The Word for Soul, by Surnaí Molloy

A lyrical song of love, nature, the sacred

The year was turning to the dark and I set up my new tent in the sitting room to see what it was like, and filled it with cushions and hung bunting inside to make a home of it. Lying inside that warm sphere, I felt the layers of protection around me, the red tent, the wooden house, holding me safe from the wet and wild winter outside.

I turned the world upside down, I hung myself in space; the sensation of emptiness, beneath the soles of my feet, beyond the thin sheet of the plane’s walls, for days. Pausing in the interstitial airports that could have been anywhere in the world, that could have been in any season; I walked in circles for hours. Until I landed into summer, into a green, sloping world. Kia Ora.

Sleep-deprived and anxious, hurriedly preparing for customs, I emptied my pockets of stray seashells. That piece of home I carry with me everywhere—that small stone with the perfect hole through it—I left on the plane (I kissed it and blessed it and left it). It belonged to a different world than this one. 

And then I saw you, again, after a long time (and I kissed you and blessed you and kept you). And I thought, you are my touchstone now; my home.

In a dark corner of a wine bar, we stretched the map out before us, and it felt like the world was ours. This was the first of many moments like this—my favourite moments—where we explored with fingertips and said how about this? how about here? before we hopped inside the duct-taped van that was as old as us and sped away. 

On that first night away from the city, the sun was soft and the evening was golden; we laughed and played cricket. I wore the flip flops that you’d fished out of the river. Later, the purple sky was enormous, the forested hills blackening with night. A hedgehog snuffled in the grass, startling me—I’d been sequestered in suburbs for too long. The world felt wild and dark; the brittle shell of the van felt like hardly enough to keep it out.

We scrimped and saved; we dipped crackers into tins of tuna, we shared the cup of coffee, we crowded close to eat the porridge from the pot, the peanut butter from the jar. Sitting on the green grass, on the black sand, on the tar of the visitor centre parking lot, we ate.  

This, we knew, was nourishment.

There were days when it felt like we could be anywhere: sunsets were the same (magic); the feeling of feet in sand, in water, treading realms, the same (peace); stretching and yawning and pressing lips to skin in the morning, the same (love). And I thought, I would wake up anywhere with you.

Climbing the conical volcano, the green thick world stretched out below us until the sky turned dark and everything disappeared in cloud, until the ground was soaked and sodden. So, we slept on bunks with strangers, the dark storm pounding against the roof, and I remembered being a child lying awake in a gale, worrying that the house would lift up and fly away, over the fields, as the trampoline once had. 

Rising and climbing from the bunk, I made my way out so that I could stand in the dark rain for a just a moment, and watch the silhouettes in the moving wilderness around me, and imagine the fire burning beneath my feet, while thunder rolled above me; before I hurried back inside the hut, and curled tight inside my sleeping bag.

Streams turned to rivers, so we stretched the map out again, we went to the waterfalls, we went to the rainforest. 

In a golden moment, between adventures, the van held fast against the rain and breath filled the inside; quiet sleeping breaths; outside, insects were weaving through the thin columns of rain, the lake was dark, the rainforest was still. Two people, resting beside each other, in the same season, on the same pole.

Waking late, we hurtled the van along the skidding, pock-marked road, and you waded into the lake to catch the boat.

In the rainforest, we camped by the lake, alone except for a hut up the way, where three polite and scruffy boys were wild and unsupervised. They bested our supper of noodles with their supper of eel, which they caught themselves, and looking at the sky, they wondered if our tent would hold.

I woke in the night to thunder cracking and crashing and rain drumming and pressing against the thin fabric that separated us from the storm, and I wondered, too. When the rain stopped, the possums started screeching. Beside me, on that hard earth, you slept through, solid and warm and unafraid. 

Rain followed us up, up, up. Until the sun rose over a lake soft with bright clouds and I ran to wake you and there, yawning above the clouds in the dawn, it felt as though the world began with us.

We were burnt, bitten and blistered; the tires popped; you washed my hair in a roadside bathroom. 

It’s romantic, you said. It was.

The topsy turvy Christmas passed, as far away from home as I’d ever been; we feasted and celebrated and went to the beach in a summer that was my winter and swam as my family slept, far, far behind me. 

I have never gone anywhere without feeling homesick.

One morning, a few days before the turn of the year, I slipped away from the campsite where alarms were ringing, and I sat on the damp stones on the beach of the sound, and I ate dried apricots. I was tired from the trekking, from the details, the dramas, the wonders. Behind and above me were trees over eight hundred years old. I didn’t know what to make of that. I felt very young. 

I thought about how at home—on that other island, on that other pole—the word for soul is anam. On that morning, sitting on the stones, I felt the solitude like sunlight and I knew that the space was safe and sacred; I knew, too, that there were starfish under the water, because I’d swam the evening before. And finally, gloriously, I remembered being told that here, on this upside-down island, the word for soul is mana.

We welcomed the new year in a dirty, vibrant hostel, which emptied of its sparkly misfit guests in anticipation of the fireworks. But you and I stayed behind, and I played you a song on the guitar—a song I’d learnt for you when I missed you—and the song ended the moment that the fireworks went off, and the new year began.

A few days before turning the world right side up, before
 returning to the cold and wet north—where you would come back with me and brighten my winter—we went out to see the pinnacles: huge columns of granite that fourteen million years had sculpted. 

Following the empty river bed, we strayed and picked our way within the dark crevices. There, it felt that if I lingered too long, time would erode me; that my being would be carved away in furrows. Centuries by centuries had chiselled chasms into this rock and we stood at the bottom, hearts echoing. Stones unloosed and fell from far above; the rocks were changing still. 

At the bottom of the chasm, we looked up and a falcon, blazing bright with life, passed over the top of the pinnacles. Far below, you and I stood still for a moment in that pounding breath, and you kissed me, and then we made our way out, slipping and sliding over the uneven ground, to where it all opened up. To where, you and I, bared to the world, were blazing bright with life. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2024 issue of Parabola, FREEDOM. You can find the full issue on our online store.