entrance.
The darkness threatens us on all sides. We reach out for each other, but our hands grasp only the empty cool air. We stumble; we try to hold on to anything but the walls are slick as ice. If we should fall, would anyone hear our splash? Would anyone dive in to catch us before the current pulls us under and out to sea?
We hope so, but we’re not sure. Our footsteps, now spaced out, no longer echo. As we travel deeper into the cave, the only sounds we hear are the shallow breaths we take to stay warm.
Helen, last in line, takes small steps, but it is not enough to keep her feet from rolling out from underneath. She cries in pain but we don’t hear her. She takes another step, and another, before she realizes she cannot follow us.
James? Chloe? But the cave is quiet.
We are frightened, so we pause and listen—for music, for the waves crashing on the beach, for each other. How long have we been here? We don’t know. With reluctance we turn around.
But not without truly seeing the cave. A match is struck, and our eyes wince at the brightness. The black walls reflect the light and the outlines of our bodies. The match burns brightly and is gone. We strike another match, and this time we really look at what’s in front of us. Lips touch in the dark, cold wind burning our cheeks and our throats and our hands. Our lungs burn for air. The cave feels our pain, and gently pulls us back to the entrance, back to life. The daylight enters the cave once more, and our feet no longer have to search for a foothold.
Out on the grassy hillocks, we turn to look back at our cave. It is both the same and not-the-same, a black entrance filled with mysteries we don’t care to explore further. We bundle our scarves around our necks and pull our hats over our ears, but do not look at each other.
What did you think of the cave? Richard asks.
It was sublime, says Chloe. She doesn’t ask him why he didn’t come with us, and neither do we.
The boat won’t leave without us. We walk to the beach, but Helen falls behind. She limps on one leg, her face wrinkled in pain.
What happened? James asks. Did you hurt yourself?
Helen nods. In the cave. James puts her arm around his shoulder, and we continue walking.
As we get in the boat, James says, There it is. Chloe and Richard turn to get one last look at the grotto, but Helen keeps her eyes fixed on the horizon. The waves beat against the shore and the rough winds carry away the words and the music.