Deserted Islands

My beloved responded to my not-so-subtle hints about wanting the beautiful book Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky and bought it for me for Christmas.  At the end of today, one in a string of many during which I’ve acutely felt the world impeding on my inner life, I am blissfully alone with this text, reading about these far-flung, windy places and imagining what it is to be one of 384 people who live on an island in the middle of a vast ocean.  It is comforting for me to think of things so small and solitary.  Unlike Ms. Schalansky, though, who gives her book the subtitle Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, I am not willing to rule out the possibility of traveling to these desolate places, if only just to here waves breaking on dead silence.  What better soundtrack to a slumber?


Her little illustrations are so charming.

St. Kilda –– you don’t exist.  Your name is just a faint cry made by the birds that make their home on the high cliffs at the furthest edge of the United Kingdom, beyond the outermost of the Outer Hebrides.  Only when a north-east wind prevails can the voyage even be attempted.

There are sixteen cottages, three houses and one church  in the only village on St. Kilda.  The island’s future is written in its graveyard.  Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth or sixth night.  On the seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict, so it becomes impossible to get them to swallow anything.  Their muscles twitch and their jaws hang loose.  Their eyes grow staring and they yawn a great deal; their open mouths stretch in mocking grimaces.  Between the seventh and the ninth day, two-thirds of the newborn babies die, boys outnumbering girls.  Some die sooner, some later: one dies on the fourth day, another not till the twenty-first.

Some say it is the diet: the fatty meat of the fulmars and their eggs smelling of musk that make the skin silky smooth but the mothers’ milk bitter.  Or that it is a result of inbreeding.  Yet others say that the babies are suffocated by the smoke from the peat fires in the middle of the rooms, or that it is the zinc in the roofs or the pale pink oil that burns in the lamps.  The islanders whisper that it is the will of the Almighty.  But these are the words of pious men.  The women who endure so many pregnancies and bear so few children who survive the eight-day sickness remain silent.

On 22 June 1876, one woman stands on the deck of a ship that is bringing her home.  Like all the women of St. Kilda, she has soft skin, red cheeks, exceptionally clear eyes and teeth like young ivory.  She has just given birth to a child, but not at home.  The wind is blowing from the north-east.  Long before she can be seen from the shore, she lifts her newborn high in the air.*

Village Bay

A difficult climb.

*The writing in this book is so eerie, oftentimes the stories seem hard to believe, so if I were you, I wouldn’t take this as straight history until yours truly fact checks it and gets back to you.  Word to the wise…


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