Morse squinted through the grainy dark at the warrior Cúchullin. Hung in a faded oil painting, the Irish hero leapt between black mountaintops. Morse looked from the clouds wreathing the muscular neck to the spear, barbed and glistening. The bay’s quiet lapping washed in through the open window and his wife lay warm beside him. All was still. Morse could not sleep.
Ellen had booked the flights to Scotland as a celebration: three weeks in the highlands to mark the beginning of what the firm’s other partners, in their farewell cards and emails, blandly titled Morse’s ‘next chapter’.
“You decide the rest of the trip!” Ellen had said.
When Morse told her they would spend the entire trip on Skye, and that their last night would be in the Elgol Inn – the sole option on the island’s rugged southern tip – Ellen had worn her surprise silently.
Beside him, she mumbled from the murky shallows of sleep. She had always done this. In those slivers of pre-dawn quiet, back when they were just married and while the girls had been young, Morse would look at Ellen as she slept and listen to her happy, absent whispers. It always seemed to Morse that when she eventually woke, it had been because of him. Because she sensed he was there waiting for her.
As she stirred, he would bury his face into the heat of her neck. Then he would repeat back to her all she’d murmured through the night. She covered her eyes in mock shame or pinched him and said he was making that one up. Then she would wrap herself in his arms. They would lay together, nested, warm and waiting for the day to begin.
That was long ago, though.
Now, he felt her tug at his sleeve, trying to pull herself closer. Morse lay still and kept his focus on the painting of Cúchullin. The night’s dark was thinning, and he imagined a dawn light bleeding across the frame, the warrior’s cheeks growing golden. He imagined the metallic tang of battle lust.
Behind him, Ellen’s snores settled back into a thick rhythm.
Just as he had for so many mornings in those final, drudging years at the office and each day since Ellen presented him with the tickets, Morse thought of his last trip to Skye, arriving by ferry after a long flight, of his map with the isle’s hikes dotted in red. To feeling inexhaustible, toting a year of undergraduate enthusiasm and a few paperbacks. To that one bursting sunrise over Elgol Bay and Loch Coruisk. To Fiona in the boat next to him. To Fiona.
Fiona’s crooked smile back at him as they scrambled up granite ridges tufted with heather. Fiona’s arms flung open and her hair splayed in the gristly sand of low tide. Fiona’s easy nakedness so far below him.
The window was now seeping primrose light and Morse went to rise from bed. His back seized, gravel in a struggling machine. He squeezed his eyes shut. Before him, flecks of light popped. Angry orange fissures in a sea of static black. He exhaled and straightened carefully. In the blink that had been forty years at the firm, he had been a marathoner and an early morning racquetballist, a cyclist and a late yoga convert, and now this new role: stubborn old man.
Each morning of the trip – Morse tightening his boots, Ellen still in bed and responding to transatlantic messages from the girls – he would outline the day’s hike. The red-dotted breadcrumbs etched in his memory from a lifetime ago. Later, halfway around the Trotternish Ridge or up the back of the Quiriaing, he would sense her behind him. Know her brow would be sheened in sweat. Know that she was waiting for him to slip or to slow. As he shuffled to the toilet in the inn room, he heard her slide into the patch of his fading warmth.
Pacing in the bathroom’s near dawn light, Morse scrolled through his phone’s inbox – a habit rutted in place after his final sleepwalking decade at the firm. That he now only received polite well wishes from former clients or pleas for alumni donations had yet to override the morning instinct. He put his phone on the window ledge and looked out at the Elgol Bay. Ready for the sunrise he remembered.
The dark water sloshed against the sea wall as the tiny harbour’s few boats tottered. The Black Cuillin mountains rose steeply from the bay’s east end and Morse watched for, though could not yet see, the sun’s inching climb behind the sleeping peaks.
Then, in what seemed to Morse a single moment, the rich ochre of the sun edged its way into sight. Light bound between the scree slopes and spread cascading webs across the bay. Colour flooded it all: the fishing boats’ chipped paint, the stones of the tilted croft houses and the water, now both cold and gloriously lit.
The Elgol Bay looked exactly as he had remembered it.
Yet it felt nothing like how it had that morning with Fiona.
He decided that he would, after all these years, find out what had become of her. Where she was and who she had turned into. What she was now, outside his myth of her. His hands wrinkled and trembling, he typed her name.
He clicked the first article, dated months earlier.
the unexpected passing of an esteemed colleague …in her sleep… a beloved teacher in the Celtic and Gaelic Studies Faculty … Dr. Mackinnon had been an inspiration to generations of students.
Morse read it again. He willed it to be minutes earlier. To not have seen the morning break its way from the mountains down the bay. To not have felt the sun spread across the aching space Fiona took up within him. To again be staring at Cúchullin through the ebbing darkness.
Behind the door, he heard Ellen call for him. He was unsure how long he had been standing at the window, phone cradled in his hands, legs numb beneath him.
“In here. It’s still early. Go back to sleep.”
He turned unsteadily from the window and switched on the shower. He shifted the temperature to its cool centre.
There, awash in the water’s speckling hiss, he was again back with Fiona, centuries ago, in that rollicking skiff The Misty Isle. He heard the dark sea sloshing over the low slung gunwales and somewhere under it all, he heard her again, telling the story of Cúchullin.
The night they had met – two smiles across the hostel bar near the ferry port – she told him of the dawn boat trip. It ran once a week across the Elgol Bay to the unknown and unspoilt Loch Coruisk. He hadn’t needed any convincing to join her.
The morning of their hike had begun in hushed moonlight. The Black Cuillin mountains grew before the boat’s bow, jutting from the unquiet sea and nestled amongst low clouds.
She asked Morse if he knew how the Cuillins had got their name. He was focused on his grip on the slick railing, the darkness of the sea and the fact that the boat’s spotty-faced captain couldn’t have been any older than he was. They chugged across the bay, the horizon threatening to appear in the distance, and as they were pitched by steady waves, she explained.
“Cúchullin, though a young man, was Ireland’s greatest warrior. So powerful and so brave, he decided he ought to marry. He chose fair Emer. Emer’s father, though, was not impressed by the dashing hero. Her hand would only be Cúchullin’s if left to be trained by a worthy teacher. An estimable figure like the warrior-goddess Scáthach. Yes, she for whom this shadowy and misty isle, Skye, is named.”
Fiona paused and spread her arms wide in proud presentation, the looming basalt peaks of the Cuillins behind her as the cloudy amber light spread.
“Scáthach’s island was notoriously difficult to find, to say nothing of surviving her training. Emer’s father considered his daughter – and her honour – safe.”
Fiona raised her eyebrows with a grin and Morse felt a bottom within him dropping out.
“Of course, Cúchullin – with one leap over the Irish Sea – discovered Scáthach’s stronghold. At sword point, he convinced her to teach him all she knew. And that is what she did. For seven years, she taught him her brutal craft. At long last, he won her respect. In recognition of his great skill, she granted him the Gae Bolga. A barbed spear so fatal it needed to be cut from its victims.”
The light was now a pale pink and the clouds retreated. The small boat slowed as the boy at the wheel steered between granite outcrops. The large rocks were seal backs, round and dappled.
“Just as Cúchullin’s tutelage came to an end, Scáthach faced a battle with her rival Aife. Scáthach knew the danger Aife posed and she feared for her prized pupil’s life. So, she gave Cúchullin a powerful sleeping draught. Strong enough to keep him asleep for days. She knew he would not be kept from battle any other way. However –”
Fiona smiled and turned then, and Morse looked with her.
“This is the best part,” she said.
The head of Loch Coruisk emerged around the edge of a towering cliff. Mountains ringed the water on all sides and there it was: the sunrise, exploding in marigold across the Cuillins, the Loch and the Elgol Bay.
Morse looked back at Fiona. She brushed her salted hair from her golden face and Morse wished he had done it first.
She continued, “However – Cúchullin possessed, of course, godly strength. He was kept asleep for only an hour. Upon waking, with his blood-lusting scream, he joined the fray. As you knew he would, ever the hero, he banished Aife and saved Scáthach. In thanks for this, she named the mountains of her hideaway after him. Cúchullin: her most glorious student.”
The ship’s old engine shifted into a sputtering idle.
“And that is how the Cuillins got their name.”
Morse watched as the red-haired skipper tossed buoys over the side and began to tie up at the worn, gap-toothed dock. The captain asked Fiona, “Pickup before sunset then?” She grinned a nod and climbed out. He turned to Morse and spoke to him for the first time, “Aye, a fine story. But do ye know how to say ‘hill’ in Gaelic, then?”
Fiona looked back over her shoulder and flashed her crooked smile as the boy told Morse, “It’s Cuillin, lad.”
Fiona led as they climbed and wound their way around Loch Coruisk. Morse panted and scrambled behind her. The low clouds swirled and the sun arced above them. The scree fell away to the water and the surface flashed with specks of gold. There was no one else there and Morse felt that there never would be.
Halfway around the Loch, they stopped at a cliff’s edge, gorse bushes budding yellow behind them. Morse sliced an apple and Fionna ripped chunks from grainy bread. Their boots dangled above the water and Morse felt the patter of his heart in his heels as he watched pebbles disappear ten metres below.
“So. What is it about the end of the Cúchullin story that you like?” he said.
She looked at him, her eyes granite.
“The story of the pretty little boy saving a ferocious warrior woman?”
Morse’s mouth went dry.
“I mean, I just thought,” Morse began.
She reached out and touched his wrist. She was smiling. “I’m kidding with you.” Her eyes caught the sun pouring over the peaks above them. “With Cúchullin, for me it’s simple. I love that one of our oldest stories, in all its violence and fantasy, comes down to the character being awake. Denying sleep. Refusing to close his eyes to the light, to the world.”
Morse had never met anyone who spoke like Fiona spoke.
“I like thinking that Scáthach knew he would fight through the potion. That he wouldn’t be turned away from the battle. From the world,” she said.
He poked a few more pebbles off the cliff. How could he show her that he understood? More: that as she said it, he had known exactly what she would say?
“I like that our oldest stories tell us the oldest truths,” he said.
She searched his face. A smile danced at the edges of her mouth. And she began to unlace her boots.
“Come on, you.”
She unzipped her jacket and before he could scramble to his feet, she was slipping out of her trousers.
“What are you doing?” said Morse.
He looked down at the fathomless loch’s liquid black.
“What does it look like I’m doing? Let’s go.”
She was down to her underwear.
“You can’t be serious. It’s freezing. How will you get back? And the water is so —”
She was in the air. Her shriek echoed wildly off the ash black peaks, as Morse knew battle cries had always resounded in these mountains. Her skin was a white sunflash against the darkness of the Cuillins. Then the water’s rocky surface. Then was gone in a ripple.
Morse squeezed his eyes closed and all there was in front of him was the sun’s liquid light dancing across the loch. Her disappearing and his blindness. It seemed then that it was all he would ever see: her loss and the dancing fissures of light.
He opened his eyes and saw her naked below him. Her voice shook, but her face was broken wide and bright. Gazing down at her, thousands of years away, Morse knew her smile would be with him until he died. That it would need to be cut out of him.
“Jump! It’ll wake you up!”
Morse knew too that he would not leap. He knew that no matter how long she floated there, her hair flowing and shadowed in the loch’s freezing water, no matter what came next between them, he would not jump.
Morse heard Ellen knock at the bathroom door.
“Okay in there, honey?”
“Almost finished,” he called through the rising light.
“The boat leaves soon,” her voice distant, but echoing in the small room.
Morse closed his eyes.
“Do you still want to do the Loch Coruisk hike?” she asked.
He turned and faced the cool, rushing stream.
She tried once more, “We could always just go back to sleep. Couldn’t we?”
Morse felt blindly for the tap and changed the temperature.