47: Come to Orkney

47: Come to Orkney

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Come to Orkney

You do not find love. It finds you.

~Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun

I stared hungrily at the computer screen as my achingly slow dial-up connection revealed the home page. It showed seals frolicking on the rocky beach, and seagulls wheeling in elegant spirals, ghostly against the red sandstone sea cliffs at sunset, their mournful cries mingling with ocean waves and a weeping fiddle. My heart responded as it always did to this scene — with a surge of longing pain.

“Come . . . to Orkney,” the melodious male voice tempted in its gorgeous brogue. I ached to do just that, but for a poverty-stricken single mother with four young children, no child support and more jobs than was reasonable, such a dream was literally impossible.

That was in the year 2001. I had regressed from being a hopeful young wife into a betrayed, stunned worker drone. My children and I had run away from my abusive husband and taken refuge in an upper-story apartment in a gloriously ramshackled Victorian house where we were safe and, compared to the nightmare we’d just escaped, relatively happy. I was overworked, though, and sometimes felt sad because my children were too often left alone. But I’d survived the frightening first year as the head of my trusting little household. With the crisis past and all of us comfortable with our new way of life, I longed to have something in my life beyond the never-ending work schedule. That’s when I decided to write a book.

I’d been developing my writing skills for years, hoping one day to make a living from home and not have to leave my children to go to work. The fantasy novel that I decided to write made me feel like I was weaving an enchanted web over an impoverished life. I think I hoped that the act of creation would help me to find the scattered bits of my soul. The secret dream of being able to stay home with my children gave me the impetus to press forward, but I’d have to restrict my project to the wee hours of the morning since every day was already full to overflowing. I set my alarm clock for 3:00 a.m. and began to write.

For a few weeks, I played with storylines and characters, requesting books for research from the friendly bookmobile ladies who came to our town every other Saturday. My chosen setting was one of the beautiful Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. What a thrill it gave me when I noticed that some of my obscure books had come all the way from Orkney! On rare afternoons off from work, I’d leave the kids happily playing with the neighborhood children, scoop my books into a bag, make myself a cup of tea and stroll uphill on the brick sidewalk to the old cemetery. This quiet place, with its dear, crumbling headstones laced with old-fashioned names, its tall pines and its snowball bushes, became my outdoor office whenever I could manage the time. I would sit on a stone ledge in the sunshine and scribble notes on my yellow legal pad in the lovely twilight — or grimmelings, as I’d learned that such a time is called in Orkney. Time went on, and I began to heal. I was happier than I had been in a long time.

I ran out of source material before I ran out of questions, so I decided to contact the library in Kirkwall, Orkney, which I’d discovered had wonderful archived materials — old photos, letters, even audio recordings. It seemed presumptuous for a pretender like me to bother professionals with my silly questions. But when I finally took the chance, the Orkney librarians responded to my requests just as generously as had my dear bookmobile ladies. After tracking down archived materials and even interviewing elderly residents on my behalf, they gave me one more gift: Someone forwarded my request for information to a man named Tom Muir, an Orkney native, historian and storyteller. To my delight, Tom also turned out to be the author of a collection of Orkney folk tales that I’d already read with much delight.

Tom and I e-mailed back and forth a few times, and I began to feel strangely attached to him, though I knew little about him — not even whether or not he was married. Finally, not wanting to use any more of his valuable time with my endless questions, I thanked him and left him alone. Did I only imagine the sensation of feeling bereft?

Many years passed. My children grew, and life became saner, but I never lost the almost supernatural yearning I’d developed for Orkney during those happy days of researching my story. I had simply fallen in love with the place — its odd and humorous words, quaint customs and lovely people. The brief contact I’d had with some of the residents had only added to that affection.

Over the years, I would periodically torture myself by returning to the beautiful website of the man with the melodious voice who first tempted me to “come . . . to Orkney.” I would daydream about traveling there one day, as unlikely as that seemed, since I was poor and had never traveled anywhere. As much as it almost physically hurt, I couldn’t keep myself from testing the strange connection I felt with the place. It was as if Orkney was my true home, though I’d never been anywhere near it. And sometimes — just out of curiosity, of course — I would Google that nice storyteller, Tom Muir, and see what he was up to.

More time passed. I was less poor and had just graduated from college. My kids were all grown, and the temporary work I was doing would allow for a couple of weeks away. I knew it was a turning point in my life, and probably my only chance to have a bit of a long-delayed adventure before I got tied down by work again. With some trepidation, I began planning an extremely low-cost trip to Orkney. Then one night, in a fit of bravery, I sent Tom Muir a Facebook friend request. I knew he’d never remember me all these years later, but I hoped we might meet for a cup of coffee some afternoon anyway. To my shock, he did remember me and . . . well, the rest of the story sounds like one of Tom’s folk tales, but it’s absolutely true. The connection we’d both felt years earlier, but never spoken of, was still there between us and as strong as ever. It grew stronger, in fact, until at last it grew strong enough to draw me across the ocean to become his wife.

I live in Orkney now, and it does feel like my long-lost home, just as I’d expected. Tom and I still can’t believe that a long-ago research correspondence and a hopeful friend request could lead us both to such joy. Life is so much better than I ever thought it could be.

And the man with the melodious voice? He’s my husband’s cousin, Sigurd.

~Rhonda Muir

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