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An Ultra-Marathon of Grief

Tiree Ultra-marathon 2022
Photograph: David Allaway, Iona Images

I walked along the beach yesterday to the finish line of Tiree’s Ultramarathon. The bagpipes heralded each runner as they crossed the line. As I came to the finishing post, there were no pipes for me. Obviously. I hadn’t run the gruelling thirty five miles in pelting rain through bog and wet sand. And yet, as I sat on the grass watching the runners come in, I felt tearful. The bright sun belied the day’s stormy start. Was it the pipes that took me back to my wedding day when the piper heralded me, the bride onto the yellow sands of a Tiree beach? A marriage that’s in pieces now.

Life has been a marathon these last few years. The finish line, a mirage that shimmers temptingly only to disappear another mile down the road. And there are no happy cheerers and belting pipes to celebrate the effort, the blisters, the aching limbs.

This is the experience of grief.

For me, better than the metaphor of a marathon, is the story of Vasilisa.

Vasilisa’s wicked step-mother, in true fairytale style, sends the young Vasilisa into the forest to procure a light from their neighbour, the fearsome Baba Yaga. The journey through the dark forest is utterly terrifying but nothing compared to the horror of the Baba Yaga’s house. Perched on chicken legs that shift this way and that, and surrounded by a fence made of human thigh bones topped with a skull, each bearing a flame, the house is the epitome of dread. The Baba Yaga, toweringly tall, hook nosed with a mouthful of iron teeth is as frightful as her house. She sets Vasilisa the impossible tasks of separating out a huge pile of poppy seeds from the dirt, and cleaning the wheat from the gravel. Fail and Vasilisa forfeits her life. With the help of a magic dolly, Vasilisa completes the chores and earns her light.

There are two details of the next episode of the story that particularly speak to me. The Baba Yaga inquires of Vasilisa if there is anything she wishes to know about her house before she leaves. Vasilisa questions the Baba Yaga about three horsemen, red, white and black, who had galloped past her as she had made her way through the forest. These, the great witch replies, are sunrise, noon, and dark night. Vasilisa is formulating another question about the strange phenomenon of disembodied hands that she had witnessed putting the Baba Yaga to bed, but her little magic dolly jumps up and down in her pocket, imploring her not to ask. Vasilisa remains silent and the Baba Yaga hoots with glee - ‘Just as well, girlie! If you had asked another question, I would have had to eat you.’

There are some things we just can’t know and nowhere more significantly than in grief. When we are consumed by the question why - Why me? Why did my loved one die? Why was my chid hurt? Why am I ill? Why is the world so full of suffering? - we are just that, consumed. Devoured by the Baba Yaga. We can’t know why such a thing has come to pass in our lives. The magic dolly’s caution invites Vasilisa, and us, if we choose to join her, to accept the unknowable. And there is peace in this.

The second detail takes place when Vasilisa is walking back through the forest. Now she walks boldly. She has been in the house of the Baba Yaga - nothing can scare her. And, she carries the light that the Baba Yaga has given her, a gleaming skull ripped from the fence of bones. As she nears her home, she is overwhelmed with exhaustion. The skull has become unbearably heavy and she contemplates tossing it aside. But the skull speaks to her and implores her not to let it go and not to give it to anyone. Vasilisa struggles on with her burden and when she reaches home the skull stares with such intensity at the step-mother that she is burnt to a cinder. In some versions the house is burnt down too.

The burden of suffering and the weight of the knowledge perceived through suffering can be too much to bear. Yet, when it is endured something happens, something shifts. The old life is gone.

The story of Vasilisa ends with her re-entering the forest intending to go to the Baba Yaga, but happening upon a quant cottage and a quant old lady where she takes up residence and spins flax which the old lady hawks in Moscow. The long and short of it is that the linen ends up on the Czar’s back and Vasilisa on his arm.

The Baba Yaga and the nurturing old lady are two sides of the same coin. Vasilisa through her journey into the heart of suffering becomes whole — not in the she’s-found-a-man-who-can-protect-her-sort-of-way — that would be risky given that it was that very lure that got me into my current predicament. Rather it is the Vasilisa and the Czar, that each of us has within. This is Tantra. The word Tantra conjours up visions of unbridled sexuality. Go beyond that, to the place where what appears to be opposite is in fact one. Bad/good, suffering/joy, weak/powerful, wrong/right. Sitting on the damp grass watching the runners cover the last stretch of beach, I want to be fêted too for the marathon that I have run. I want to cross a finishing line and be done with it. For the most part I’m Vasilisa in the forest, weary of the lifeless burden, but I have moments of seeing what it is the skull’s vacant eyes illuminate. That fleeting moment of the world perceived in the glimmer of unearthly light is enough to know that the prize is already won. It couldn’t be otherwise.

As a grandmother chasing after her lively grandchildren at the finish line of Tiree’s ultramarathon, commented, ‘there are no medals for us!’. No indeed! Like the work of mothering and grandmothering, the work of grief is not rewarded with a shiny emblem of success. Its boons are harvested in the heart, secretly, reluctantly, unwittingly.

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