“It was probably a mink.”

We floated on through the moat, nervously correcting our course through the narrow, reed-lined corridor.

“If the coat was black, I mean. Probably a mink. Beautiful creatures. Savage, though. If one gets its teeth into you it won’t let go for anything. Can’t find them in England any more, of course: hunted to extinction.”

I listened without speaking, trying to concentrate on our line. Still my paddle lingered atop the water a little too long and we lurched towards the bank.

Mumbled apologies drowned out by the scramble of nylon life jackets and of paddle on silt. Pebbles rattling against the plastic hull.

“Just… yes, that’s it. That’s all you have to do, don’t overthink it.”

What could be simpler than keeping that line? We hadn’t even reached the windswept expanse of the lake yet. The clammy wetsuit against my skin was all the reminder I needed of the consequences should I lose control when we got deeper. But how can you stop overthinking? How, with a mind like mine, a mind like this? A mind that doesn’t just float, but kicks frantically against the current like the feet of a swan. It can’t think about overthinking, that’s just another thing to think about and to check and control and a little turn here and yes like a small black pine marten and not quite enough, just a little adjustment and yes it had a rabbit in its jaws, thrashing at the roadside and NO that’s too much and don’t hit the moored boats, and the blood dripped from its maw and, and, and.

“OK, we’re coming to the mouth now, let’s turn around and take a breath before we head out to the caves.”

The only sun we had seen all day – all week – skittered across the moat, elbowed apologetically through the reeds and bounced off the walls of Ross Castle. A feeble attempt at a siege. 

Our guide spoke about the history of the keep. But I was barely listening, pulled under by the gyre of keeping the line: head straight into the waves, not sideways or you’ll capsize, and how windy is it, and how deep is it, and why isn’t he Irish, and what am I going to do and, and, and.

And then the treeline on the bank to our right erupted.

Muscle and grace burst through the brush at full gallop. Perhaps it had plotted its course to the other bank. Perhaps it did not matter at all.

It leapt.

For one moment the stag seemed to hang in mid-air, perfectly suspended over the horizon. The lead set of cloven hooves tucked tight under its chest, hind legs outstretched. Its antlers tearing through the fabric of the sky to reveal the long-forgotten constellation of an elder god. A sign. 

“Good lad,” our guide smiled.

As we made our way into the lake I was reminded that I am not the stories I tell myself. That somewhere under all of this noise is a person who I had not seen in a long time. We floated through limestone caverns, remarking how lucky we were that this was the last week that the water level would allow it.

Floating in that lake, the light felt stronger, the line easier to follow. 

The stag led the way.

As our guide explained about the sacred warding properties of yew trees and species of lichen hardy enough to survive on the moon, I became reacquainted with myself, the stranger.

It had been a sign.

Sea lion caves in the dark

We drove the Ring of Kerry listening to a radio broadcast in Gaelic about, as far as I could gather, the sinking of the Titanic.

The storm set back in to make a cruel mockery of the name ‘Ladies View’ at Killarney. On narrow roads, the mist was so thick we could barely see the difference between land and sea. Keep the line.

In the car park I took that call from the health practitioner who told me that the next available appointment for an assessment was in three months. 

We would have to keep our own line a little longer.

That moment and the blissful clarity of the hour out on the lake that followed stayed in my chest. Perhaps without the deer at the lake I would’ve lost the line. 

I wish I could say the deer landed cleanly. But it did not.

Its hind legs dragged into the water as the mouth of the moat clutched at it. It bucked and shook off the river’s freezing grasp but was visibly shaken as it made for the undergrowth on the left bank. To our right, a spaniel, running loose off its lead to harry the stag, hurtled out from the trees and gave chase, ploughing a furrow through the water over which the stag had leapt.

Powerful as they are, moments of wonder are never perfect. Nature is chaos, and our part in it only adds to the confusion.

But it was enough, for then.

It is enough, for now.

Keep the line.

The lake at Ross Castle. 2018.


Signs and wonders.

  1. Dogwood Blossom – Fionn Regan
  2. Charon – Keaton Henson
  3. Wallowa Lake Monster – Sufjan Stevens
  4. Lonely Kayak – Danny Elfman
  5. Damn These Vampires – The Mountain Goats
  6. Raining In Darling – Bonnie “Prince” Billy
  7. Ring of Kerry – Red River Dialect
  8. Walden Pond – Atta Boy
  9. Deer Creek Canyon – Sera Cahoone
  10. Wolves – Phosphorescent
  11. To Be Alone With You – Sufjan Stevens
  12. Ocean Breathes Salty – Sun Kil Moon
  13. Otherside – Perfume Genius
  14. Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping – Grouper
  15. White Star Liner – Public Service Broadcasting
  16. The Sinking of the Titanic
  17. The Only Thing (live) – Sufjan Stevens

This short story was inspired by the Sufjan Stevens song The Only Thing from the album Carrie and Lowell, which deals with the importance of sublime experiences of nature in navigating a course through pain.

This is a true story.

If you are suffering from a mental health issue or have lost a loved one, it can be hard to reach out. But it really is important to talk. Here are some resources that worked for me when I needed them:

The Samaritans – call at 116123

CALM – the campaign against living miserably

Mind – mental health charity

BACP councellor/therapist search