On Brenhilda of Sula Sgeir
6th century: Brenhilda, sister of St. Ronan, withdrew to
the island of Sula Sgeir, an austere island far off the
coast of Scotland, after her brother made advances, it is
said, leaving him on the more hospitable island of Rona.
She was later found dead with a bird’s nest in her ribcage.
We did not know why she came nor did we ask. She came
like we did from over the water. That she didn’t arrive on
winds made no difference to us.
She sang in a vernacular that was not our dialect but we
recognized the meaning. She was asking to be lifted,
by the wind, her word, her devotion.
Some days she stood on the highest outcrop arms spread,
we knew this too, wings held wide, but the sounds that
came from her haunted our sleep with their hunger.
We guessed she awaited her beloved; that her calling was
a beacon of sound for him to follow. We thought she had
gone mad with waiting.
Later we wondered if her beloved was the wind and her
madness was glory. Was she an apostate or had she come
to this rock among waters to find her lost God?
Of course in the end she perished. We all do. In the bones
that carried her breath, her song, her invocations, we
built a nest to roost in.
We did not know where she had come from or when she
had arrived on the rocky outcrop, we imagined she came
like we did over the water to give birth.
We thought she was one of us without her skin, a selkie,
for no humans swam the waters in this place except the
On land she was awkward picking her way over craggy
rock, but when her holy tenuous body entered the sea
she swam in sleek and supple turns.
We called her Singer of the Wind. Her voice rising to fill
the vaulted caverns, echoed her longing. We thought she
wept for what was lost, the very skin of her.
We recognized her eyes as seal, and although we didn’t
speak with words we often sheltered among the rocks,
body to body, her slim form intertwined with ours.
The year we arrived and she did not greet us at the
water’s edge we could not know where she was. We
hoped she had found what she had lost and gone.
Why she had come to this far skerry that climbs from
the Atlantic’s gray-waters we heard in whisperings
Her brother, that sainted head, had an eye for her beyond
his oath. And to save from violation the virtue of her holy
vocation, she expelled herself; the rumors had it.
We knew her fierceness, recognized the storm in her
voice. That ferocity we, too, carried in our being. A
kind of hell’s fury, some sailors said.
But people often get it wrong, her intensity stood for love;
we heard that in the quality of her song, her crying
faithfulness of heart.
Remember we entered her in every breath. Her body
shaped us into bird and flung us baring psalms into the
sacred blue of sky.
The day she did not take us in, we sang lament.
Loneliness has been known to shatter a human heart,
so completely, that even God cannot mend.
Karla Van Vliet is the author of two collections of poems, From the Book of Remembrance and The River From My Mouth. Her chapbook Fragments: From the Lost Book of the Bird Spirit is forthcoming from Folded Word. Karla is a co-founder and editor of deLuge Journal. She is an Integrative Dreamwork analyst, artist and administrator of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf, Middlebury College.