Authors: Regina McBride
For Miranda, with love
PARTONEThe Coast of Rain and Shadows
PARTTWOThe Spanish Ships
PARTTHREEThe Ice Barge
PARTFOURBeyond the HorizonWESTERN COAST OF IRELANDCOUNTYDONEGALLate Sixteenth Century
When I was seven years old, my mother and I spent a July afternoon on the foreshore collecting kelp, which we planned to dry and burn for summer fires. It was a rare sunny day, the light blinding on the tide.
On our way home, we reached the old ruins, a great edifice with towers, now roofless, and long since crumbled in the harsh salt wind. My brothers and I often played here, exploring and hiding among its walls and foundation stones.
Mam’s creel basket was so heavy she put it down and sat on the broken stone stairway of the ruin, where sea grass and maidenhair ferns grew through the cracks.
She gazed out at the waves and the horizon, a faraway look on her face. Now and again that day, as we’d been gathering, I’d seen her lost in her thoughts, staring past the sea with this same earnest, distracted expression. I ached to know what she was thinking about, and now I asked her.
“I don’t really know that I can explain it, Maeve,” she said.
“Try, Mam,” I said.
“When I look at the horizon, I feel”—she paused, searching for the right words—“a yearning for something, but I don’t know what it is.”
She looked back at the horizon, and the same expression softened her features. She seemed so separate from me in that moment that it made me uneasy.
“What could it be you’re yearning for, Mam?” I asked, and touched her arm to bring her back.
She shook her head vaguely.
“Is it something you lost?” I asked.
“Maybe.” She smiled. “Something I lost long ago, before I was born.”
I stared out to where she was staring, hungry to understand. And that was when I heard a phrase of elusive music that dissolved when I strained to hear it better.
“Mam,” I said. “Did you hear music?”
She looked surprised by the question. “No,” she said. She got to her feet, picking up her heavy basket, and added, “Let’s go home now.”
Later that afternoon, after helping Mam lay out the kelp to dry, I went back down to the ruins to see if I could hear the music again. Just as I was beginning to focus on the horizon, a tide rushed high onto the beach with unusual force, reaching me and surrounding my ankles, pulling me so that I fell in the sand. When the tide withdrew, it left a greatheap of kelp. Immediately I thought how pleased Mam would be if I gathered as much as I could and brought it home to dry with the rest. As I did, I spied an object, tangled in the vines and leaves. It was about six feet long and looked to be made of iron and other wrought metals inlaid with veined stone.
I squatted down and gingerly swept ribbons of obscuring kelp away from it to get a better look. Decoratively engraved all over it were swirling symbols and animals with fierce faces and open mouths breathing fire. Embellished with leaves and fruits were the words THE ANSWERER.
I saw that there had once been a sharp spear at the top, but most of it was now broken jaggedly away. Maybe it had served as a weapon for a giant. Only the elaborate handle was still well intact, though rusted and barnacled as if it had spent centuries on the seafloor.
It was very heavy, and it took all my strength to turn it over. The other side was different. The carvings formed a kind of face with stylized features and a single swirling eyebrow over a large jewel eye—a kind of Cyclops. The jewel was both transparent and dim, with rich purple and brownish depths.
As I was gazing into it, a dark embankment of clouds moved in and obscured the sun. I heard my brothers’ voices on the hill above and panicked, feeling intensely possessive of this extraordinary object. I knew if they saw it they would take it. The two of them would be strong enough to lift it, and their games with it would be rough. They’d damage it or lose it somewhere.
Hoping they wouldn’t see, I struggled to place the objectback in the kelp, and inadvertently kicked a stone loose near a ruined pedestal. Turning, I noticed an opening under the broken stair. I knelt down and looked in, surprised to see a very low collapsed-earth room, in places only about four feet from the ceiling to the floor. It seemed a perfect spot to hide this object.
As I pushed it with great effort, sliding it toward the opening under the stair, I felt a warmth under my hands and saw a shadow move along the surface of the jewel eye. I felt certain that the thing was looking at me.
As the object fell onto the soft ground in the ruined room, I was sure I heard it moan and sigh, as if in relief. I lay there on my belly looking through the opening. “The Answerer,” I whispered, wondering over the name. It sank slightly into the loamy earth.
I was about to cover the opening up with stones when it began to rain, and my brothers’ voices faded into the distance. They had not even seen me down here. With no urgency now to hide my find, I remained there lying on my stomach looking in.
I decided that I would try to get the object out again, but a shower of mysterious red sparks fell from the low ceiling in the underground room and floated down over the Answerer, settling into the grooves of its embellishments.
Farther back in the shadows, I noticed a kind of shelf or dresser, now collapsed. It appeared to be composed of white stone with a green matrix, some kind of marble, perhaps, emblazoned with red stars. Each time bits of light fell from the ceiling, the stars sparked with a red brilliance, and theAnswerer sighed like a sentient being. It seemed to belong here, and that filled me with a mysterious satisfaction. It was meant to be hidden.
Before I left, and as the rain began to deluge me, I covered the opening in the stair with mud and stones.
That night at home, with kelp burning along with the turf, the air in the cottage smelled of the ocean. My head pounded and my face felt hot. Soon I was delirious.
Gripped by a high fever, I had my mother in a terror, thinking I would not survive.
From my sickbed, I saw the Answerer standing upright near the hearth cinders, focused on me with its deep, brimming eye. I sensed that it was grateful to me for concealing it in the hidden room. But it remained by the fire for a long time, gazing across the shadowy, smoky air of the cottage room, as Mam and I had gazed across the sea toward the horizon.
The next morning, my fever broke and I slept all day. I suffered amnesia with regard to the Answerer. I forgot about finding it the day before on the shore and hiding it possessively from my brothers. As if some spell had deprived me of the memory, I forgot I’d lain in the rain shivering because I did not want to take my eyes off it. I remembered it only vaguely as a presence that had stood near my sickbed.
And so it was consigned to the realm of figments and ghosts, the shadows of impossible creatures that live in the feverish imagination of a child.Seven years later …
The March wind was wild that Saturday morning when I left the cottage with my brothers to go down the hill to the beach.
I squinted and yawned in the mild sunlight as we descended from the promontory upon which our cottage sat exposed to the full force of the Atlantic gales. I shivered, pulling close the collar of my oilcloth coat.
None of us had slept well the night before.
Our mam had been up crying, and though our da had done his best to calm her, she’d been restless and uneasy over something particular, something she spoke of only in whispers.
Mam had not been fully herself since tragedy had struck our house the year before, when my baby sisterhad grown sick and died. Now my brothers and I all wanted to shake off the long sleepless night we’d just passed.
My brother Donal began to race toward the rocks where he saw our da’s boat beached. “I’m taking the boat out!” he screamed.
“The wind is too strong!” Fingal called out to him over the noise of the waves. “The boat’ll be dashed to the rocks!”
The waves broke and arched up, foaming and falling across the shoals.
“Our vessel can ride those swells!” Donal shouted proudly. He stood near the boat but made no efforts to drag it into the tide. I knew he was just taunting Fingal, who was of a cautious nature. Even Donal, daredevil that he was, wouldn’t tempt water so agitated.
My brothers and I had helped our father craft the boat and had lined it threefold in fat sealskins. Mam said that if the boat had a soul, it was a seal’s soul, the way it moved, long and dark and sure of itself, cutting the waters. So she had named itMananan’s Vesselafter the Irish sea god.
“I’ve an idea,” Donal said with a desperate sort of exuberance. “Let’s take the boat and leave Ard Macha for good and sail in search of the Holy Isles.”
“There’s no such place as the Holy Isles,” Fingal bellowed over the noise of the surf.
“Many people have reported seeing them,” Donal insisted.
“They’re imaginary. They’re only territories of the mind,” Fingal said, the wind blowing so hard it carried his voice above us and sent it seaward.
All my life, I had heard stories about those mysterious isles, where the goddess who had once ruled Ireland had exiled herself in centuries past. Some said the isles lay to the south, and others said they were to be found at a more northerly latitude. They were known by many names—the Holy Isles, the Land of Women, the Country of the Perpetually Young, the Isles of the Dispossessed—and were supposed to be otherworldly places where extraordinary things occurred.
“They have never been mapped or charted,” Fingal said, always the one to require proof of things.
Donal and Fingal were fifteen, one year older than I, and though they were twins, they could not have been more different. Donal had dark brown hair like mine and Mam’s, and he was strong and solidly built, while Fingal had red hair like our da’s and was slender. Donal was fiery and impulsive, while Fingal approached things with logic and caution. I often felt pulled between the two poles of their different natures, but today, Donal’s wish to escape resonated strongly with my own feelings.
Though the sun shone weakly through the clouds in the eastern sky, the horizon to the west was all mist. The idea of such an adventure, sailing to the west in search of mystical isles, appealed to me greatly. Mam’s unhappiness had been wearing away at my spirit. I ached for the world to open up before me.
“I think it’s sad that you don’t believe in the Holy Isles, Fingal,” Donal said.
Fingal laughed. “I think it’s sad that you do!”
“Stop fighting about it,” I snapped. “And you both know we can’t take the boat out in this weather.” The wind intensified, and our coats beat and rippled wildly around us.
I envisioned the three of us in Da’s boat, sailing through an otherworldly place, the dark clouds broken and ignited with green glimmering light. The Holy Isles were said to be a province altogether different from ours, lit by a black sun. I imagined the sea and the clouded sky illuminated by a dark planetary brilliance.
My two brothers were restless, full of energy and uncertain what to do with it. They ran closer to the water and began kicking stones, making them skid across the water. I saw Fingal bend down, finding something among the flotsam from the tides; then the two of them came running back.
“Look what I found, Maeve.” Fingal held up a jagged piece of something shiny. “A mirror. There’s enough sunlight that I can start a little fire with it.”
The three of us squatted down near a clump of beach grass.
“You see, you get the sunlight in the mirror,” he said, angling it back and forth with blinding flashes, “and shine it on the grass.”
We formed a kind of wall around the grass, blocking the wind. Fingal moved the mirror very carefully, and ablade of grass began to burn; soon, two other blades near it caught on fire.
A sudden loud commotion of birds sounded from the estuary around the rocks to the north. Gulls circled overhead, screeching wildly. As we stood, the wind put out our little fire.
We ran toward the noise, balancing precariously on the stones and leaning against the rock wall, making our way to the estuary. Tom Cavan, a boy a year older than my brothers who lived in the cottage closest to ours on Ard Macha and whom we’d known and disliked all our lives, was clutching tightly to a bit of slippery cliff shelf, stuck there, not certain how to get down safely. A large gull swept back and forth past him, its beak open, threatening to bite. That was when I noticed the hatchlings that lay dead below on the stones.
I pointed them out to my brothers.
“You devil! You lout!” Donal yelled at him.
“Help me, O’Tullagh!” Tom cried. “One of you climb over and around the other way and give me a hand up.”
“No! You monster!” Donal yelled.
“You’re getting your due! I hope she plucks your eyes out!” Fingal said.
“And why do you care so much about these nuisance birds?” Tom asked.
One of the hatchlings squirmed and moved its hardly formed wing.
“Fingal,” I said, touching my brother’s arm. “One of them is alive.”
He went over to it and squatted beside it. “The poor creature is still breathing,” he said, and lifted it very carefully, holding it in one cupped hand.
“I don’t think it’s long for this world,” Donal remarked, looking closely at it.
I touched the hatchling gingerly with one finger, and it blinked and gave a little spasm. Sensing its suffering, I went mad with anger at Tom.
“If it wouldn’t make me as low a creature as you, I’d pick up a stone and throw it at you!” I shrieked, trembling so I could barely control myself.
Tom turned his windburned face in my direction, wearing an expression I’d often seen come into his eyes: a cool fascination, almost as if it entertained him to see how outraged he could make me. At such moments, he seemed indifferent to my brothers’ anger with him. It was my reaction to his cruelty, my frustration with him, that he seemed to revel in. His green eyes glinted with a spark of orange as he stared at me.
For as long as we could remember, Tom Cavan had gone wild each spring, dropping the eggs of gulls from cliff rocks or throwing new hatchlings from their nests. And he shot down birds he never intended to eat. My brothers and I policed him. Da had said that Tom would likely grow out of that bad behavior, but now Tom was sixteen and seemed worse than ever.
It was a constant source of shock to me that the three girls our age who lived in the nearby valley were all completely smitten with Tom and professed to be jealous that his cottage was so close to mine. They found mycontempt for him as incomprehensible as I found their feelings for him. None seemed remotely moved to change her opinion when I explained the cruelty he was capable of. Each shrugged it off as something boys did.
Tom lost his precarious hold on the side of the cliff and fell down about seven feet to the rocks. He winced, probably having hurt his hip bone, but managed to get up, slipping once or twice. His only way out of the estuary was to come past where we stood. Fingal handed me the injured hatchling.
Donal and Fingal grabbed Tom by the shirt and dragged him over the rocks and back toward the beach.
“I hate you, Tom Cavan!” I said, turning away so that I wouldn’t have to see his face anymore.
“He’s got his slingshot, too.” Donal pulled it from Tom’s pocket and threw it into the sea. “He’s likely been shooting birds as well as knocking them from their nests.”
“We’re telling your da what you’ve done!” Fingal cried.
I stayed behind, struggling to catch my breath. I wondered what to do with the poor hatchling. I knew that once a baby bird had fallen from the nest, the mother and father would not accept it back. I decided I would take it home, and was about to when it shivered convulsively and the life went out of it. My face burned hot in spite of the wind, and tears began to flow.
I laid the creature next to its dead siblings and knelt down near them.
The wind came up high. The sky darkened, and a beltof rain moved in suddenly, bringing with it a procession of squalls. The water came so far inland that it drenched my skirts to the knee and swept over the baby birds, washing them into the sea. For a few moments they bobbed on the back of a wave, and then disappeared.
Back on the higher beach, I looked up toward the cottage, and though the rain began to soak me, I did not want to go home. It seemed to me that things were much too slow to change here on Ard Macha. My mother’s unhappiness would not lighten. And Tom Cavan had never learned his lesson, only become increasingly wayward, untrustworthy and cruel.
But it was something else, something I had heard Da say to Fingal quietly by the fire the night before, that made me not want to go home. He’d said that he was afraid for our mam, that the grief over losing little Ishleen had been too much for her, and he feared that her mind was no longer right.
I looked again into the mist on the horizon and felt a palpitating longing to be sailing away in search of mystical isles.
The rain intensified. I pulled my coat close around me, pushing against the wind, and ran north toward the ruins. Centuries of towering waves had eaten it down to natural terraces of rock, and the banisters to pedestals, crumbled and beaten, washed white and broken by the tides. Still, in spite of all the diminishment, there remained a sense of immensity about the place.
We had been told that it had once been a convent for the pious, cloistered order of Saint Brigid. I always doubted that, long before my mother suggested to me that it wasn’t true. The nuns I’d seen in the village of Kilcoyle were a meek and retiring lot, and this had once been too powerful and ostentatious a building to house such creatures.
I ran toward a decrepit tower to take shelter from the downpour.
From this spot, looking through the break in the wall, I could see the bog where the men of Ard Macha cut turf for burning. It looked desolate now in the rain, and as I stared, I relived the day last year, also in the month of March, when my baby sister, Ishleen, had become ill.
My da, my brothers, Tom Cavan, and his father, Michael Cavan, had been standing in the bog, cutting the dark loamy earth into neat slices that they’d piled on the ground to dry. Mam and I had brought an afternoon meal to the men. Since she’d been carrying Ishleen at the time, I had held the basket of bread and cheese and the flask of hot tea.
Ishleen had reached and flexed one of her small plump hands toward me and smiled from over Mam’s shoulder. I had made a face at her and she’d laughed, her cheeks round and ruddy.
Tom’s shovel had hit something hard in the rich uncut ground. As my brothers had been helping him unearth the obstruction, a rancid smell had risen out of the bog. We had all covered our faces in revulsion, but it had caused Ishleen to grow agitated. Mam and I had both spoken softly to her, but she’d begun to kick and squirm in an uncharacteristic way.
The thing that had been unburied was very large, and for a while, no one knew what it was. All five men had gone down on their knees around it, wiping the damp peat away.
“It’s armor of some kind,” Donal had called out.
Ravens had gathered and sat on the walls of the ruins, facing us. Ishleen’s agitation had grown progressively worse, and when my brothers had helped Tom out of the bog hole and onto dry land, Ishleen, her face damp and ablaze, had begun to scream. At a loss, Mam had carried her up the hill, Ishleen’s screams echoing down to us.
The thing that had lain under the ground had indeed been armor, as black as pitch from centuries in the bog. It was a piece of back and chest armor, unusual in two shocking ways: it had been made to a woman’s form, and the woman who had once worn it had to have been at least ten feet tall, a veritable giantess. Etched into the metal at the shoulders and collar and along the bottom were small images. Fingal had peered closely at these, recoiling now and again at the stench, then touching them with his fingertips to remove any excess turf.
“These are Viking symbols,” he’d said, and I’d stepped in to look. The thing had emitted an intense cold.
“I hate to say what I think this is,” Fingal had added.
“Tell us,” Da had said.
“The armor of a Valkyrie, a Viking corpse goddess. There were battles near here, I heard, seven centuries ago, around the time when the great Brian Boru defeated the Vikings at the battle of Clontarf.”
The ravens that had gathered around the ruins had suddenly risen in a noisy panic and flown inland. In the distant sky over the sea, much larger birds were circling, their screeches echoing ominously.
It was the memory of those birds that shocked me backto the present moment. I sighed. Other than the soft patter of the rain on the bog water, the skies were quiet.
Feeling someone’s touch on my shoulder, I gasped and turned. A young woman with dark, agitated eyes stood a few steps behind me, leaning forward from the waist, her arm extended, fingers poised to touch my shoulder again. She wore a cloak, white and very pale gray, and as she slid the hood off her head, bits of goose or swan down drifted from her sleeves.
She cast nervous glances at the bog, and then out at the areas of the hill and beach that could be seen through the break in the tower wall. Undoing the top button of her cloak very deliberately, she revealed a necklace with three faceted crystals, each the size of my thumb, hanging from a silver chain.
With a breathless urgency she detached one of the crystals and said, “Your mother needs this charm. It will protect her.”
Looking closely at it, I saw that it was a kind of delicate bottle, containing a disembodied flame.
I wanted to ask many things, but the woman’s presence had the effect of silencing me. The ground beneath my feet moved, and my head began to ache, my thoughts unclear. Her urgency seeped into me and she kept speaking in soft, fervent tones, but she seemed to have lapsed into an arcane language, and I could not translate it. I peered at her in great earnestness, as if it were the feelings behind her words, and not the words themselves, that were necessary to absorb.
Though the rain continued to fall, I realized I could nolonger hear it. Nor could I hear the sea, though it had been clearly audible only minutes before. The sky had darkened to a deep blue color, and the entire world seemed to suspend itself in quiet.
The woman was about to go, but she looked at me and hesitated; then she detached another bottle and handed it to me. The flame contained within this one was more robust and brighter red than the other.
I pointed at myself to ask if it was meant for me to keep. She nodded, then stepped away, and I watched her lit figure drift slowly from the ruins. I wanted to follow but could not move from the place where I stood. When I could no longer see her, some spell was broken. I heard the wind again, and the waves.
It stunned me when I realized how dark it was. The rain had stopped. It seemed to me I had spoken to the woman for only a short time, but now evening had come on.
In spite of the desire to reveal everything to Mam, I found myself afraid to. The woman had looked so concerned about Mam. I began concocting a story about how I’d come upon the bottles.
I started home at a quick pace, but stopped in my tracks once to look again at the little bottles. First I looked at the one meant for me. When it caught the light, deep and brilliant colors alternated on its surfaces: emerald into blue, then into violet and a very deep purple. Its beauty filled me with a pleasant sensation and caused my heart to race. I slipped the bottle back into my pocket, then held up the one for Mam in the last of the light,studying it. A symbol was engraved in the metal stopper on top: three spirals, all connected to one another. It was at this moment, while my concentration on the symbol was most intent, that Tom Cavan’s voice startled me from close behind.
“What have you got?” he said, and grabbed my arm.
I dropped the bottle and it shattered on the stone, all the liquid within absorbed into the earth.
“Look what you’ve done!” I screamed. If it had been my bottle broken instead of Mam’s, my outrage might have been less.
He stared at me with a smile. “You haven’t answered my question. What was that?”
“Nothing at all that is any business of yours, you stupid devil!” I cried, barely containing my rage and disappointment. I squatted down, gathering as quickly as I could the shards and the metal stopper, which had remained intact. He grabbed my hand, laughing as he tried to get the pieces from me. I squeezed so tight that the glass cut my palm numerous times.
At that moment, as blood dripped from my hand and I was nearing the verge of hysteria, I felt a tingling warmth from my skirt pocket. Somehow the sensation of the other bottle there calmed me. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. While I possess this bottle, I thought, Tom has no power to upset me. When I opened my eyes again, I looked with calm indifference at Tom and saw some confused thought pass over his features, the smile dropping from his face. It was my frustrated anger thathe thrived on. I rose to my feet and continued my steady gaze into his eyes.
“I don’t believe you have a soul, Tom Cavan,” I said with quiet authority.
Irritated by my calm disdain, he looked lost.
Carefully I placed the wet shards and bottle stopper in my other pocket. Tom remained where he was, unmoving, as I took the strip of cloth I used to tie back my hair and wiped the blood from my hand with it. Some of the luminous liquid from the shards had entered the cuts in my palms, causing a pleasant shiver.
I continued on my way home. Gradually, before a full minute had passed, the cuts were gone.
To my great relief, when I got home, Mam did not look upset. She was peeling potatoes, and she gestured with her head to my empty chair next to her, my little peeling knife waiting for me on it. My brothers were sitting near the fire with our father, helping him mend his fishing net.
I smiled at Mam, and she smiled back. I hung up my oilcloth coat at the door and sat down to help her peel.
The kitchen was bright with lamp and firelight. Even when the wind wailed against the outer stones of the cottage, all thatch and mud and whitewash, this room stayed warm. It was the gathering place where everything happened, with its earth floors and open rafters, the walls hung with Mam’s dry herbs and Da’s fishing tackle, nets and oilskins. The black pot hanging from thecrane above the hearth issued the fragrant steam of cooking mackerel.
The rest of the cottage beyond this one area was unlit and plunged in shadow: the box bed with the curtain, where my parents slept, and past that, the narrow winding stair that led to the small loft where my brothers slept. And on the other side, closest to the back door that led directly into the cow byre, my own pallet bed on its curtained platform.
I already felt an intense attachment to this little bottle, the one the woman had said was meant for me, in awe of how it had calmed me and given me authority over Tom! I had been thinking that I’d give it to Mam to replace the broken one, but now I tried to think of ways that I would not have to part with it. Perhaps I could find the woman again and tell her what had happened, and she could spare me the last bottle on the necklace for Mam.
“Where were you?” Donal asked. “We were scouting for you but couldn’t find you.”
“I waited out the rain in the ruins,” I said.
“But where were you after that? It stopped raining ages ago,” Da said.
I paused. “Just wandering.”
“I suppose the wee bird died,” Fingal said.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Tom’s father is in a fury with him, threatening to send him away from Ard Macha,” Donal said.
“But his mam doesn’t want him to go, and she’s fighting to keep him here though he never lifts a finger to help them,” Fingal said.
“He’s the last child,” Mam said, “and an old cow’s calf at that.” All of Tom’s siblings were much older and had long since scattered to the four winds.
“She’s spoiled him, the way she’ll never believe a bad thing about him,” Da remarked.
“When the Callahan sisters heard that he might leave, they were all in a lather,” Donal said.
“Why do those girls fancy him? He’s so cruel and awful!”
“Maeve, you’re the only girl this side of Killybegs who doesn’t melt when she sees Tom Cavan,” Donal said.
“Ugh!” I made a repulsed face.
“Don’t you see it, Maeve?” Mam asked, looking at me with a gentle curiosity. “Even I see it. He’s quite the handsome devil.”
“I don’t see a handsome devil,” I said. “Only a devil.”
I was too proud to admit that I had my moments of wonder over Tom’s physical beauty. He had high cheekbones, a strong jaw and light brown waves of hair that went gold in the summer. I had only studied him at leisure twice. Both times he had not known that he was being observed, and with no one around to taunt, he’d looked lost in thought and vaguely sad, and I had wondered what it was that drove him to be so malicious.
“I hope he goes soon,” I said, excited by the prospect of his disappearing from our lives. “Where might he be sent?”
“I don’t know. It isn’t for certain yet,” Fingal said. “Anyway, enough talk about Tom Cavan.” He took out the little notebook in which he liked to chart the stars onclear nights, matching what he saw to the time of year, the month and the day.
At the schoolhouse in Dunloe, Fingal had heard of Galileo and astronomy and had, to no avail, tried to find books in Dungarven or even in the larger port town of Killybegs. He had these notions about the turning of the world and the stars and sun, a desire to somehow see the order in the universe.
But education was difficult to get; teachers passed through, and for long periods of time, there’d be no teacher in residence at all. Because I was a girl, I didn’t even have the option of attending. But Donal, who was also a gifted student, taught me to read from a book of adventure tales, a book that was illustrated with etchings of castles and knights and ladies, which he had borrowed from the schoolhouse and intended to return if there was ever a teacher again.
It had been hard lately to get him to read with me, though. He had become preoccupied with fighting the English invaders in Ireland, and collected stories from friends and acquaintances about English atrocities committed against the Irish.
Fingal got up and wandered to the door, looking out and up at the sky. “It’ll rain again tonight,” he said with disappointment. Rarely was there a night clear enough that Fingal could observe the movements in the heavens. He sat down near the fire with his notebook and began to reread his scribbled observations from the last clear night.
Mam and I were finishing the potatoes, getting readyto boil them with the mackerel, while Da was stoking the embers, bringing the fire to a roar.
I felt Mam’s eyes on me and realized that I kept stopping my knife on the skin of the potato, absorbed by the memory of the woman who had given me the bottles.
“Maeve,” Mam said, “are you all right?”
I looked up, startled, wishing I could pour my heart out, but some fear held me back.
“Yes, Mam, I’m fine,” I replied, though she continued to look at me doubtfully.
Suddenly Donal spoke. “I heard today about a mother and child that were murdered by English soldiers in Galway.”
A shadow fell over Mam’s face.
“Donal,” I said, and shook my head at him.
He looked at me darkly. “It’s all got to be spoken about, Maeve. We cannot pretend it isn’t happening.”
“All right, then, but don’t be so detailed in the way you tell things.”
He smoothed back a big lock of dark brown hair that kept falling over one eye. “I’ll say only this: the English soldiers value Irish lives less than they value the lives of sheep.”
The beautiful little bottle in my pocket seemed to pulse just as Mam looked up from her peelings and announced in a soft voice filled with portent, “I have something to tell you children.” Tension filled the air as we all waited, hardly breathing. After a silence, she said, “There’s going to be a baby.”
We all looked at one another anxiously, but Mamlooked down again at the potato she had in her hands and went quiet.
The rain began to fall, making soft, eerie sounds in the thatch above us.
Mam looked distracted and fragile. When I saw her eyes begin to dampen, I reached with a sudden impulse for the beautiful little bottle in the pocket of my flannel dress and handed it to her.
She put down her knife and took it, holding it up in the firelight.
“How beautiful, Maeve,” she whispered, her eyes wide and glistening. “It looks like a little flame in there.”
“I found it at the ruins,” I said.
Mam gazed at it incredulously. “Is it fire or is it liquid?” she whispered as if to the air. She seemed to forget about the potatoes, her eyes misting over.
“It’s for you!” I said suddenly. I felt a physical pain in my stomach at parting with it.
“Thank you, Maeve,” she said quietly, tearing her eyes from it to look at me. She reached over with her other hand and brushed the hair from my face. “You’ve mud in your hair,” she said, slightly startled, and smiled. She looked down at my hems and saw mud dried thick there and on my shoes.
I had not noticed a very tiny hole in the top lip of the bottle, but Mam saw it immediately. She put the bottle on a piece of thread and hung it like a necklace around her neck. I thought it astonishing that she knew to wear it as a charm, and this made me ache to tell her about the woman who had also worn it that way. But as Mampicked up her knife again, urging me to do the same, and we peeled the skins from the last of the potatoes, I held back. The woman’s concern over Mam caused a heavy weight in my stomach.
When we’d finished, I stoked the fire beneath the pot. Mam suddenly raised her face and listened to something she heard outside. Wiping her hands on a tea towel, she stepped out into the downpour, where she stood without moving.
Da went to her. “Come back inside, Nuala,” he said, but she did not reply. After several minutes, each of my brothers chimed in, pleading with her to come inside, but she refused, holding a hand up in the air, still listening hard to something. I went out and stood with her, looking up into her face.
“Do you hear?” she asked me.
At first, I didn’t, and I felt my heart growing heavy. But then she took one of my hands in hers, and beyond the drumming and splatter of the rain, I detected another sound. I held my breath and listened to a soft humming, weird and mournful, a voice human-sounding yet hardly human. I recognized it somehow, at moments sweet and plaintive like music, but could not place it. The sound filled me with a vague yearning I could not name. The quiet calling seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.
I noticed that the bottle of pale red liquid around Mam’s neck wore a kind of aura in the rain, a cape of luminous mist.
The rain silenced a little, and the sound took morevolume. With a shock, I recognized it as the voice of a single swan. Though it was nowhere to be seen, I knew the song to be identical to the cries of the wild swans that sometimes frequented the lake near the bog. I had often heard them sing, but always collectively. Relief washed over me as the mystery was solved, but then Mam said, “Do you hear her, Maeve? She’s calling me.”
When I looked perplexed by this statement, she said, “Your sister, Ishleen. It’s her very self that will be coming to us again.” She touched her belly with one hand.
“Nuala,” my father said tenderly. “It isn’t the same child.”
“It is, Desmond!” Mam said with fervor. She gave him a look then as if his words were a betrayal. “I’m the one who bears the child in my body. I think I know better!”
Da looked stunned by the intensity in her voice.
There was the real world of the five senses, the factual world with all its borders and boundaries. Anyone of that real world who could hear it would say the voice was the murmuring of an isolated swan. But there was also the subtler world, which was also a world of the senses, but of infinitely more than five. And in that world, the voice was that of Ishleen, whom Mam was carrying for a second time; the sister who should not have died, and who ached to come back to us. I understood this all at once as the rain soaked me, and, looking into Mam’s face, I could feel what she was feeling. Mixed with her anxiety was a vivid yearning, the desire I could feel so physically that it made my stomach seem to float in my body. As strong as it was, it was also elusive. And I remembered suddenlythe day Mam and I had gazed out at the horizon and talked about this vague, unnameable yearning. What seemed strange to me now, and made no sense, was that it was the same feeling, as if it had always been Ishleen we’d been yearning for, even before the first Ishleen had been born.
Only Ishleen returning safe into this world would quell this desire in Mam. Only Ishleen could make the world be right again for her.
My father and brothers were under the awning, keeping dry while Mam and I stood out in the element, soaked and dripping. Turning and looking into my father’s eyes, I felt my heart drop. All the certainty of what I’d just been feeling dissolved. Da’s eyes were filled with fear and tinged with melancholy. I thought of the words I’d heard him speaking to Fingal the night before, that Mam’s grief had affected her mind and she was not the same woman she had been a year ago.
I breathed deeply in the rain and was wrought with confusion, torn between the sense that I understood everything Mam felt, and the fear for her sanity. But I could hear the swan, and when I listened to it murmuring and humming, I wanted to believe that Mam was right, that it was whispering to her; that my sister, both dead and yet to be reborn, was speaking through it.
“Do you feel it, Maeve? How badly she wants to come back to us in this life?”
It frightened me how much I did feel it, and how intent and overcome Mam was with her certainty about the voice. I nodded, and knew my shivering was not caused by the rain.
Mam and I had changed out of the wet garments. She had dried my hair and now she sat before the hearth staring into the fire, the pot of potatoes trembling on the boil, and I stood behind her drying her hair with a cloth.
Da had taken up repairing his net again, his big calloused hands working deftly, tying and knotting. Donal, who was helping him halfheartedly, suddenly looked up.
“I hear there are strangers in the village of Dunloe,” he said, “and though they are not wearing uniforms, everyone is suspicious that they are English soldiers getting a good look around at the place.”
“Da, we’ve got to be ready if they come to Ard Macha,” Fingal said, and Da nodded in agreement.
They kept on their conjectures about the Englishsoldiers as if to distract themselves from their fears about Mam, but I saw their eyes flashing to and away from her.
Donal started talking aboutThe Book of Invasions, about the successive takings of Ireland over the centuries.
“Why is Ireland always being invaded, Da?”
Da went still, his hands stopping their steady work. He looked up, his reddish hair glinting in the firelight like newly shined copper.
“She is wild, her land richer and greener than any other land, and her weather is moody.” Da glanced at Mam. “She is superstitious and she is a fatalist. She cannot be fully conquered. The invaders know that, and it eats at them. Her soul is her own.”
Mam was watching the steam rise from the boiling pot. A few droplets of rain still clung to her face and dripped from the ends of her long, dark hair. I had the sense that though Mam was pretending to be lost in her own thoughts, she was listening to every word Da said, and feeling all the meaning of it.
The potatoes were ready, and I helped Mam ladle them into bowls along with boiled fish. Instead of five places, Mam set six, placing an extra bowl of food between me and her.
“We’ll leave the door ajar,” she said, though the rain was still falling, “so she knows she’s welcome.”
Mam looked wistfully at the open door the entire meal, the threshold soaked, the earth floor around it going to mud. She raised her head high and strained to listen through the rain.
“I hear her again,” she said.
My brothers set down their spoons very quietly, and a soft pall settled around us all. I could not bear to look at Da, knowing what I’d see in his eyes. Mam, sensing their discomfort, frowned, and a wrinkle formed between her eyebrows.
To change the subject, I said, “Did you see the little bottle I found in the ruins and gave to Mam?”
Mam fingered the bottle that hung around her neck, glowing softly.
The others looked at it. “There’s something moving in it, like a flame,” Da said.
“Yes.” Mam grasped it possessively as Da reached across to touch it. “You know,” she went on, not looking at Da but only at my brothers and me, “those ruins are not the remains of a convent as everyone says they are.”
“I always imagined that it was a palace and a king ruled it,” Fingal said.
“Itwasa palace,” Mam said, “but you know as well as I do that it was a queen who ruled it, not a king.”
“A queen?” Donal asked, raising his eyebrows and smiling, but unable to hide the indignant blush that had come upon his cheeks.
Even when my brothers were small, and Old Peig, the midwife who had brought us all into the world, first told us that a queen had once ruled Ireland, they’d scoffed at the story and insisted it was false. They still did not like the idea of women ruling Ireland.
“In the early times, women ruled Ireland, Donal, and the entire coastline was covered in primeval forest, treeseverywhere, all the way down to the sand on the beach, flowers and fruit and fields of grain. When the trees were cut down, the queen went into exile. Now all one might harvest here is rock and shell. Even our little plots of potatoes and barley are won from difficult labor,” Mam said.
“Old Peig!” Donal muttered, and rolled his eyes.
Fingal, the biggest skeptic of all, could not help but ask, “And that is because the queen fell, Mam?”
Fingal was not trying to sound condescending, but it was there always in his voice whenever Mam talked about things she called history and he called folklore.
I shouted out in defense of Mam. “A queen can rule and a queen can fall, just as a king can fall!”
“Maybe,” Mam said, “with even more terrible consequences than when a king falls.”
Da and my brothers went quiet again at the grave tone of Mam’s voice.
“You’ve never heard in school of the great queens of Ireland? The first was the goddess Danu.”
“Danu,” Donal said. “Weren’t she and her people defeated by the Milesians, who would rule the visible world, while Danu and her people, the Danaans, took possession of the invisible regions belowground and beyond the seas? Isn’t it the old myth that they still rule those regions?”
“It’s something like that,” Mam said, “though I believe big important pieces are missing from the history books. The Holy Isles were established eventually, and Danu became remote from the people of Ireland, though she longs to return.”
“But it’s a myth, Nuala,” Da said gently.
“How do you know that it’s a myth?” Mam asked, turning to him sharply. I could see by her clipped tone that she was very angry with Da.
“How could such things be real?” he asked.
Mam rolled her eyes. With my brothers she was a little more tolerant, but with Da right now, she was positively impatient. “There is more to the world than you can see directly before you, Desmond!” she cried, then pounded the table with her fist in exasperation.
There was a collective silence, which no one dared break.
Mam was very proud, and Da, I knew, had hurt her by dismissing her certainty that Ishleen would come to us a second time.
Donal shot Mam a pained look, and seeing it, Mam sighed, then said, in a softer tone, “But all that is hearsay. The ruins are what we were talking about in the first place. They were a convent, as we’ve always been told. A quiet hostel of nuns at prayer. After all, what good is a woman if she is not quiet?”
She gave Da a withering look, and his face fell. He hung his head.
I sat alone on my bed behind the curtain and carefully examined the triple-spiral stopper from the broken bottle meant for Mam. It was a single swirling unbroken line that formed three spirals, like the crest of one wave sitting on top of two others. I worried that the bottle meant forme might not offer Mam all the protection she might need, so I put the triple-spiral stopper onto a string, then went out to her and told her I’d found it also at the ruins, and that I wanted her to have it.
Her eyes lit up, and she took in a breath, immediately drawn to it. Her hand shook slightly as she reached to take it.
“But don’t you want it for yourself, Maeve?” she asked.
“No, Mam, it’s for you.”
I gazed at the bottle intended for me, glimmering around her neck, and yearned to have it again in my possession. But I could not ask her for it. She had been so moved when I’d given it to her. Besides, when I thought of the mysterious woman’s concern for Mam, I knew Mam needed it more than I did.
Mam slipped out of the house in the middle of the night. I got up and saw my father standing at the open door looking down the cliff to the beach. It was the moonlight and the reflections of it on the water that illuminated Mam’s figure, standing there on the black rocks looking out to sea, her forearms and hands pressed to her belly, the crystal bottle glowing softly between her breasts.
Very faintly from somewhere in the distance, I could hear the soft murmuring of the swan.
“Don’t you hear it, Da?” I asked, and touched his shoulder.
He turned and faced me, his forehead fraught with distress. “Hear what, love?”
“The swan. Do you hear its voice?”
He gave me a piercing look, a further darkness cast over his brow.
“Not yourself as well, my girl,” he said.
I felt a wave of panic move through me. “But I hear it, Da.”
“You love your mother so much you think you hear something,” he said. “But there’s no sound other than the one we’re always hearing: the waves breaking below on the shore.”
That night, when Mam came back in, she did not sleep with Da behind the curtain in the box bed, but went into the byre and slept between the cow and her new black calf.
The next morning, I stepped outside the threshold of our cottage to watch my father and brothers descend the cliff, making their way down to the sand and through the rushes, where they climbed into the small fishing boat and navigated the waters of the bay.
Close enough that the mists could not conceal it, askelligrose from the sea, an isle of jagged peaks around which gannets and kittiwakes squealed and circled. When Ishleen was still alive, Old Peig had told us that long ago, theskelligwas known as Woman’s Crag.
“Sometimes,” the old woman had said, “the goddess Danu herself came and stood there, looking longingly at Ard Macha.”
Sailors and fishermen still reported apparitions there occasionally, of an otherworldly woman.
Today the birds around it screeched and called, rising in nervous clouds, circling and alighting again.
Often my father did not take the boat, but walked south on the headland to a shelf of limestone under an overhang of rocks, where he fished for black pollack. But this morning, in spite of the noise and riot of the birds around theskellig, the sea was still. I watched my brothers help him spread the fishing net.
I breathed in the soft air and sighed, then went inside, where Mam was sweeping the earthen floor.
Suddenly she stopped the broom.
“You know why the birds are screeching like that today, don’t you, Maeve?” she asked.
When I looked at her, at a loss, she touched my cheek and said, “They hear your sister, too, through the voice of the swan.”
With Mam’s hand on my cheek, I could hear the very faint uttering of the swan, seeming to come from the air itself.
“We’ve got to do everything we can to help little Ishleen come safely back to us,” she said. “We need to pick the herb that grows wild around the pagan stones.”
Picking the vervain was looked down upon as a kind of pagan practice, but Mam did it anyway. She hated being dictated to, and, believing there was protective magic in it, she often dried and burned the herb.
“And we can leave a few offerings at the shrine of Saint Brigid, the patron saint of motherhood,” I said to her, the shrine being near where the vervain grew.
Mam liked this idea, and we gathered a few thingstogether that we might use as offerings: seashells, small stones we’d collected on the shore over the years, buttons and stubs of candles. Mam reached for the comb decorated with rhinestones that Da had bought her in Killybegs before they’d married.
“You aren’t going to part with that, Mam?” I asked. “Da gave it to you.”
The color rose in her face, and she tightened her lips. “I don’t like the way your da’s looking at me lately, Maeve, like I’ve lost my senses, when the fact is, my senses have never been finer.”
“Why don’t you soften to him, Mam?” I pleaded quietly.
She hesitated, but still put the comb in the wicker basket. When Mam got proud over something, she was as unmovable as a mountain.
We left the cottage and walked the cliff road to the site of the shrine.
Mam lit a bit of candle and put it into a china cup to protect the flame from the wind, and left it before the weathered statue of Saint Brigid, who stood in a grotto of rock, long dry grasses trembling in the breeze around her.
“Maeve,” Mam said. “Look, there’s the new pastor, Father Cormac.”
A thin, dark-haired figure was walking gingerly around the ancient stones, studying them earnestly, his hat pressed against his heart.
“How odd, Maeve. A priest in this place.”
In church every week, our old pastor, Father Flanagan,had discouraged anything at all that rang of old beliefs. From the road once, he had seen Mam here gathering vervain and had railed at her to keep away from the pagan stones on her way to the shrines.
After that day, Mam had stopped attending Mass. I think she got a secret pleasure out of bucking convention, and continued to wander freely among the stones, which some of the local women found scandalous. Da, and the rest of us, still went to Mass. Father Flanagan had died the previous winter and this new, young pastor had been sent to us.
Mam gazed at Father Cormac intently as he squatted down and touched one of the stones.
“He must be a good man, this new priest,” she said softly.
It was then that Father Cormac turned and saw us there. Even at the distance we stood from him, I saw him blush to be caught here, but he rose up and smiled and waved his hat before he put it back on and walked toward us.
“You seem to understand something that our previous pastor did not, Father Cormac,” Mam said.
“What could that be, Mrs. O’Tullagh?”
“That there’s no great difference between the ancient saints and the new ones.”
“Well, historically you are right, Mrs. O’Tullagh.”
“Our Saint Brigid herself was originally the pagan Brigid, the goddess of mothers, smiths, poets and healers,” Mam said with a ring of bravado in her voice.
“Yes, the world is a much more complicated place than many give it credit for being,” he said, smiling widely at her.
“And you know also, Father, that a queen once ruled Ireland,” she said.
“Yes, there were great queens once ruling here,” he replied.
“Anyone else, Father, would deny that, would say that women were weak and dependent creatures.”
“I’d never say that, Mrs. O’Tullagh,” he said softly, and bowed.
I liked his pink face and mild blue eyes and his smile that made him press his lips together.
“Then you are a good and wise man, Father Cormac,” Mam said. “So much so that I think I might like to go back to church next Sunday.”
“I would be greatly honored if you did, Mrs. O’Tullagh,” he said. “I hope to see you there.”
He bowed to both of us and wandered down the road.
“Da would be thrilled if you went back to church, Mam,” I said.
Mam stiffened at the mention of Da. “Your father thinks I’m mad.”
“He doesn’t, Mam.”
“He does,” she countered firmly.
I looked into the wicker basket and noticed we still had the comb.
“I’m glad you’re keeping the comb, Mam,” I said.
“I’m not keeping it. I’m just looking for a good place toleave it. Not as an offering, just as something that needs to be let go of.”
She wandered in among the pagan stones and threw the comb at a distance into the overgrowth. My heart sank, and I turned away. If Da didn’t believe that Ishleen was coming back to us, how would he ever redeem himself in Mam’s eyes?
“Maeve!” Mam cried out suddenly, pointing to something under what once must have been a druid altar. I ran to her. A swan was nested in a clump of moss and ferns, one injured wing lying across its side spread open like a fan.
“The poor creature’s probably a victim of Tom Cavan’s. He had a slingshot in his pocket when we found him yesterday,” I said.
Mam knelt down before it, and it stood and stretched its full length and flapped its powerful wing, holding the other carefully extended. Swans when approached were usually cantankerous, but this one surrendered fully as Mam lifted it in her arms. It was of a placid, docile nature, unbirdlike in the way it looked at us, its eyes strangely human, watchful and aware.
Walking home along the promontory, we passed two townswomen, Mrs. Callahan and Mrs. Molloy, both of whom had been cold to Mam since she’d stopped attending Mass. They huddled next to each other when they saw Mam carrying the swan in her arms a few paces ahead of me, the creature uttering softly, and Mam, not caring an iota what the women thought, uttering back.The two women began to whisper, and after Mam had passed them and I was about to, one of them said, “Nuala O’Tullagh’s stone mad for sure.”
The other replied, “And that daughter of hers is following directly in her shoes.”
My heart plummeted. I tried to keep pace with Mam, but the words of the women kept repeating themselves, stunning me anew each time they did.
When we were near home, we saw Tom Cavan standing on the road watching us with his arms crossed. I stiffened, tightening my jaw as we passed him. I flashed my eyes in his direction.
“Are you responsible for this, Tom?” I asked.
He gave me that piercing, eerie smile. “Just for you,” he said.
My face burned and I took a deep breath, but without the bottle near my skin, I could not seem to suppress my outrage. I felt the fury and frustration distorting my features. He snickered as we passed him.
Mam and I scaled the hill, and while she took the swan home, I stopped at the Cavans’ cottage and knocked. Mr. Cavan opened the door. Farther into the room, Mrs. Cavan was stirring a pot over the fire.
“Tom did it again, Mr. Cavan,” I said. “He never learns. He gets pleasure from injuring helpless creatures, and no one ever puts a stop to it!”
He looked at me gravely. “You’re right, Maeve. There’s a wharf man’s job waiting for him in Ballyowen. It’s time he grew up.”
“No!” Mrs. Cavan protested.
“I’ll not hear another word out of you about it, Eileen. He’s going to Ballyowen in the morning.”
I felt dazed as I walked home.
Mam carefully put the swan’s wing into a splint, and we made a bed for it with rushes and soft blankets, and fed it oats. I lit a fire, and Mam and the swan settled near it, the swan resting its long neck over Mam’s shoulder. It spoke in a quiet murmur, and Mam spoke back as if she understood.
“This creature reassures me greatly, Maeve,” she said. “It is heavy and substantial, and its heart is big! You can feel it thudding.”
I sat near her and admired the swan, touching its feathers, feeling the silken soft down when it shifted its wings, its bright amber eyes thoughtful and intelligent.
I was restless, alternately excited by the prospect of Tom’s departure and haunted by the words of the two women.
When Da and my brothers came home, they were startled by the presence of the swan.
“This creature’s just here to ensure that Ishleen arrives to us safely,” Mam explained to them with a note of defiance in her voice. She’d not be dissuaded by their doubts. I longed to be as sure as she was.
I watched their eyes as they exchanged uneasy looks. Da settled before the hearth and stared mutely into the fire. I was afraid of this certainty he and my brothers seemed to feel about the unsoundness of Mam’s mind, afraid of the powerful way that certainty held the air. If Ibreathed it enough, I wondered, would it persuade me, too? I did not want to face the spark of my own doubts.
Before dark, unable to bear it any longer, I escaped the oppressive air of the house and went out to the pagan stones. Mam was of an impulsive and fiery nature when she was angry. I knew that a time would come when she would regret throwing the comb into the field, so I searched for it in the overgrowth but could not locate it. Eventually I gave up and found myself drawn to the ruins. I wandered down there, around the tower to an archway with a broken wall, half crumbled away. There above, carved into the piece of lintel that remained, was a frieze of birds, mostly swans.
I wanted to get closer to it, so I carefully climbed what was left of a broken banister. Close up, the swans were carved, wings outstretched in permanent, graceful flight.
And then I heard something: a faint infusion of female voices, both there and not there. The harmonies produced were tremulous and high-pitched, and strangely familiar, though I could not recall where or when I had heard this chorus before.
I climbed down from the banister and stood absolutely still, listening very hard as the voices sounded and retreated, sometimes nothing more than an echo or a residue of sound, sometimes getting lost in the gusts and filling me with doubt that I had heard anything at all but the wind.
It was then that a slew of birds came flying in from Woman’s Crag, screeching and honking. They flew overme where I stood, a riot of movement and sound, white feathers and floss floating down over me like snow.
Moments later, they departed, rising high up again on the air and crossing the sea, their forlorn voices fading into the distance.
Mam had said that the injured swan “reassured” her. This demonstration by the birds had flooded me with something I might also call “reassurance.”
If Mam was mad, I thought, then I am mad, too, but now somehow I was not afraid. As I looked at the feathers all around me, I felt a sense of exaltation. I thought of the woman who had given me the little bottles, and how bits of pale gray down had drifted from her cloak.
Over the coming months Mam carried the injured swan with her everywhere, even to church, and the same local women who had seen her and whispered about her stared. The appalled expressions on their faces were bad enough. But it was my father’s and brothers’ pained incomprehension that caused a rift in our house, and made Mam and me feel hopelessly distant from them.
I took over many of Mam’s tasks: cooking, cleaning the ashes and sweeping the hearthstones, driving the cow and her little black calf to and from the field.
As her pregnancy advanced, Mam was uncomfortably hot and perspiring. Some nights she got up and opened the door, admitting the cold wind that came in andknocked things down, causing the empty kettle to swing on its crane and the hearth ashes to fly.
During her eighth month, an odd thing occurred. It was an unusually still night. I was fanning Mam, dabbing the sweat from her neck, when we heard hard, loud blows on the door. We awakened Da and my brothers, who had slept through the noise, but when they opened the door, nothing was there.
The next day, I returned home from driving the cows and found the swan in the cottage, but no sign of Mam. The necklace with the bottle had been left on the table. I grabbed it and, in a panic, ran outside.
Mam was standing knee-deep in the tide, her shoes on the foreshore as if they’d been flung there. She bent over and splashed her face in the frigid water.
“Mam!” I screamed into the wind, and she looked up.
Just as the tide was beginning to return seaward, I saw a shadow in the water. Mam stiffened as something grabbed hold of her and pulled her into the undertow. Falling into the rushing water, she struggled to get away.
I ran skidding down the hill, raising rocks and clods of earth. The new tide came in with force, throwing Mam back onto the shore, but as it retreated again, she was pulled so hard that this time she disappeared into the waves.
I ran in against the tide, falling to my knees, but making my way finally under, into the dark of the water. There was Mam, twisting and struggling, her hair and nightgown waving gracefully around her as she flailed.Something had her by one ankle, and was drawing her into the dimness.
I saw a bloated but human-looking female face, ripples of greenish blond hair waving around it like an undersea plant. The rest of the monster, whatever it was, was hidden in the opaque shadow of the water. Suddenly it undulated from the waist, and I saw the flash of a huge fish tail.
Grabbing hold of Mam’s other ankle, I thrust the bottle with its red, pulsating flame into the creature’s face. Its eyes bulged and its nostrils flared as it let go of Mam, and it disappeared in a convulsion of bubbles, its frenetic shadow growing small far below.
I pulled Mam, still stunned and flailing, to the surface and, fighting the tide, brought her ashore. She was weak, drenched and breathing hard, pressing her palms against her swollen belly. With shaking hands I placed the necklace with the bottle on it around her neck.
As I led her up the hill, Mam told me to go and fetch Da from the rock cliffs to the south, where he was fishing for black pollack with my brothers. “Tell him to bring Old Peig to me.”
Old Peig, a small, ancient figure leaning deeply on her blackthorn stick, sent my father and brothers from the house, saying that they were out of their element in the province of women.
Examining Mam, she concluded immediately that the baby was not yet ready to come.
I took orders from the old woman, arranging thefeather bed so that Mam was comfortable, putting the kettle on the fire and boiling a little porridge for the three of us.
The swan watched placidly as Peig sat at the foot of the box bed, dabbing an herbal concoction on Mam’s feet and ankles where the monstrous creature had bitten her and sunk its nails.
“What creature was it?” the old woman asked.
“A woman, half fish,” I said.
Peig’s hands paused, and she looked into Mam’s eyes.
“I told my husband, Peig, but he didn’t believe me that the thing had a human face.”
“Things have not been good between Mam and Da,” I told Peig. “Mam’s been sleeping in the byre.”
Peig gasped with disapproval. “You’ll stop sleeping in the byre immediately and take your place again in this box bed!”
Mam looked admonished and closed her eyes.
“Why do you keep the swan?” Peig asked Mam.
“It was injured and I brought it home to heal it. I’ve grown attached to it,” Mam said. She shifted on the pallet, and the bottle around her neck caught the light.
The old woman pointed a wrinkled, trembling finger at it. “Where did you get this, Nuala?”
“Maeve found it at the ruins. I’ve been wearing it every day since.”
“It’s for protection,” I said softly. “But she took it off today.”
Peig looked thoughtfully at each of us. “Why did you take it off, Nuala?”
Mam shook her head. “I can hardly account for my actions, missus. I thought I’d burn up with the heat. I wanted nothing touching my skin. I almost lost all sense and tore the very gown from my body. I could think of no better refuge than the cold tide, then that awful creature grabbed me by the ankle.”
Peig gave me a piercing look with her rheumy eyes.
“There’s a shadow over Ard Macha,” the old woman said gravely, “since the time when Ishleen died.” She dabbed Mam’s forehead with a cool cloth. “You mustn’t get agitated, Nuala. You must get some rest. Maeve and I are here if you need anything.”
When we heard Mam’s steady breathing in sleep, Old Peig leaned toward me and whispered, “Tell me about the bottle. How did you come by it?”
“A mysterious woman gave it to me—a woman wearing white with feathers on her cloak. She gave me two bottles: one she said was for Mam, and the other, which Mam is wearing, was meant for me. She said they would protect us. When I was coming home, Tom Cavan surprised me and tried to take Mam’s bottle. It fell and broke. Mam needed protection more than I did, so I gave her mine. On another cord around her neck, Mam wears the stopper from the bottle that was meant for her. It has a little symbol on it.”
“Did you ask the woman why your Mam needed protection?” Old Peig asked.
I shook my head. “Looking back, there are many things I wish I had asked.”
Old Peig got up and approached Mam’s sleeping figure. Very gingerly she moved aside the fabric at Mam’s chest until she was able to see the stopper. She came back quietly.
“It is an old Danaan symbol. Ard Macha has a mystical history that very few people know of, Maeve,” she said. “And something very ancient has indeed resurfaced. The armor the men found in the bog, I believe, is an artifact of a terrible battle that was waged here seven centuries ago. But what I know about Ard Macha, though it is an incomplete history, begins long, long before that battle.
“In the beginning, Ireland was a place of primeval forests and oak groves. The original inhabitants were the Tuatha de Danaan, or the children of the goddess Danu. They were not mortals but another breed of human, a subtle people who worshipped trees and water, people who transformed themselves into birds to fly, or into seals or walruses to swim long distances across the seas.
“A less subtle people known as the Milesians invaded Ireland, battled Danu’s children and drove the goddess and her people into exile. During the wars, many of the children of Danu who narrowly escaped the Milesians with their own lives fled Ireland in bird form or swam away in the water in the form of seals. Many went south by way of the Celtic Sea, settling in northwestern Spain, where, in their human forms, they intermarried amongthe Spaniards. Others flew far into the western seas, colonizing and establishing the legendary Holy Isles. But there was also an agreement made between Danu and the Milesians. Danu would keep a seat in Ireland. She chose as her sanctified place Ard Macha. She and her priestesses moved between the Holy Isles and her monastery here, which she came to every year at Samhain, just before the dark of winter.
“But another queen of mysterious origins came to try to defeat Danu and take her throne. There was a terrible battle. Neither was completely defeated, but each was injured enough by the other. That is all I know. But the residue of that evil queen remains here, just as the sacred residue of Danu is still with us in some distant ways.
“I don’t know why the unearthing of that armor brought so much darkness to us, but it still contains power, and it’s been unleashed upon the air.” She was silent a moment, then asked, “What happened to that armor that was found?”
“It disappeared. Someone took it the very night it was unearthed. The men left it in the bog, and when they returned later, it was gone.”
Old Peig stared a few moments into the dying fire, then looked again at the stopper. It began to glow, and she gazed at it, then closed her eyes and lifted her head, as if she were seeing something within her own mind. When she opened her eyes, she looked earnestly at me.
“You’ve got a lot of responsibility to shoulder,” she said.
“What do you mean, missus? What did you see?”
“I believe itwillbe Ishleen coming back, just as your mam says. You’ll have to be a very strong girl, Maeve. You’ll have to be steadfast.”
“Why, missus?” I asked.
But Old Peig just shook her head, then looked again at Mam. The Danaan symbol around her neck glowed in the firelight.
In spite of Old Peig’s unsettling words, I slept deeply that night, but awakened when it was still dark. Mam and Old Peig were sitting up near the hearth, the embers of a fire still glowing.
“What is wrong between you and your husband, Nuala?” I heard the old woman ask.
“He thinks I’m mad, missus.”
Peig peered at Mam, the firelight flashing on her face. “You need your husband now. You’ve got to forgive him.”
“I can’t, missus. It hurts me too much that he thinks I’m mad.”
“It hurts your pride, Nuala, that is all.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Mam asked.
“No,” Old Peig said plainly, and squeezed Mam’s forearm with her gnarled, speckled old hand. “You love your husband deeply. Pride means nothing in the face of that.”
But Mam looked unmoved. She averted her eyes from the old woman’s.
“It’s a weakness, Nuala, your pride. It’s painful to those who love you,” Peig said.
“It’s painful to me that he doesn’t believe me.”
“Would you rather he lie to you? Desmond is skeptical of things that defy the five senses.”
Mam held the old woman’s eyes, and her face grew soft, until some thought seemed to overtake her. She sat up very straight and clenched her jaw.
Old Peig sighed and shook her head. “It’s a weakness, Nuala.”
The next night, Mam’s pains were strong and steady, and it was clear that her lying-in time had come. Old Peig sent my father and brothers to sleep at the Cavans’ cottage. With Tom no longer around, there would be room for them there.
Mam was about five hours in labor before the baby was born. As soon as the baby drew air and screamed, Peig showed her to me.
“It’s her, Maeve. It’s little Ishleen come back to us.”
Peig placed her, wrapped in a blanket, in Mam’s arms.
I stroked Mam’s hair, my heart swelling with happiness. “Shall I fetch Da, Mam?”
When she hesitated, I looked at her anxiously, aching to see Da and Mam smile at each other and embrace.
“Right now I’d like to just lie quietly,” Mam said.
“Oh, please, Mam!” I whispered.
“Oh, Maeve, there will be plenty of time for that in the morning.”
“But, Mam, when he sees that it’s Ishleen and apologizes, you’ll forgive him, won’t you?”
She looked at me in silence for a moment, then drew a deep breath and sighed. “Yes, I will, Maeve.” Her eyes filled. She tensed her mouth, reached for my hand and squeezed it.
“All right, then,” I said. “Mam, let me hold her awhile,” I pleaded. “You sleep.”
She handed me my tiny sister, then lay back and closed her eyes, but opened them again suddenly. “Wear these while you hold her.” She took off the necklaces with the bottle and the spiral and gave them to me. Instead of putting them on, I placed them around Ishleen’s neck. Mam fell asleep.
Old Peig lay down on the pallet spread for her near the hearth and dozed.
Ishleen twitched and cooed. She was so warm, and softer than the belly of a newborn calf. I studied her tiny, perfect features in the low light, her lips pursing like a little star. Her round, delicately veined head was bald beneath soft tufts of blond down.
Holding her securely in my arms, I laid my head back against the pillow and closed my eyes, inadvertently drifting off to sleep.
An intense chill came into the room. A strange woman was kneeling between me and Mam. I knew then that I was sleeping and struggled to awaken, but couldn’t. At one point, the woman’s dress brushed against my arm, and there was a slimy feeling to it, and a smell of the foreshore. Flapping its wings wildly, the swan began to cryout, but the woman overpowered it somehow, until it grew silent. No one awakened. The woman stared at Ishleen, and then at me. I suddenly saw her retreating between the curtains closed around us in the box bed.
I managed to open my eyes, but could not move. Ishleen was asleep, and so was Mam. The swan was gone. I could smell the odor the woman had brought in and could feel the chill she’d left behind her.
The rushlight dwindled low on the ledge, the flame about to cave into the hot wax. Most of the room was plunged into shadow.
With effort I was able to move. Very gingerly I got up and lit a fresh rushlight. That was when I noticed Mam’s eyes, wide open and staring at nothing.
I shook her arm. “Mam!Mam!”
I pressed my ear to her heart and heard it beating very slowly and quietly.
I tried to awaken Peig, calling her name and shaking her arm, but she was heavy with sleep, her mouth open and drawing noisily at the air.
I ran to the Cavans’ house and got Da. On our way back, we saw the swan lying dead on the rocky descent that led to the beach.
We were able to awaken Peig, but we could not awaken Mam.
Mam was like a vacant shell. She stared through me into some remote distance. She could be slowly led places, and she would eat and drink when fed, but she had no will and seemingly no awareness of what was going on around her.
Da brought a doctor in from Killybegs, and when that one had no answers, he went as far as Galway to fetch another. That doctor was also at a loss.
I undertook to care for both Mam and Ishleen while my father and brothers fished or worked the ground, or cut turf.
I put the necklace with the triple spiral back around Mam’s neck. I thought of returning the necklace with the bottle to her also, but feeling nervous for Ishleen, I wanted to protect her, too. Being so small, she wore thenecklace awkwardly, so I wrapped it in soft wool and sewed it into a kind of sealed pocket on her nightgown, so it was always with her.
I was often whispering to Mam, touching her face, unwilling to believe that she could not hear or feel me there.
Mam, Ishleen and I slept together at night in the box bed. I sometimes startled from sleep, thinking I could hear Mam breathing at my ear. But usually it was the wind outside whistling between the stones, and sometimes it was a strong tide crashing at the rocks below. Or it was tiny Ishleen herself, drawing breath while she slept near me and mewing like a lamb. I held her to Mam’s breast, where she nursed. When she finished, she fit easily into the curve of my arm and looked at me with shiny wet eyes, reflecting any embers still red in the hearth fire and the single candle lit nearby, a beacon, a tiny pulse of fire burning for Mam in hopes that she’d awaken.
One night, half-asleep, a kind of disembodied conversation took place, real or imagined, between myself and Mam. She wanted to know how Ishleen was.
“Are you here, Mam, in this room?” I asked.
“No. It is miraculous that you can hear me. I am far away from you.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know, Maeve. I can’t see things clearly.”
She told me that she was cold, that she didn’t knowwhere she was or how she had gotten there, and that she could not stop shivering, though she seemed to be composed only of air.
A frigid breeze and two different smells accompanied her voice. The more mysterious one was like the fragrant dripping wax of burning candles, scented by some wood or flower. But mostly she brought with her the smell of pure cold. If ice or frost could have a smell, sharp, crystalline and intensely clean, it would be this fragrance Mam brought.
“It is very cold, but at least there’s light. All around me most of the time there’s light and there’s movement. Wherever I am, I am not alone,” she said.
“Who is with you?”
“No one I know, but they are all in the same condition as I am.”
When I awakened, I wrapped Mam’s body in blankets, but I feared this would do little to stop her disembodied self from suffering with the cold.
The next time one of these conversations took place, I was awake. I could hear Mam’s spirit but could not see her. Was the sound of her voice on the air itself? Or was it somewhere inside me? I wondered. Where was she and why was she so cold?
Sometimes, when Ishleen would fuss or make little noises, the air around me got tense. I heard Mam take in her breath and sensed her listening.
During the day, I spoke to Mam, narrating to her little things that were happening.
“Mam, Ishleen is smiling,” I’d say quietly, so that she might see this for herself if she was nearby.
It became habit, this speaking softly to Mam. My father and brothers exchanged looks when they heard me do it. I understood how Mam had felt when they’d thought she was mad.
One day while cooking at the hearth, Mam told me again how unbearably cold she was. “Try to see where you are, Mam, and I will come and get you,” I cried.
I heard someone clear his throat. I turned and saw my brothers, having just come in, looking at me in horror.
“I’m not mad!” I barked at them, and they glanced away, but I knew when I turned around again that they would be exchanging looks. Still, I wasn’t going to give up talking to Mam, and decided if they wanted to think I was mad, they could go ahead.
I couldn’t stay angry with them for long. At least I could speak with Mam. The three of them had lost her completely and suffered over it.
During the day, I sometimes took Ishleen outside in my arms and peered down at the bay. Da and my brothers sat morosely in the boat, each lost darkly in his own thoughts. My father stared in a haunted way at Woman’s Crag as gannets screeched and circled it.
At night before the hearth fire, Da rarely spoke and hardly ate or even tipped a glass of whiskey. I sometimes put Ishleen in his arms, thinking she’d give himsome joy, and though he’d rock her gently for a few moments, he seemed at a loss and always asked me to take her back.
Fingal hardly acknowledged Ishleen. Now and then when she’d cry, he’d look across the shadows of the cottage at her in sullen bewilderment, then hang his head.
But it was Donal who brooded the most. The pain he felt made him anxious and combative. Donal knelt beside Mam trying, again and again, to awaken her. Once, as he was doing this, I saw lit threads between Donal and Mam igniting and fading and igniting again. When he got up and moved away from her, I saw the threads still attaching them.
“Donal is the softest of the three of you children,” I was surprised to hear Mam’s disembodied voice say to me.
“But he always seems so strong, so ready to fight,” I whispered quietly.
“That’s a way of hiding softness, Maeve.”
One late afternoon after a day’s work, Da and Fingal were somber when they came in. They sat before the fire, bearing their grief silently somewhere deep and hidden within.
“Where’s Donal?” I asked.
“He’s having a walk. He’ll be home soon.”
I looked outside and saw him throwing stones down the cliff toward the bay.
When he wasn’t back by dark, I took a lamp outside and saw him swimming in the dangerous tides of the jagged shore, taking awful risks, tempting death.
I screamed for Da and Fingal, who went and yelled athim over the noise of the swells until he came out of the water. When they brought him home, he was soaked by the tide.
“I wish an entire battalion of bloody English soldiers would come! I’d cut their throats by myself, every last one of them!” he said.
I gave him a cup of tea, and he dashed it against the hearthstones, shattering the crockery, the boiling water flying at me and burning my forearm.
I screamed, and my father yelled at Donal and shook him by the shoulders. “We are all hurt by what’s happened, Donal. Not just you!”
There was a little butter on the shelf, and as tears of anger and grief fell from my eyes, I rubbed it into the burn. I knew Donal was already sorry. In my peripheral vision, I could see him looking at me. That was his way. He was fiery with impulse and angry with the world. But whenever his words or actions hurt me, he was always contrite. He never apologized out loud, but it was always in his eyes.
I stroked Mam’s hair and she breathed quietly, her eyes always half open. It bothered me that Mam was left to lie most of the time in the box bed or sit in a chair with her head bending forward. I hated leaving her alone when I went outside.
She could be led places walking, but it took so much time because she moved so slowly and only when urged.
One night as we had our tea, I said to Da and my brothers, “We’ve got to make a special chair for Mam, a chair with wheels.” They all gawked at me. “I want to be able to take her outside and down to the beach. I don’t want to leave her here alone if I have to go far.”
My idea was met with silence. Undaunted, I drew a picture of the chair I imagined. “She should go out for air and be near the tides. She should come with Ishleen and me when we pick mussels from the stones.”
“What’s the point of it? She isn’t aware of anything around her,” Donal said.
“How do you know that?” I asked angrily. He stared, wide-eyed, at me, then hung his head and seemed ashamed.
In spite of my irritation with him, I kept talking, but was met with more silence.
To try to create a dialogue about the chair, I pointed to Mam’s old rocking chair and said, “This would be perfect if we could have wheels put on it.”
Immediately both brothers objected with technical reasons why that was a ridiculous suggestion.
“Something like a wheelbarrow might work,” Fingal said.
“Awheelbarrow?I’ll not have Mam lying in a wheelbarrow. She needs a chair.”
“Maybe another kind of chair, not a rocker, could have wheels put on it,” Donal said. “Invalids have iron chairs.”
“Yes, something like that. What do you think, Da?” Iasked, but he remained silent, drinking his tea and staring into the fire.
But that night as I was getting ready for bed, he called me over to him.
“We’ll go to the blacksmith on Saturday to ask about a chair with wheels.”
I threw my arms gratefully around him. As I was about to go, he said my name. I stopped and looked at him, but he kept his eyes on the flames in the hearth.
“Do you think she forgives me?”
“Oh, Da,” I said. “I know she does. She told me so that very night after Ishleen was born.” He stared at the flames with damp eyes, not seeing them.
That Saturday, Old Peig came to keep her eye on Mam, and the rest of us went by pony and trap to Killybegs.
When we got out of the trap and were walking to the blacksmith’s up a street adjacent to the wharf, Da pointed out a little shop with lace curtains in the windows: Muldoon’s Fine Imports. It was an anomaly among the other rough buildings, as if it had been lifted from some cultured place.
“That’s where I bought a gift for your mam once,” he said.
“A comb?” I asked. “With little jewels on it?”
His eyes widened. To hear it described seemed to stir him. “Yes,” he said. “Do you know what ever happened to the comb?”
“It’s at home, Da,” I said. “You know how much Mam loves it.”
He stared at the glimmering windows of Muldoon’s and went very far away in his thoughts.
I remembered Mam describing this shop to me. I could see, through an open curtain, a shelf lined with colorful bottles and trinkets.
“They have scent in heart-shaped bottles,” Mam had told me. “Imported from across the Irish Sea.”
“Can I look inside, Da?” I asked.
He nodded, and while he and my brothers loitered outside the door, I went in holding Ishleen in my arms, never thinking to give her to Da to hold, so much had she become an extension of me. My arms had grown used to being sore from carrying her.
I hardly breathed at the sparkling atmosphere of the shop, little blue and crimson bottles and jars, oval-shaped soaps in porcelain dishes, the air smelling of dried roses.
I turned at the end of an aisle and found myself in the doorway of an attached room, a seamstress’s shop where a woman was engaged in sewing hems. She looked up and nodded at me invitingly, and I stepped in, browsing through bolts of fabric. I stopped suddenly. On a headless dummy between two curtains stood an extraordinary dress, fashioned of what looked like bronze velvet and strips of gold and deep crimson silk. It was stately beyond any garment I had ever seen. Around the waist hung a belt heavy with metallic embellishments.
From an oblique angle, I moved in closer to it. “What’s it made of?” I asked breathlessly.
“It’s made of metal, but very finely wrought, so it looks like cloth unless you get close.”
I had seen drawings of such dresses, but not nearly as beautiful, in the book that Donal had about medieval heroes.
As if reading my thoughts, the woman said, “Such a dress is for a woman on an adventure, don’t you think? A woman who has an urgent quest.”
She stood up, then led me to a spot about one foot directly behind the dress. Taking sleeping Ishleen from my arms, she told me to look straight ahead. In front of the dress was a mirror in which I could see my head and neck reflected. If I looked fleetingly, I could experience the impression that I was seeing myself wearing the dress. My image hit me like a bolt of lightning; my heart pounded with a mysterious feeling of expectation. For a reason that I did not understand, associating myself with the dress filled me with a surge of possibility. The dress exuded the temperature and aroma of cold: sharp and crystalline, as if it had been in the same place where Mam was captive. It was, as the seamstress had suggested, the dress of a strong, adventurous woman. In such a dress I might travel to unknown frozen regions and rescue Mam.
Someone else had come into the room, but I disregarded whoever it was and reached out to touch the fine metal of the dress with curiosity and fervor. A familiar womanly voice came from the new presence in the room. “Maeve.”
Turning with a gasp, I saw Mrs. Cavan looking at me with raised eyebrows and a half smile.
“What an extraordinary dress,” she said.
The seamstress, still holding Ishleen, looked perturbed by Mrs. Cavan’s presence. The smile had fallen from her face. She carefully handed Ishleen back to me.
“It must cost dearly,” Mrs. Cavan added, gazing at the dress with intense interest. Her eyes flashed in my direction.
“Maeve!” Da called, leaning his head into the shop. “Let’s be getting on.”
As I moved toward the door, I caught my true reflection—my rough rust-colored flannel skirts, my old boots covered in mud—and my heart fell slightly.
“Maeve,” Mrs. Cavan said, stopping me. “I received a letter from Tom. He asked me to send you his regards.”
I nodded, and in a barely audible voice thanked her, trying to continue on my way. But she stopped me again.
“Shall I send him your regards?”
I paused, but could not make myself agree to this. “No. Please don’t,” I said, and rushed to meet Da at the door.
The blacksmith’s shop, bare-walled and smelling strongly of leather, shocked me back into the real world. In a daze, I showed the blacksmith my drawing. He nodded, then he and Da got into a conversation about the complications of making such a chair, and the price. Inoticed Donal and Fingal looking through a half open door near the back of the shop, where I could hear a man speaking in covert but fiery tones. I went and stood with them, looking in. The orator had long hair and curly sideburns, and wore a wool cap with a brim set over his forehead. He sat on a stool addressing a group of seven or eight other men.
“Queen Elizabeth the murderess, daughter to the devil himself, Henry the Eighth, has new plans for invading Ireland. Living here as you do on the rocky western edge of our land, you haven’t yet seen too many of the English soldiers. But news of their approach is always on the air, and getting stronger. They’re determined to establish English control, limiting all forms of Irish independence.”
“The devils,” a few men muttered.
I followed my brothers as they stepped into the room, giving grave and respectful nods, extending their hands and introducing themselves.
“Emmet Leahy,” replied the man who got up from the stool and stood before us like a tower. Though there were certainly tall men in Donegal, this one had to be half a head taller than the tallest.
When we sat, Emmet Leahy continued to speak. “The rebellion has ended in the south with the murder of the earl. Clanawley is now a wasted land.”
“I’d like to join the mercenary army!” said Donal.
“So would I,” Fingal said.
Emmet Leahy smiled at them. “I admire your spirits, young men, but there is something we need more of inthis area right now. We must be organized. We need a faction, a steady meeting where news can be shared and plans made.”
“We will be in charge of that,” Donal volunteered.
Da appeared, and my brothers introduced him to Emmet Leahy.
I sat in the corner, rocking Ishleen, and the conversation continued about how the faction might work. That was when I had the vision for the first time. I saw myself in the dress, walking through an elegant interior blasting with drafts of cold wind, calling out to Mam, who called back to me from some vague distance.
Now and then I’d blink my eyes and focus on the real world. Da, my brothers and Emmet Leahy leaned forward in their chairs, facing one another. Donal was the one stoking the flames of the long conversation with his endless questions.
Indulging the dream a second time, I saw the seamstress from Muldoon’s. In the vision she had delicate white feathers at her temples growing directly from her hairline, just as the woman who had given me the bottles had. As I was imagining this, Ishleen stirred. I lifted her up so she could look around the room, and a bit of soft white down floated from her blanket and drifted on the air around us before dropping slowly to the floor.
From that hour, Donal and Fingal stopped their brooding and their harsh tempers. Everything that had ever engaged their hearts and imaginations about Irishrebellion was suddenly given specificity and immediacy. Here was an opportunity to forge a path, and they threw every bit of themselves into it with great energy and seriousness.
Before we left Killybegs, I asked Da if we could stop again at Muldoon’s Fine Imports. My heart raced as we approached the quaint facade with the tiny lights twinkling within. But I found the door locked fast. I knocked hard again and again, but no one answered.
Da smiled at me and said, “You must really like looking at those dainty things, Maeve.”
“Yes, Da,” I said, staring through the dim windows.
“We’ll come back again sometime,” he said.
Confused by my reluctance to leave, my brothers looked ponderously at me. I wanted to tell them, but I knew they’d think I was madder than ever. I missed Mam intensely.
When we were well on the road back to Ard Macha, and my brothers were talking excitedly to Da about Emmet Leahy, I whispered, “Mam, I’m going to find you. I’m going to bring you back to us somehow. You must be so tired of shivering with cold.”
I could not get the dress out of my thoughts. Two days later, I took Da aside and told him about it. “I’m sure it costs dearly. I don’t know how much, but the woman there was very kind, and perhaps she could work out some special arrangement with us. Could you just come with me, Da, to look at it?”
I knew better than to tell him I had imagined myself rescuing Mam from the cold place where she was prisoner.
“All right, love,” he said. “We’ll go and have a look.”
The following week, Da took me back to Killybegs. Muldoon’s Fine Imports had closed down. Every glimmering curiosity, every scrap of thread, was gone.
Ishleen grew into a little enigma: a fairy of a creature with a head of wild wheat-colored curls, shot here and there with red. She crawled early and walked early, driven by curiosity and an impatience to be engaged in the world.
When Ishleen was four and I was nineteen, she was fascinated by fire and the sparking of the embers. With great concentration and an awed silence, she watched the black-encrusted kettle above the flames come to a trembling boil.
Being small, she did not really understand what was wrong with Mam and spoke to her just as I did, combing her fingers through Mam’s hair. When we sat out near the beach, she decorated Mam with tiny seashells and sometimes with gorse flowers or maidenhair ferns.
Not only did Ishleen speak gently to Mam’s inert body, but she addressed the air itself when we were far from Mam, in the same way I did, thinking Mam might hear.
Ever since I had seen the dress in Killybegs, I drew pictures of it with a piece of sharpened charcoal. Paper was scarce, so I used the blank back or front pages of the books Donal hoarded near his bed. But when there were no more blank pages in those, I took to drawing the dress again and again over the written text, and this Donal refused to tolerate.
One bright windy morning, while pushing Mam’s wheeled chair out near the ruins, I discovered a wall of smooth flagstone that set my heart racing. I took out the charcoal that I kept with me always and began to sketch a life-size version of the dress on the wall before me. I gave Ishleen a piece of charcoal, too, and she set to scribbling with it on the wall near the ground. Seeing the life-size drawing of the dress filled me with euphoria and expectation.
“Mam,” I whispered, and turned the wheeled chair so that she faced the dress. “I’ve seen myself wearing this dress and rescuing you.”
I visited the drawing every day and added to it. If the rain partially erased the drawing, I drew it again. Since it had not fully faded each time, it began to take on many layers, growing more and more dimensional.
Though it thrilled me to see the drawing become vivid,it frustrated me as well. It seemed so real, but it wasn’t there at all.
And even worse than that, Mam had gradually begun to speak to me less often and was quieter when she did, as if her energy were fading. And to my horror, along with the smells of guttering candles and ice, an unpleasant odor sometimes accompanied her, something vaguely rancid.
I would speak obsessively to the air, hoping for an answer from Mam, while serving the dinner or stoking the embers. My brothers had grown so used to it that they’d taken to calling me “Mad Maeve.”
At first Da barked at them for it, but over time, he stopped.
None of them understood what was happening to me, and I didn’t, either. I only knew that I couldn’t bear the idea of losing Mam.
It was just at this time that Tom Cavan, who’d been gone several years, was seen near dawn one morning in Ard Macha, carrying a spade and a lamp, his body and clothes covered in damp peat. That day I heard that the bog where the local men cut turf had been desecrated, and that the sky had been thick with vultures circling overhead. I went down there with Da and my brothers to look. Rough clods had been dug up and carelessly piled and scattered.
“He was clearly in search of something,” Da said.
“Some other ungodly relic, most likely,” Donal said, “but for what purpose, it is impossible to know.”
The closer I got to the bog, the more distinctly I could smell rot on the air. It was the same smell that had been there when Tom had unearthed the armor years before. I was stunned when I realized that it was similar to the rancid odor I had gotten a vague whiff of recently, when Mam’s presence had come.
“He found something,” I said suddenly.
“How do you know?” Da asked.
“I recognize the odor.”
Da and my brothers banded together with the local men and knocked on the Cavan door that day, but Mrs. Cavan said, “If he came to Ard Macha, he’s left again, for I haven’t seen a hair on his head.”
As they were leaving, Mrs. Cavan called out after them, “If you see him, send him directly to me. I miss him something desperate.” She made the sign of the cross.
No one saw him after that. As far as anyone knew, he was gone again.
Something was going on, I was certain. It was the rancid odor that terrified me for Mam, and I decided that I had to do something. I had tried to figure out where Mam’s self, or spirit or soul, was but had not been able to. The one thing I had in my power to do was to get a dress or make one, as similar to the dress in my vision as possible.
I pleaded with Da to take me to Killybegs, to any shop at all where I might buy sewing supplies, hoping to find the delicate metal fabric that had formed the dress at Muldoon’s.
“It’s about bringing Mam back,” I said.
“I saw it in my mind,” I said. “I was wearing a dress like the one I saw that time, and I was rescuing Mam.”
He looked at me with an expression of surrender. “I worry about you, Maeve, as I once worried about your mam. But in the end, she was right about Ishleen. I’m going to trust this desperate feeling in you.”
Da took me to a shop in Killybegs, but there was no metal fabric like it, and the people we asked said they’d never heard of such a thing.
I had to settle, in the end, for a strong silk with metallic sheen.
It cost Da dearly.
Though I had little skill at sewing, for two days and two sleepless nights, I struggled my best, cobbling together a dress as similar to the one at Muldoon’s as I could.
I finished it in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep. It fit me like a poor replica of the original. Still, I wore it outside. Carrying a lamp, I wandered the ruins and the surrounding shore where I’d once seen the mysterious woman who had given me the bottles.
For six hours or more, I went to every place I could imagine the woman might come, but nothing happened. I found myself growing more and more despondent over the hours, all my certainty draining away. I felt lost, my task hopeless.
As I went back in the direction of the hill, it began to rain. Just as dawn was breaking, I saw my father and brothers come out dressed for the downpour in their hooded oilcloth coats, getting ready to fish. I was soaked in my homemade dress.
They stood still when they saw me in my despondency. Somehow they seemed even more appalled than usual.
I swept past them and went inside, where I found Ishleen awake.
“Mam,” I pleaded to the inert, wistful figure whose eyes looked hopelessly past me into some unknown vision. “What do I do?”
The hope that had gripped me now for so long regarding the dress was utterly gone, and I wondered about my own sanity.
I sat down before the fire, shivering in the soaked dress, and cried. Ishleen touched my shoulder. When I did not stop crying, she went and opened the door. Miraculously, the sun had come out and was lighting the world, a clear day in high summer. I got up and looked out. The sea where my father and brothers were casting their net was as calm as new milk.
I took the dress off and hung it outside on the line to dry in the clement air. As it stirred there on a faint breeze, the poorly crafted garment looked sad and deflated, the bodice caved in, the shoulders and arms slumping unevenly. Silk, I realized, should not get wet like that. The sheen was gone, the cloth pocked and wrinkled. What had I thought I could create? And even if I had createdsomething close to the majestic dress at Muldoon’s, what, then, would that have meant? I felt as though I had fallen from a great height.
I went back in and lay down in the box bed, leaving my chores and responsibilities on hold, and fell into a heavy sleep.
Later in the day when I awakened, the dress had gone missing from the line. I did not go in search of it, and in some perverse way was relieved by its disappearance.
“Probably the wind has blown it away,” I said to Ishleen, though it had been a still day with only mild breezes.
A week later, Tom Cavan’s mother, short and bent and wearing a flowered scarf on her head, came to our door.
“I’m taking a pony and trap into Dungarven tomorrow, Maeve, to buy fabric to make new curtains. Wouldn’t you like to be coming along?”
I was surprised by the kindness of the gesture. Mrs. Cavan had never offered to help me with Mam or Ishleen. I knew she had always resented me for having told her husband about Tom’s transgressions, and I knew she felt I was responsible for his having been sent away from Ard Macha. But maybe, having heard that my spirits were low, she’d softened to me.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cavan,” I said. “I would like to come.”
When I told Da about it later, he said, “I’ve a fewemergency coins stashed away. Why don’t you take them and buy yourself some small trinket?”
I hugged him. He’d been worried about how sad I’d been lately.
The shop in Dungarven reminded me of Muldoon’s Fine Imports. Both were situated on rough-and-tumble wharves, where rope, tackle, leather and farm supplies were sold. The shop was, as Muldoon’s had been, an anomaly encased in its own mist.
A bell rang when we opened the door. The shop matron looked up at us in acknowledgment, but was busy speaking to two other customers dressed in lavish clothes, a mother and a daughter.
Mrs. Cavan went directly to some little glass bottles while I veered away toward a mirror, which I approached nervously. We had no mirrors at Ard Macha; in the past few years I had seen only the faint smear of my reflection at home in the copper pot, so it was always distorted. The self looking out from the other side was different from the reflection I’d seen years before at Muldoon’s. My cheekbones were more prominent, my features were no longer soft but defined, and all over my nose and cheeks there was a light dusting of small freckles. There was something grave about my expression.
Gradually, the longer I looked, the less I thought of the reflection as being me. This image, I thought, gave the impression of someone formidable and complicated. I felt envious of this other in the mirror, as if she lived inthe atmosphere of glimmering lights, an entirely different, more powerful and elevated existence than the one I lived. And as I stared at her, she wore the metallic dress and was standing in a vast frozen room. I heard a chandelier tinkling in the cold around her. The vision dissolved suddenly, leaving me in confusion.
I left the mirror and approached the bottles of scent, watching with absorption as the mother and daughter, wearing an elaborate system of scarves and jackets, huddled and gasped over the various perfumes, applying them to their wrists and squealing as they smelled them. The intense, almost cloying scent of flowers distressed me. The hems of their skirts were embellished with frills of lace, and I wondered why they would expose such fine lace to the certainty of mud. How did they manage to remain protected from it? That such a thought would occupy my mind made me think of how out of place I was here.
I moved off and looked at creamy ovals of soap displayed in a cut crystal bowl. With a tentative and trembling hand, I stroked the rounded surface of one of the soaps.
Suddenly Mrs. Cavan was at my side. She peered closely into my face and squeezed my wrist.
“I have a confession to make, Maeve,” she said. “I didn’t really come here for fabric. I’ve come for only one reason. I’d like to buy you something.”
I gazed at her, hardly believing my ears.
“You’re so lovely a young lady, and I think you deserve to have something nice. You see, Tom is coming home.”
For a moment I did not understand the connection.
“Why is he coming back, Mrs. Cavan?” I asked. “He doesn’t like to fish or work the ground.” She remained quiet, looking at me. I suddenly understood what was happening, and my heart dropped.
“Tom has done well for himself. He sent me the money to buy you any gift you like. Even if it’s a dress, I’m happy to purchase it for you. He says it was you who inspired his success. He no longer needs to fish or work the ground. He has wealth, and you know he’s had his eye on you since you were children. You are nineteen and he is twenty-one, both good ages to marry. So,” she said, “pick out a gift.”
“You’re too generous, Mrs. Cavan, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t accept.” I gave her an unwavering look.
Her eyes flashed, and I knew she registered my reluctance in regard to her son.
“There are other local girls who would be thrilled—”
“I know there are,” I said plainly, unmoved. “Maybe he should ask one of them.”
She took a deep breath and seemed to decide not to let this dissuade her. “I saw you looking at this,” she said, pointing to the oval of cream-colored soap I had touched. “You’ll at least let me buy this for you.”
She asked the shop woman for a single cake of it, and I watched as it was wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a pale lavender box embellished in gold ribbon.
“I’ll pay for it,” I said, and pulled out the coins from my pocket, placing them on the counter. The shop woman looked at them, then narrowed her eyes at me. The corners of her mouth strained.
“It’s fourpence ha’penny for this soap,” she said, giving me a condescending look. “This soap isFrench!”
Mrs. Cavan laid a shilling on top of the coins, and the hard look melted from the woman’s face.
As we traveled back to Ard Macha in the pony and trap, I thought of the silliness of the pampered girl and her mother, the meanness of the shop matron. The atmosphere had lost its heightened sparkle for me. And worst of all, the beautiful soap in its exquisite package had lost its sensual incandescence and had become nothing more than a fragrant-smelling bribe. Mrs. Cavan saw me as the wife of her mean-spirited son. Rarely had she shown me any kindness before. Why had I imagined there had been some pure intention behind her offer to take me to Dungarven?
All the way home, though, she made attempts to engage me in chatter. I sat leaning to one side, staring at the passing fields.
It was dusk when we arrived back at Ard Macha. I thanked Mrs. Cavan and was about to scale the hill when I was startled to see Ishleen talking to a woman in a gray-green dress down near the beach.
“Who is that woman?” I asked.
Mrs. Cavan stared darkly, and I felt that she knew who the woman was but wouldn’t say. Her expression made me afraid for Ishleen, and I began running toward the beach.
“Ishleen!” I cried, but she was too near the roaring tides to hear me.
The woman spotted me coming and grabbed Ishleen’s arm. In that moment there was a sudden commotion of birds—swans and falcons and herons flying overhead, feathers and down from their wings floating and descending around Ishleen and the woman. As birds alighted at various places on the stones, a swan landed at the feet of the woman in gray-green. It thrust out its chest and beat its huge wings, and as it did, it transformed into the woman who had once given me the little bottles. The woman in gray-green let go of Ishleen’s hand and backed away several steps, then dove into the sea.
As I ran toward them, the birds that had alighted rose again into the air, and the woman in white turned back into a swan, rising with the others and flying in arcs over the sea as I took Ishleen into my arms. From that moment on, I would think of the woman who had given me the bottles as the Swan Woman. We watched her and the others flying into the distance, the evening sky gone almost fully dark.
Ishleen said she did not know who the woman in gray-green was, but that she had promised to take Ishleen to the place where she said Mam’s soul was waiting for her.
The next day when I was driving the cows back up the hill, Tom Cavan jumped out from behind the wall, startling me so badly that I screamed. After I caught my breath, I was amazed by the way he was dressed: in anelegant, long fitted coat with tails, crafted of sky-blue velvet. His light brown hair was longer and carefully combed, the curls keeping their shape stiffly in spite of the wind. Though still recognizable as the boy who had taunted me all my life, he was now a man and he looked different, much taller and wider in the shoulders. The bone structure of his face was stronger, and he wore a mustache on his upper lip.
“Aren’t you glad to see me back, Maeve? My mother told me what a beauty you’ve become, and she was right.” He took a step in my direction.
“Stay away from me, Tom Cavan!” I cried, all my frustration and fury directing itself at him.
“You have spirit, and I’ve always liked that!”
“Stay away from me!” I practically spit the words at him, and now his face darkened.
“You’d like to leave here, wouldn’t you? You’d like doctors for your mam, and nice things for your sister and yourself.”
“Why are you dressed like that?” I was about to tell him that he looked like a right idiot, when I suddenly felt afraid of him. Maybe it was the faint wafting of the unpleasant odor, apparent now and again from behind the strong cologne he wore, that made me think he was responsible somehow for what had happened to Mam. It seemed to me that he and his mother were involved in some way with the woman who’d tried to lure Ishleen toward the sea.
I rushed away from him, suddenly terrified to have left Ishleen alone.
Itold my brothers and Da that Tom Cavan was bothering me, and that I was afraid he might try some mischief with me if I was left on my own caring for Mam and Ishleen. That got them riled up and angry, and after that, Donal and Fingal alternated days staying home.
Tom sometimes watched from a distance as Donal or Fingal walked the cows with us, cut peat or dug and planted.
We enjoyed this privilege for three days, and then at dusk on the third evening, while both brothers were down at the beach helping Da haul in his catch, I heard the cow mooing anxiously from the byre. I went and checked and saw that her calf had broken through a loose board and gone off on its own.
I went outside and, raking the distances with my eyes,spotted the calf far off in the valley. A certain sweet flower grew down there in profusion around the dolmen stones near the vervain, and this little devil of a calf had a terrible sweet tooth.
The clouds were edged in red from the lowering sun, and there was still enough light in the sky for me to go without a lamp. I grabbed a rope and ran down after her.
Knee-deep in the flowers, her jaw working hard as she chewed, the calf blinked and gave me an irritated look, then twitched against the rope as I tried to secure it around her neck. She slipped loose and ran, tripping me so I fell into the flowers. I watched her prance up the hill, hopping more like a goat than a calf, in the direction of her mother’s bawling moo.
As I stood up, brushing myself off, I heard a man’s low groan. I froze and, listening expectantly, heard it again.
“Help me,” the man said weakly.
About a yard away from me, just beyond a group of standing stones, rose an embankment of earth. I had always thought that the hole past that mud wall may have been bog land in centuries long past.
I looked down into the dim hollow and saw a man lying on his side, blood on his shirt and vest. He lifted his head, turning it slightly to look at me. With a shock, I recognized him as Denis Hayes, a member of the neighboring faction of the secret rebellion. He had come once to a meeting at our cottage.
“Mr. Hayes!” I whispered.
“The English … invaded us in Dunloe, tied us up.Took food and supplies. I fought one of them and he shot me….” He winced, tensing his entire body with suffering. He was about to speak again when I stopped him.
“I’m getting my da and my brothers,” I began, but before the words were completely out of my mouth, we heard the pounding gallop of approaching horses.
“Hide!” he said. “For the love of God, hide, and don’t show yourself for the world! They’ll kill you as soon as look at you!”
I got on my knees, quickly creeping in the tall grass past the embankment and then behind a large standing stone.
The galloping came to a sudden halt, and I heard voices as the men dismounted.
One voice got closer to me, and I went as hard and still as the stone I leaned against. A shadow loomed on the ground, and the approaching Englishman’s breathing grew audible. My muscles burned and ached with tension. I saw the contours of his boot, so close was he to me.
“Roberts! Come over here,” the more distant voice called. “Look what I’ve found.”
The shadow was gone suddenly, and a ruckus broke out. I heard them beating Mr. Hayes, dealing him kicks and blows. My impulse was to jump up and scream at them, but I knew they’d kill me. If he could just survive, I kept thinking, I’ll nurse him back to life! I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears.
“Stinking Irish pig!” one of the Englishmen said.
I clenched my jaw to keep myself from yelling.
Everything stopped suddenly. I heard them mount horses and gallop away.
I got up and ran like mad, gesturing wildly at my father and brothers just as they were climbing the hill back home.
When they did not return right away with Mr. Hayes, I filled a skin with water, wrapped bread in a cloth and made my way back down. The daylight was almost gone. Moving in the direction of the lamps, I ran into Donal. I could see by the somberness of his demeanor that Mr. Hayes must have died.
“I’m coming up to arrange for a pony and trap. We’re taking his body back to Dunloe.”
Emmet Leahy arrived the next day. Donal, Fingal and Da and the other five men who’d been meeting for the past four years gathered in our cottage.
I knelt beside Mam, who sat unmoving in her chair, her head leaning to one side, and explained to her who was there and the importance of the meeting that was about to take place.
“It was awful, Mam,” I said softly, “the way the poor man suffered.”
“Does she understand what’s being said?” one of the men who’d been watching me with Mam asked Fingal.
“I don’t think so,” Fingal remarked, shooting me an irritated look.
“She does!” I snapped. “She understands!”
Ishleen sat at Mam’s feet, drawing with charcoal on a flagstone. Now and again, she’d get up and hold her drawing before Mam’s face. “Look, Mam, I’ve drawn flowers for poor Mr. Hayes.”
“The situation is dire,” Emmet Leahy was saying to the men. “Hundreds of Irish have died of starvation in the south because of all the English raids and disturbances. Now they’re up here in the north committing their dirty deeds.”
Fingal, listening thoughtfully, sat at the hearth raking the cinders, then stirred the torpid coals until they glowed, the fire reviving.
The door was suddenly pushed open from the outside, and Tom Cavan appeared. He wasn’t dressed in the odd, over-elegant manner he’d been in lately, but in the rough woolens and cap of an Ard Macha fisherman.
“This is an open meeting,” Emmet Leahy said. “You are welcome.”
Donal stood, ready to protest, and exchanged glances with Tom’s father, who was in attendance.
Tom gave his father and Donal a gloating look, then sat negligently in a chair.
“The Spanish are our allies against the English,” Emmet Leahy went on. “There is an ancient and powerful tie between the Spanish and the Irish. The northwestern coast of Spain has the same roots as we do in a Celtic mysticism, and we share with them a justified hatred for the English. If two very different countries can be soul mates, it is Ireland and Spain.”
Tom Cavan listened to this information with absorption.
Emmet Leahy continued, “We’ve received calivers and gunpowder from Spain, and also from Scotland. We’ve no choice but to arm the people rather than rely solely on mercenary soldiers. And after we’ve distributed the guns to each cottage in the area, I’m off with plans to infiltrate an English fort in Skibbereen. I’ll need to be asking for a few volunteers to go with me.”
Donal and Fingal immediately raised their hands, and Leahy gave a nod of assent.
“We should talk about our strategy,” Emmet Leahy said.
Donal looked at Mr. Cavan, who stood, then approached Leahy and took him aside, conferring for a few moments. Leahy then approached Tom. “I’ve met with all these men before. I’ll be glad to come around and speak with you privately afterward. But for now, the rest of this particular meeting is closed.”
Glaring at his father and then at Donal, Tom said, “Such important men you are. What would any secret rebellion do without the likes of two such as yourselves?”
Everyone in the room looked warily at Tom, especially his own father, the color high on his face.
“You especially will be sorry,” Tom said, pointing angrily to his father. “I’ll find some way of making you suffer.”
He went out the door, slamming it after him.
“Can we expect worse from him?” Emmet Leahy asked Mr. Cavan.
“I don’t think there’s treachery in him,” Mr. Cavan answered. “But he’s up to something, and he is a mystery to me. He leads an entire life that I don’t know about.”
Emmet Leahy patted him on the shoulder.
Later, I heard Mr. Cavan confiding to Da, “In my own home I am unwanted. His mother fawns over him, and the two of them treat me with disdain.”
The men went off to an undesignated place where guns were hidden, and to a quiet, vacant field where they could practice firing.
When Da, Donal and Fingal returned late that night, I was waiting up. They settled themselves by candlelight, their faces ruddy with the wind. I poured steaming tea into their cups, then sliced a soda loaf and set it before them.
“I’d like to learn to fire the gun,” I said plainly as I faced them, ready to argue if I had to. In the hours that they’d been gone, I had thought of all the reasons I should know how to shoot.
“No, for the love of all that’s holy!” Da cried.
I could see by the expression on Donal’s face that he didn’t think it such a bad idea, and maybe that was what made me even bolder. “I am often here alone caring for Mam and Ishleen,” I said.
“Be practical, Da,” Donal said. “You don’t like the idea of your daughter with a gun, but she needs it without us here. The English might come and you might not be home. I want to teach her.”
Donal took something wrapped in cloth out of a satchel and, laying it on the table slowly, ceremoniously unraveled it. He explained to me exactly how it worked, and promised that in the morning he would take me out to the field and teach me to shoot.
But very early the next morning, Emmet Leahy arrived and said they had to leave immediately, that he had received word of English soldiers on a road they’d planned to take. Now they’d have to head a different, longer way.
“Da will teach you to shoot, Maeve,” Donal said.
It was a rushed goodbye, my brothers shuffling to get things, hardly awake and with no time even for a cup of tea.
“I’m proud of both of you, my sons!” Da said, though all the color had gone from his face. We watched them move swiftly down the hill, following Emmet Leahy and two other men.
That day, Da took the boat out on the water alone. Ishleen and I watched him staring at Woman’s Crag, lost in thought. For the first time, he looked fragile, as if the mist might swallow him.
This made me even more anxious to learn how to shoot, but I knew I’d have a devil of a time getting Da to teach me.
That afternoon, an east wind blew in milder temperatures, and Ishleen, Mam and I went to the shore. As Ipushed Mam’s wheeled chair, Ishleen carried two creels, one for each of us to collect the blue-black mussels from where they clustered on the rocks.
Tom Cavan appeared out of nowhere, standing a few yards off on the sand, the tails of his sky-blue coat rippling in the wind as he watched us.
“Maeve,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
“What is it?” I asked warily.
“Over here,” he said, beckoning to me.
I stood up and started walking over to him.
He moved toward me suddenly and grabbed my arm.
“Stop it!” I cried, struggling free of him.
His eyes narrowed, and he was fuming a little. He had grown so much larger in the last few years, and I was afraid of how strong he was. I wondered, too, about the mysterious life his father said he led. “The only sensible thing for us is to marry,” he said.
“No,”I said firmly, and walked back toward the rocks, but he rushed after me and blocked my way.
“Your brothers are gone and your father is old. You’ve no one to protect you. It’s natural that we marry. In the end it will come to that.”
“It won’t come to that,” I said calmly.
Ishleen peered angrily at Tom, who remained where he was.
“What are you looking at, you odd little thing? You know your own mother is the way she is because of you!”
Ishleen lowered her head and squinted in the mild sunlight, Tom’s words piercing her.
It was the way he looked at Mam’s vacant form with an air of triumph that made me think again of what I’d felt before, that he was somehow responsible for what had happened to her.
“I’d never marry you, Tom Cavan,” I said gravely. “Never!”
He took in a deep breath. “You’ll have nothing left, soon enough, Maeve O’Tullagh, and your hand will be forced. You should start getting used to the idea.”
He refused to leave, so Ishleen and I packed up our baskets.
On the way up the hill, Ishleen asked me to tell her about Mam when she had still walked and spoke.
“She could feel you wanting to be born,” I said. “You were trying so hard to be with Mam.”
Ishleen looked at me, her wild nimbus of hair glinting in the sunlight.
“Do you remember? Do you remember wanting to be born?”
“I remember something,” she said. “A place.”
I stopped pushing Mam’s chair. “What was the place like?”
“Very cold and windy. The walls and floors were made of ice.”
“I think it’s where Mam’s soul is, Ishleen.”
I described the vast room I kept envisioning, with its white and pale blue embellished walls, iced over, and the blasts of wind blowing sparkles of frost.
“Yes, Maeve. I remember that room.”
“Do you know where that place is, Ishleen?” I pleaded.
She shook her head helplessly. “I only know it’s very cold there.”
We scaled the hill, and when we were safe inside the cottage, I knelt down in front of her. “Oh, Ishleen,” I said. “If you could just try to remember something more about that place.”
“I’ll try, Maeve,” she said.
I went to the hearth and blew on the embers, and small flames appeared from the ashes. Ishleen gazed at them in earnest, as if they might jog some old memory.
“It’s cold there. Very cold. I wanted to leave.”
But try as we both did to find any other clues, all that Ishleen could remember was the cold and that particular iced-over room. And all we could do to quell our frustrations over Mam was embrace and kiss her, comb her hair and pamper the vacant body still with us.
It wasn’t a fortnight before we got a letter from my brothers.
Donal wrote:The Irish are naturals at subterfuge. Our plans are very carefully made, and I believe we will be successful. And I have news on another exciting front. King Philip the second is preparing a fleet to battle the English in Irish waters. The Spaniards in such large number andso well armed as they are will definitely weaken the English and greatly reduce their threat to the Irish people.
Tom Cavan stayed in Ard Macha, and even though I sometimes saw him watching Ishleen and me from a distance when we drove the cows, we managed to avoid him. I had the sense that he was thinking hard about something, trying to decide his next move.
Sometimes Ishleen and I noticed a front of mist on the sea past Woman’s Crag, more visible in the hours when the daylight was waning. It was not like a regular curtain of mist rising off the water, because it seemed to locate itself in one area.
One dusk as I was taking our clothes in off the line, I looked down at the sea. The mist was whiter and denser than I’d ever seen it. It parted very slightly in one area, revealing a shiver of twinkling lights, then closed again immediately. As the sky darkened, the mist became indiscernible.
The next evening Ishleen and I went out to look for the curtain of mist, but it seemed to have vanished.
Donal and Fingal had been gone almost two months when a violent September storm raged along the coast and a Spanish ship hit Woman’s Crag. Then, fighting stiff southwesterly headwinds, the boat turned toward the shore of the mainland and, trying to beach itself, was wrecked in the jagged rocks of the coast.
An hour before it happened, Mr. Cavan had told us he had heard talk of English soldiers in Killybegs, just south of the ford. For more than a week, people had been whispering about the Spaniards that had come in fleets of ships to help the Irish drive out the English. But the Spanish had been defeated right away in the southeast waters on the other side of Ireland. The retreating Spanish ships took the long course all the way to the north, rounding the head of Donegal, and continuing southalong our western coast toward Spain. The weather had been against them, the seas tumultuous and unpredictable.
Da, who’d lived four decades on this storm coast, said he’d never seen such violent, heartbreaking weather.
Wearing oilcloth coats and boots, Ishleen and I followed Da and Mr. Cavan to stand in the driving wet and look at the great galleon, its sails shredded and beating madly at the masts.
“Something devilish about it,” Da said, squinting into the wind, his face streaked with rain.
“A death ship,” Mr. Cavan yelled over the noise of wind and sea. “Surely its fate is already written.”
“God help them!” my father cried, and made the sign of the cross. As the ship hit more rocks, there was a loud, slow crashing noise.
Da and Mr. Cavan made their way down to the beach in the storm to see the ship still trying to approach our precipitous shoreline. It was filling with water, leaning heavily to one side, and fires had started within the hull in places not deluged with rain. The ship’s name, emblazoned on its side in calligraphic letters, wasNuestra Señora de la Soledad.
The Spaniards began to jump from their ship into the water. The waves lifted them high and low, and it was terrible to see how the water dashed them against the rocks. Ishleen and I embraced hard and hunched near the rocky hillside, holding our own against the wind. Some of the dead came in on the tide while others remainedfacedown on the water’s back, lifting and dropping, going under and appearing again.
My father and Mr. Cavan took their boats out, nearly losing their own lives trying to rescue any man still living.
Mrs. Cavan stood on the cliff above, her shawl and skirts beating wildly in the wind. Tom appeared suddenly behind her, peering down at me and Ishleen.
Among the dozens of Spaniards struggling to come ashore that day, only three survived.
Mr. Cavan enlisted a reluctant Tom to help bring the injured Spaniards up to their house. Mrs. Cavan had set a big pallet on the floor, and the men were laid there. Ishleen and I helped Mrs. Cavan go to work on the men’s injuries while my father and Mr. Cavan took turns keeping an eye out for English soldiers. But they both came back in when the weather got too bad to stay outside. The wind howled like twenty banshees, and Ishleen clung to me, pressing her face against my stomach and squeezing her eyes shut. The Cavans’ cottage, which had always seemed rooted to the limestone of Ard Macha, shook as if it might be lifted onto the back of the wind.
“When the storm quiets, the English will come,” my father said. “They’ll see that wreck out there and all the dead, and they’ll come up here looking for any still alive.”
“Yes,” Mr. Cavan said. “And the devils’ll shoot theSpaniards on sight. We should be hiding them as soon as the winds calm.” He pulled aside a curtain and pointed to an area where their sow and her seven piglets were weathering the storm.
Tom, who was standing in the shadows, spoke suddenly. “What will the English do if they know we’re helping the Spaniards?”
My father and Mr. Cavan exchanged a glance. “They’d likely arrest us, but with your help, Tom, we’ll be driving the sow and her sucklings out of the little side room and hiding these men in there, and they’ll never have to know.”
Ishleen and I tore fabric for the men’s wounds. Two of them were unconscious, but one who could not have been much older than me kept opening and closing his eyes, as if he were in the middle of a terrible dream he was trying to awaken from. He mumbled and cried out, moving his head from side to side. He had black hair and thick, expressive eyebrows. On one ear he wore a small gold earring.
“Shhh,” I whispered, kneeling over him. Very gently I pushed the damp black hair away from his forehead and neck, and dabbed his skin with cool water. His eyes opened suddenly, and as he looked at me, he spoke in a fierce whisper,“Todos están muertos. Todo mis amigos.”
Though I did not understand his words, the power of the grief in the sound of them caused a quake of emotion to rush through me like a wave. He winced against his pain and his eyelids fluttered, and soon he closed them again, breathing and moving feverishly. I felt stunned,and remained there kneeling over him, wanting desperately to know what it was he’d said so that I could help quell his suffering somehow. I watched his lips as he mumbled, and saw something flash between two of his teeth: a small bright red jewel embedded there, probably a ruby.
Something made me turn. Tom was watching us with narrowed hawklike eyes. And so I moved away from the Spaniard and tried to behave casually, busying myself by stoking the fire. Da and Mr. Cavan brought the sow and her piglets into the main area of the cottage, and carefully moved the injured soldiers into the side room.
When the wind quieted, about half an hour later, Tom slipped outside. For a while, I struggled to stay calm, but feeling nervous about what he might be up to, I went out.
A swarm of English soldiers in red tarps was on the beach below, inspecting the dead and the ruined ship. Tom stood among them, talking and pointing up the cliff.
I ran back to the cottage, threw the door open, and shouted, “Tom’s speaking to the English soldiers! And I saw him pointing up here!”
“Christ, could that creature be my own son?” Mr. Cavan cried out, and Mrs. Cavan shot him an angry look.
Within minutes, four soldiers arrived. “We know you’re hiding Spaniards in this cottage,” one of them said. He was an imposing figure with a barrel chest and a coat much too tight for him. His big red face was streaming with rain. He looked around the place with squinting eyes, and sneered as if disgusted.
Pointing at the sow in the corner, he asked my father, “Is that your wife?” My father’s face went purple, and his jaw tightened. His hands became fists, but I saw him close his eyes and resist his impulse to hit the man. In that moment, tense with anger and restraint, my father’s muscles looked like they were made of iron.
The red-faced man stepped forward and moved the curtain aside, revealing the injured Spaniards.
The soldiers arrested my father and Mr. Cavan and took them to Dungarven, while a younger soldier, fair-haired with small cold eyes and a scar on his chin, took the three surviving Spaniards outside and shot them in the rain.
The rain kept on that evening. Ishleen and I went home, nervous that Tom might return. We were fretting over our father and kept looking anxiously outside.
Rain was pouring hard, but I ventured out onto the road again and again, once going as far as the place where the Spanish soldiers had been shot. That was when I saw one of them move, the young black-haired one with the ruby in his tooth. I stood there holding the hood of my tarp over my head, watching, hardly breathing, and he moved again.
My heart raced. I ran down to where he lay and knelt beside him. The rain had pooled in his ear and around the lids of his closed eyes. He opened his mouth and seemedto be trying to drink the rain. I could see the wound on his shoulder where he’d been shot. I struggled to wake him, his eyes squinting against the wet. After much cajoling, I managed to get him to his feet.
Something fell from one of his pockets, and I picked it up. It was a small compass made of pewter, the sensitive needle under the glass window moving wildly, like something alive and in a panic. Decoratively carved within its window were words I assumed were Spanish and could not translate; just above those, I was stunned to see a tiny, delicate rendering of the triple spiral.
Not believing my eyes, I wiped the beading droplets of rain from the compass with the inside of my sleeve and examined the design. It was unmistakenly the triple spiral. Very gingerly I returned the compass to his pocket.
He leaned heavily on me as I brought him home, where I tended to his shoulder, using my father’s whiskey to clean it. His bloodstained shirt was in shreds, so I carefully removed it and helped him into one of Da’s warm shirts of heavy woven cloth, the color of oats.
I gave him some water to drink and offered him food, and though he tried, he could barely stomach it.
The storm continued to rage throughout the night. The next day, I left little precocious Ishleen watching over Mam and the wounded Spaniard while I stole from the house, leaning into the wet wind and finding my way to Mrs. Cavan’s. She had no word of my father or her husband.
“How could Tom have done such a thing, Mrs. Cavan, to his own father and to mine?”
“There’s bad blood between Tom and his father,” she said.
“I’m very worried. He’s said to me that soon I’ll have nothing and that I’ll have to marry him. Is that what he’s up to, turning my father over to the English?” I grabbed her hard by the wrist and looked into her face. “If my father is hurt in any way at all, I will curse Tom’s name tomy grave! I’d rather move to Galway and beg in the streets. He doesn’t know who I am if he thinks he can reduce me to nothing and then win me.”
Mrs. Cavan looked as though I’d hit her in the stomach. “I will tell him, Maeve. I think if he believes it might bring you round to him, he’ll do the opposite and make sure your father stays safe. The fact is, for whatever reason, it’s you he wants to marry.”
I was about to rush out when she called me back.
“Maeve, if he does that for you—brings your father back, I mean—will you accept his offer?”
“I cannot promise you. All I can say is that if my father is not returned safely to Ard Macha, my hatred for your son will never be soothed.”
She nodded and ushered me out the door. As she did, she told me that she had seen another Spanish ship at dawn, passing unsteadily in the storm, and had spoken to neighbors from the valley who’d told her that four or five other Spanish ships fighting stiff southwesterly headwinds had crashed along the jagged coastlines to the south. And the English, distracted by those ships and traveling there in droves to meet and execute any survivors, were leaving us temporarily alone.
When I returned, Ishleen told me that the Spaniard had sat up and had drunk some water and eaten a little bread. Now he was asleep again in the box bed, the curtain drawn around him. As I told Ishleen what Mrs. Cavan had said, the Spaniard moaned. We went to him, pulling the curtain aside. He arched his long neck backward, squeezing his eyes closed. His dark skin glistenedwith sweat. We knelt beside him and wondered what to do for him.
“The poor creature,” I whispered.
I couldn’t help but notice how beautifully formed he was, even in his distress. His black hair lay thick on the pillow, and I touched it softly, astonished by its silken texture. Trying to comfort him, I combed it with my fingers, and this quieted him a little. The jewel between his teeth flashed each time he winced with pain.
Ishleen began to sing to him, something she sometimes sang to Mam, an old Irish song about the gentle breezes that will come from the west:“Tioctaidh an leouthne bhog aniar.”Though he did not open his eyes, he quieted and seemed more at peace. Then she sang a song about June sunshine on the grass:“Grian an Mheithimh in ullghort.”His sleep grew peaceful.
I sat near the hearth and sighed, feeling my own exhaustion. Lulled by Ishleen’s voice, I closed my eyes.
I don’t know how long I slept there sitting up, but when I awakened, the Spaniard was leaning on one elbow, his eyes fixed upon me. For a moment I stared back without moving. His eyes were dark brown, radiant with flecks of amber.
Ishleen, who had been pouring water from a pitcher on the other side of the hearth, approached excitedly and handed the Spaniard a cup of water. With shaking hands he took the cup and drank. Then he sat up and, leaning his legs over the side of the bed, hunched forward, breathing with effort. The pain he was feeling seemed tomake him angry. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut.
“¡Ay, maldiga los ingleses!”He spit the words.“Maldígalos al infierno.”
After a moment, he raised his face and looked at the two of us. He pointed to his chest and said, “Francisco.”
I pointed to myself and said, “Maeve,” then to my sister. “Ishleen.” I looked at Mam where she sat in a shadow near the loft stair. Her head hung forward. Guilty for having ignored her all this time, I went to her, lifting her head gently and pushing her wheeled chair into the dim lamplight.
The hard spatter of rain intensified, and the wind shook the foundation of the house. “This is my—” I began, but before I could finish, there was a loud knock on the door, and the three of us looked at one another fearfully.
“Maybe it’s Da,” Ishleen whispered.
“I hope so,” I said, “but just in case, both of you stay back here behind the curtain.” I pulled the curtain closed around them and made an urgent gesture, not knowing how much Irish Francisco understood.
I opened the door only a little to see Tom Cavan’s face peering at me from under his hood, the wind causing his coat to flap and pull, like it might fly off his very body.
“Let me in, Maeve,” he yelled, “out of this weather!”
“No, Tom,” I said firmly. “How dare you come here after what you’ve done. To do such a thing to your own father, and to mine!”
I tried to close the door, but he pushed against it.
“One of the Spaniards that was shot is gone. He might be a danger. I’m here to protect you lest he come here. Let me in!”
“You’re more of a danger than a wounded man who is likely starving to death, Tom Cavan! Now go, and leave my sister and mother and me in peace!”
“Maeve, I’m going to try to help your father. I’m going to bring him home.”
“You should, since it is because of you that he’s in English custody.”
He looked frustrated by my refusal to let him in, and pushed harder against the door. Panicking, I redoubled my effort against him. He glowered at me, and I thought for certain he would now overpower me, but he surprised me by stepping back. His expression as he did so was somewhere between determined and perplexed, and I thought of the conversation I’d had with his mother. She had clearly persuaded him not to force my hand.
I closed and bolted the door and stayed near it, listening until I heard his retreating footsteps through the storm.
I joined Ishleen and Francisco behind the curtain. Francisco was still sitting up, breathing with effort. In spite of the cold air in the room, droplets of sweat ran down his temples. He sighed heavily, then hunched forward, giving himself over to his thoughts, as if recalling terrible things. He grew distressed, as he’d been while dreaming.
It occurred to me that he was the only survivor ofNuestra Señora de la Soledad.
We remained in silence for a while, waiting for our hearts to settle again. Ishleen lifted the cup of water, offering it to him, but Francisco touched his stomach and gestured putting a spoon to his mouth.
“He’s hungry!” Ishleen said. I got up and put some leftover porridge on the fire. Francisco’s eyes followed me in every move I made, and I could not tell if this caused me to be more excited or more nervous. My heart was racing and my cheeks felt hot.
I poured milk into the pot with the porridge and stirred it over the flame. As I cooked, I turned and caught him staring at me. Our eyes locked, and I found myself unable to look away.
If there hadn’t been such pain in his expression, I’d have called his steady look too bold. Yet, at the same time, a shiver of mysterious affection filled me, as if he were someone well known to me. With effort, I blinked and turned away, but even then, the dark beauty of his face remained, imprinted on my field of vision. It mattered so little, perhaps not at all, that I could not understand his language.
If I could have spoken to him, the thing I would have told him, as odd as it seemed in those dangerous moments, was about the dress of delicate metal and the room with the iced-over walls and the gusts of wind. And that if I could only find that place, I might bring Mam back.
It was just at this moment that I glanced over at Mam, and Francisco also turned and peered into the shadow where she sat. He gazed at her for a few seconds, then looked back at me.
“Your …madre?Mother?” he asked.
I nodded, my heart sinking for poor Mam.
He watched my eyes. His expression, worn from exhaustion and grief, was so unguarded that I was pierced by a multitude of sensations and a yearning of the same nature that I often felt gazing into the western sea. I looked away from him, stirring the oats until they were of a good consistency, then ladled a dish full.
Ishleen and I watched with absorption as Francisco ate. He stopped once as he was raising the spoon to his mouth, looked at us, and a half smile broke onto his face. Everything about his handsome visage came into intense focus with that smile, which was skewed to one side of his mouth. A long dimple scored each cheek, and his eyes glimmered.
When he finished eating, he approached Mam, focusing on the triple spiral around her neck. I touched his arm and showed him the one Ishleen wore with the little bottle attached to it. Francisco looked closely at it, as if in awe. For the last year or so, Ishleen had no longer needed the bottle sewn into her clothes for safekeeping, and now wore it as a necklace.
“You have?” he asked, and pointed at my neck. I shook my head. Then he pointed to his jacket, which I had laid near the fire to dry. He went over to it, opened it, and showed me the compass with the triple spiral.
He looked again in Mam’s direction, then went to hisknees. He touched the spiral, and it hummed, so Ishleen and I looked at each other. For a moment, Mam’s breathing became audible.
Noticing this, he whispered,“Señora, regrese a nosotros.”
A certain effervescence came into her posture, and, though I was afraid to believe it, I thought I saw more light in her eyes.
I got on my knees beside him and took Mam’s hands, searching her face. Very gradually the little bit of renewed life faded. Still, as I knelt there, a flicker of hope caused me to shiver. Francisco, having grown tired, now hung his head and breathed with effort. He got up, dragged himself back to the bed, and lay carefully down, wincing as he did. He sighed and half closed his eyes.
I pulled the curtain around him, then looked at Ishleen, who was peering excitedly at me.
“What do the three spirals mean, Maeve?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Ishleen, but it’s something we have in common with Francisco.”
In the middle of the night, there was a loud banging on the door. I bolted to my feet, and Ishleen sat up. “Maeve!” She gave me a frightened look.
The fire had gone down to a few red embers in the white ash.
Francisco drew aside the curtain.
“No,” I whispered, shaking my head.
The banging began again, and a deep, unfamiliar male voice shouted, “Open, or I’ll shoot the lock away!”
“English!” Ishleen whispered.
I suddenly remembered the gun Donal had left for Da. I went to my knees and, moving the hearthstone aside, drew it out. I’d held it before, but was alarmed now at how heavy it was.
Even though Da had never followed through and taught me to use the gun, I recalled the things Donal had said the night he’d explained its workings to me.
“Donal said it has bullets,” Ishleen whispered.
The soldier pounded again. “Open!”
Holding the gun behind me in my left hand, I opened the door. The sudden bright beam of a lamp pierced the shadows of the room. It was the soldier with the scar on his chin, the one who had shot Francisco and his two friends. He gave me an impatient cursory glance, obviously thinking I was no threat, and pushed in past me, his eyes on the curtain Ishleen was standing in front of.
Sensing that she was hiding someone, he pushed Ishleen out of the way and drew the curtain aside, so roughly that part of it tore.
He aimed his gun, and I saw his finger move obliquely toward the trigger. With lightning speed I pointed Donal’s gun at his back and shot.
Time got stuck then in a long, distended moment. The soldier froze, dropping the lamp, which landed on its side on the floor. Incapacitated, his mouth hung open and his eyes bulged in utter shock. Then, at last, he fell.
Shaking violently, I put the gun down and picked up the lamp.
Francisco came out from behind the curtain and squatted beside the soldier. He took the gun from the soldier’s hand and examined it, turning a cartridge and looking inside, counting the bullets.
Everything we did from that moment on happened quickly. Wincing, Francisco was on his feet, laying a blanket on the ground. The three of us coaxed and rolled and pushed the soldier’s body until he lay on the blanket. While Ishleen stayed with Mam with the door bolted, Francisco and I hauled the body down to the beach, Francisco stopping now and again and breathing with difficulty.
A muted moon was just visible through the starlit clouds, and though it was still raining, there was a reprieve in its intensity.
We laid the soldier’s body close to the cold tide, which rushed in with purposeful momentum, pushing and pulling at him, trying to claim him.
Francisco headed for the cliff, but I remained near the dead soldier, looking at his face, which the vague moon dimly illuminated. He was a young man. In death, no threat left in him, he had a soft, childlike expression. A bolt of remorse shook me.
Francisco approached and took my arm gently, his dark eyes catching the moonlight and turning it faintly amber.
Sensing his gratitude, I shivered inwardly and reminded myself that if I had not shot the soldier, he would have killed Francisco. Francisco’s eyes made me feelstrong, my heart beating high in my chest. I imagined the soft metal dress and saw myself storming the icy, elegant room.
Francisco looked at me as if he wished to convey something, but sighed. Perhaps he had not been able to find the words in my language. He touched my shoulder with his warm hand.
“Vamos,”he said in a quiet voice, and took my hand, leading me away from the dead soldier. “Your mama, your sister.” He pointed toward the cottage.
“You know some words in Irish,” I said.
He held his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. “Irish,” he said.“Poquito. Little.”
Lightning flashed in the sky, and a warm metallic smell filled the wet air. Moments later, thunder cracked and rumbled, and a new belt of heavy rain moved in over Ard Macha.
Back in the cottage, I was still shaking as we dried off. I gave Francisco some of Da’s clothes to wear and struggled to think of a safe place where we could go and hide.
Ishleen helped me put things into a satchel: several blocks of turf and matches, a sack of oats and half a loaf of soda bread, ten potatoes, a turnip, and the bottle of whiskey.
The wheeled chair was no good to us where we were going, through sand and jagged rocks and tidewater.
Francisco and Ishleen took Mam’s arms, guiding her, and followed as I led the way down the hill carrying the supplies.
To the south along the beach, under the limestone overhang where Da and my brothers used to fish for black pollack, there was a system of natural corridors that opened into a cave, deep enough in the wall of rock that a burning fire could not be seen from any passing boats. Because of the jutting nature of the headland, we lay completely hidden, a haven from anyone on shore.
We slept there that night, though I could hardly call it sleep. My mind was in a daze, reliving the noise of the gun and the way it had shaken and deafened me, the face of the soldier in the rain and the tide.
In the daylight, we came down from the cave and stood on the stones where my father and brothers used to fish. Hard rain still fell, and gales blew, and when it all quieteda little, a mist descended so that we could see no horizon between sea and sky.
Mam remained half sitting, propped up against a blanket in the cave. I led Francisco inside and gestured for him to go near her, and speak to her as he had the night before. He squatted down and whispered to her in Spanish. I saw again, with a racing heart, a subtle effervescent light encasing Mam, her eyes stirring faintly as if with memory. Ishleen and I watched breathlessly, but soon, as if the energy and faint animation were too difficult to maintain, the barely visible twinkling light fled all at once.
Francisco gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, his hand hovering near the gunshot wound. I told him that I should clean it. He sat down on the ground. My hands shook as I carefully removed the makeshift bandage. I dabbed a cloth with whiskey and cleansed the gash in his skin. He winced, squeezing his eyes shut hard.
When it was finished, Francisco stood and sighed, then went back out and wandered a few yards away. He sat on a shelf of rock with his arms wrapped around his bent legs, resting his face on his knees.
The tide filled the pools between rocks with pollack and skate. I had brought a fishing pole, and while Ishleen sat with her legs dangling off the rock, catching fish, I stole glances at Francisco, who brooded there, staring down into the dark water.
At dusk, the splatter of the rain on the sea took on a soothing, almost hypnotic sound. The mood of the weather had gone from violent to soft. I built a fire andcooked the fish Ishleen had caught. We all ate, and then she went into the cave, where Mam was still propped up. Ishleen laid her head on Mam’s lap and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
The descending sun burned red in the humid sky, cleared of clouds. Francisco and I went south past the rocks to a long strand of beach, an unfamiliar stretch that looked like an alien country in the red light of the waning day.
Big pieces of Francisco’s wrecked ship bobbed and rocked on the waves, with some bits stuck in the sand or the rocks. As we approached, I was stunned to see the tide washing over a giant figure of a woman wrapped in kelp. We ran to it and discovered the twelve-foot-tall figurehead from the front of his ship.
“Nuestra Señora de la Soledad,”he said.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Nuestra Señora …,”he began. “‘Our Lady.’”
“… de la Soledad,”he continued, and hung his head, searching his mind for the word that might translate it best.
“‘Alone,’” he said.
“Our Lady Alone? Lonely?”
He shook his head.“Soledad,”he said softly, then looked at me and said enthusiastically, “‘Solitude’!”
“Our Lady of Solitude,” I said thoughtfully, and studied her. I cleared her damp polished face of seaweed, then ran one hand over her prominent cheekbone. Her mouth was the same shape as Mam’s, lips pressed closed andtense at the corners. Her wide open eyes were set upon something that no one but she saw. She was a giant beauty, but petrified in her eternal longing, seeing nothing but the thing missing from her.
Walking down the length of her supine body, I studied the gracefully carved hands, both pressed to her heart. At the bottom of her dull rose-colored dress, the wood was fractured in places; salt had gathered there and glistened white like streaks of snow.
Francisco gestured for me to help him bring her up from the water. With effort, we dragged her farther up the beach and stood her, impaling the broken wood beneath her hem as deep as we could into the sand. She towered over us, a monument leaning toward the western sea, facing the waves.
“She’s looking toward the Holy Isles,” I said, pointing at the horizon.
He nodded, understanding immediately what I had said.“Las Santas Islas,”he said.
He brought out his compass and showed it to me. The Spanish words that I’d seen there before wereLas Santas Islas.
Instead of north being the top of the four compass points, west was. The face of the compass was embellished in places with Celtic knots.
I marveled that he, too, knew of the Holy Isles, and I remembered what Emmet Leahy had said about the ancient intimacy between the Irish and the Spanish. The triple spiral, I realized with wonderment, was connected somehow to the Holy Isles.
“I used to dream of sailing in search of the Holy Isles,” I said.
He nodded.“Peligroso …dangerous journey.”
“But beautiful,” I said.
He tapped his forehead with his finger. “Maybe onlyislas …isles in the mind.El sueño de un niño. The dream … of a child.” He stared darkly toward the horizon, where the sun was still descending, causing the sky to burn very red and the streaks of gold to go purple. Gulls flew at all altitudes, cawing mercilessly above us.
“I believe in the isles,” I said, and touched my chest, nodding, in case he didn’t understand. “I think they are there.”
I handed him back his compass, and as his arm brushed against mine, my heart gave a little jump.
He noticed this and looked at me thoughtfully, then came close, a tender flinch in his eye. He touched my hair, sweeping a strand away from my face. I felt a kind of vertigo, as if I might fall, but in slow motion.
He embraced me and held me close to him so that I could feel his strong heart beating against my neck. Closing my eyes, I felt myself melting into him, drifting into some other state of being, in which every pulse in my body tolled like a bell. After such upheaval, the world was recovering itself with a heightened intensity. The wind rose and fell, deepening some moments to a high chorus, then fading into silence.
In that hour, as the sun disappeared and left the skydark blue, it was as if we were utterly alone on the planet, with only Mam and Ishleen safely dreaming in the nearby cave, the giant lady of solitude presiding over us.
It was dark when we crept back to the cave. I took my place beside the slumbering Ishleen, and he took his place on the other side of the fire, which was almost out. A few times as I started to sleep, I opened my eyes and looked over at him in the light of the dying embers. His eyes were open and he stared into the darkness above him.
In the middle of the night I heard soft voices. Both Francisco and Ishleen were deep asleep. I got up and crept out through the corridor to the threshold, following the sounds.
The water was very still, the sky above, clear and wildly starry, and each star’s reflection shimmered on the water’s surface, a quiet festival of lights.
On the shelf of rock where Francisco had sat in a reverie earlier in the day were two figures wearing purple jackets with silver braiding—the uniform of the crew ofNuestra Señora de la Soledad, the same jacket Francisco wore. At first I could make out only their silhouettes and minimal movements, but the wet silver braiding issued a faint illuminated mist that rose like steam from their shoulders. I did not breathe, and gradually my eyes adjusted enough that I could see that the two young men were dark-haired like Francisco. They whispered and conferred excitedly with each other.
One of them saw me and informed the other one and they froze where they were. For some reason that I did not understand, I knew that they were dead or no longer of the world Francisco, Ishleen and I lived in. And then I realized why. They were the other two rescued Spaniards, Francisco’s friends who had died when they’d been shot.
The one who had seen me first took off his jacket, leaving it on the rock. His human silhouette lost its contours and he became a dark liquid shadow that poured itself into the water. The other one followed suit. When the water they had disappeared into had gone quiet again, I looked at the jackets that lay on the rock, sleeves in expressive postures still steaming, the wet silver cording ignited.
I looked out at the sea. It must have been filled with the Spanish dead, yet the elements seemed to be rejoicing and excited, in the way the two Spaniards had been before they’d seen me. Shouldn’t the sea feel like a giant tomb, I wondered, floating with Spaniards and a single murdered Englishman? Instead there was a shivery animation to the new silence and the starlight, a charge on the air and an exhilaration barely held in check. I thought of Francisco sleeping inside, and my heart quickened. He seemed like the single survivor of a dark-haired breed of gods. Maybe he’d been meant for the sea as well, but Ishleen and Mam and I were keeping him, holding him in this other world.
When I looked again at the shelf of rock, the two jackets were gone.
A few minutes later, Francisco appeared at the threshold of the cave, carrying the lamp, looking questioningly at me.
I hesitated, then said, “Seals. I was watching them swim.”
He raised his eyebrows and smiled, then exclaimed in a soft voice, “Seals! They are …” He struggled to find words. “Humans.”
“Like humans?” I asked.
Ishleen came out then, rubbing her eyes sleepily.
Suddenly, as if it were a vision, a Spanish boat appeared, an armada ship.“La Hermana de la Luna!”Francisco cried, and held up the lamp, waving his arms wildly at them.
The ship dropped anchor. With the water so calm and the moon so bright, the sailors could see the rockiness of the beach and knew not to attempt to come closer. Two men boarded a small boat and were lowered to the water. They navigated between the rocks and came toward us as Francisco ran anxiously into the sea. He and the Spaniards spoke in urgent tones to one another.
Ishleen ran back into the cave and came out with the soda loaf. She stood on the rock shelf and waved it, offering it to them. The small boat came in close, and one of the Spaniards accepted it, but he did not seem worn with hunger the way Francisco had been, and their boat looked much less battered, regal even as it waited there on the clear horizon, sailors watching from deck. Franciscopointed to the ship’s carved figurehead of a young woman leaning seaward, her dark hair the same length as mine. Straining forward from the stern, her forearms extended and palms facing up, her posture and her entire bearing suggested that she was on a kind of noble quest.
“La Hermana de la Luna. ‘The Sister of the Moon,’”he said.
“She looks like Maeve,” Ishleen said.
Francisco looked at it again and then at me, and nodded in acknowledgment.
“Vamos,”the Spaniard said to Francisco.
I panicked, thinking of Mam inside and how I was sure Francisco could bring her back to life.
“No! Don’t go!” I cried out.
Francisco locked eyes with me, and we stood facing each other waist-deep in the bay, steadying ourselves against the gentle surges of the waves.
“¡Vamos!”he said. “Come.”
I looked at Ishleen. “Let’s bring Mam and go with him.”
“No, Maeve!” Ishleen said. “We can’t leave Da!”
I knew she was right. I looked at Francisco with pained reluctance, and shook my head.
He came in close, pressed his mouth to my ear and whispered,“Gracias.”
A shiver ran the length of me.
I closed my eyes and felt his lips on my temple. He let go and stepped back from me, leaving me with racing pulses.
Francisco looked at his fellow sailor and said somethingfast in Spanish. The sailor looked at me and said, “He says he comes back for you one day soon.”
“Promise,” I said.
“Promise,” Francisco repeated.
He was about to get into the little boat when something occurred to him. He unbuttoned his purple jacket and handed it to me, nodding that I should take it. I thought of the ghost Spaniards wearing their wet jackets on the stone. It seemed an ill omen, but he urged me.
He came close again, nodding very definitively.“Por favor, Maeve. You please keep mevivo.”
I pressed the coat close to my chest as he climbed into the boat.
I looked to the other sailor.“Vivo?”I asked.
“It means …alive,”the sailor answered.
I held the jacket to my chest and watched as the little boat met the big ship. Several men helped Francisco on board and greeted him with embraces. A distinctive-looking man among them, tall and very thin, with wild black hair, looked out at Ishleen and me wistfully and waved.
I remained in the water watching untilLa Hermana de la Lunadisappeared on the southern horizon.
With Francisco gone, Ishleen and I led Mam slowly back to Ard Macha, and were overjoyed to find Da returned from Dungarven.
Old Peig was there with him. She told us that when she’d heard that he’d come home and found an empty house, she’d worried and come to look after him. They were both greatly relieved to see us and shocked by the tale I had to tell.
Da was despondent and tired. He sat that night before the fire, and Old Peig, who said she’d stay on with us for a while, pampered him as best as she could, but he refused to talk about his days in English captivity. And when we asked about Mr. Cavan, he shook his head. He told us that Tom Cavan was responsible for getting himfreed, but the shameful thing was that he had done nothing to help his own father.
Old Peig told us that the day after Tom Cavan had seen to it that Da was sent home, he’d disappeared again from Ard Macha.
The next morning, soft weather returned, skies gray and lightly damp with rain. I insisted that Da let Ishleen and me come out to fish with him.
One hour felt like five hours, rocking in the boat on the sea. The misty weather was a kind of limbo in which we remained suspended, and sitting for so long on the cold water, the gloom had a way of getting into the soul.
I daydreamed about the storm’s violence, and the way it had ended in brilliant calm. My eyes were always on the horizon to the south, whereLa Hermana de la Lunahad disappeared.
That afternoon, I restlessly wandered as far as the edge of Dungarven, looking for any news at all about the Spanish ships, but no one knew a thing, only vague reports about armada wrecks to the south. I told myself that the ship Francisco was on had been undamaged, that the men had seemed healthy, and these factors increased the possibility that they would survive.
The news I did come by was not what I’d been hoping to hear. Emmet Leahy, my brothers and two other men were fugitives, running and hiding from the English for having set fire to one of their camps.
I went home and reluctantly told this to Da.
I sat with Mam that evening, whispering to her, rubbing her hands between both of mine to warm them. And try as I did to search her face for the reassuring spark of life that had appeared when Francisco had spoken to her, I could not find it. She looked like a drowned woman.
“Señora,”I whispered to her softly, the way Francisco had. I struggled to remember other Spanish words but could only remember the names of the ships.“Nuestra Señora de la Soledad,”I added, and then remembered what it meant.
I watched for even a faint rush of blood to her cheek, a glimmer to return to her eyes.
“Please, Mam,” I whispered. “Please.” But the skin of her brow, her eyelids and her mouth all looked heavier and cooler than I had ever seen them.
I wrapped Mam in Francisco’s jacket, hoping she might sense him through it. I warmed the cold metal buttons against my palm, traced the intricacies of the silver braiding with my fingertips and memorized the thick seams and their contours. Mam’s arms got lost in the long sleeves.
In a delirium, I breathed traces of his sweat from the jacket, and the salt of the sea, believing that some of his soul was there in the fabric, his skin, his hair, his respiration and his heart; believing that if I concentrated hard enough, I might conjure him.
He had, in my mind and imagination, fused himself with my quest to bring Mam back, and with the vision of myself in the metallic dress storming the frozen, windy room.
“Oh, Mam,” I whispered, closing my eyes and remembering Francisco’s heart beating against my neck. I thought I heard a change then in Mam’s breathing, dry but active like the brush of wings, but as I pulled slightly back and looked at her, I realized it was my own breathing I’d heard.
Feeding Mam at the meal later, I was so far away in my thoughts of Francisco that I did not hear the words Da and Ishleen addressed to me until Da said, “It’s hard enough that your mother cannot answer when we speak to her.”
His words shocked me. I tried to stay focused, to keep myself present with Da and Ishleen and Old Peig. But all the things I did that were unrelated to Mam or the memory of Francisco, I did with only half my heart.
The next day, a letter arrived from Donal and Fingal.Dear Da, Maeve and Ishleen,
I felt a pulse of anger that they had not included Mam.There are good people in Ireland, always willing to give a bed and food to a rebel. And if there are no cottages on a hill or in a valley, there are plenty of abandoned byres and bog holes. The English are hated, and everyone we meet in every village and on every boreen has a new story of their atrocities. Suffice to say that we have a plan and our rebellion is well organized, though wecannot tell you more in a letter. We trust it will reach you, but beware of treachery. Unfortunately, as we know from our own Tom Cavan, its potential exists in every small hamlet.Your most faithful sons and brothers,Donal and Fingal
The next morning when Da, Ishleen and I set out to fish, the waves were uneasy, cresting and whitening as they moved toward land. I was facing the south waters in the directionLa Hermana de la Lunahad gone when I saw a slim dark boat appear out of a curtain of mist. Standing straight up within was a woman in a gray-green dress with long rivulets of wet hair clinging to her shoulders and arms, looking like someone who’d just come up from the sea. I recognized her as the woman who had lured Ishleen when Mrs. Cavan had taken me to Dungarven. My body went stiff and cold. I watched her every tiny movement.
She focused on Ishleen, who, like my father, was looking in the direction of Woman’s Crag.
As if propelled by some unnatural force, the woman’s craft brought her swiftly and silently closer, then stopped, treading the waves about three yards away. Long leaves of dark green kelp were interlaced with strands of her hair, and some lay on her bodice in twists and curls like ribbons. She bent slightly forward from the waist, her expression almost fierce, and showed me something metallic in her hand. I did not breathe. I could see that littlesnails and pearls clung to the skin of her fingers and palm, but whatever she held reflected light so strongly that I could not discern what it was.
She stood up straight again and shivered on the air, so I thought she’d dissolve. Instead, she divided into three women, each a little different from the other, but all in wet dresses of gray-green. They came closer on their boat, which now looked more like half a giant unhinged seashell. I saw that the hems of their dresses were pulpy and a little transparent, and within the folds of that sleek, shiny fabric, I saw jellyfish, internal lights igniting on and off, causing eerie pale blue illuminations on the women’s dresses. The vision became more and more uncanny: the water sloshed around the women’s ankles; jellyfish writhed, convulsing gracefully, blossoming open and closed; and starfish walked the sides of the boat. What disturbed me more than anything else was the way two of the women were staring at Ishleen. The eyes of the one at the center, who was the original woman, kept flashing from me to Ishleen and back again to me.
Gradually the three women resolved back into one, and the boat shrank into a long dark craft not unlike my father’s fishing boat. With a kind of sneer, the woman again held the metallic object up significantly, then tossed it into the water. She dissolved then, leaving the smell and charge of lightning on the air.
My father and Ishleen, who had not once turned around while this vision had taken place, remained oblivious, and I did not want to tell them about it.
That night after pulling in our catch, we were sorting through the fish when I found Francisco’s compass among them. Its window was shattered, but the nameLas Santas Islasand the triple spiral were still clearly visible.
Old Peig left when we arrived home, having been sent for by the family of a woman in childbirth. Though my mind was wildly distracted, I managed to prepare dinner but did not eat with Da and Mam and Ishleen. I lay down on my pallet facing the wall, stunned by the memory of the woman holding the shattered compass.
I took Francisco’s jacket out from under the blanket and found that the silver cording on the shoulders issued light, mist rising from the fabric. And I feared, though I could hardly bear to consider it too closely, that Francisco might be dead. It seemed that the woman, or trinity of women, had been suggesting this to me.
I held the compass, but its solidity tormented me. Its hard, cold surfaces warmed under my breath and intensified the feeling of Francisco’s absence. I placed the shattered compass in the front chest pocket of the jacket and pressed it to me. Each time my heart beat, I felt the compass needle quiver there, comforting me as if it were Francisco’s heart beating against my own. From this, I tried to convince myself that I would see him again.
In my dream that night, the sea was crashing. Over the noise of the swells, I heard Francisco calling me. “Maeve! Maeve! Help me!”
I sat up, breathing fiercely. As quickly as I could, I put on my boots and went out, making my way in the moonlight to the overhang of the cave.
The water sloshed quietly in the dark. I went to the cave and found a candle we had left there. I brought it out, lit it and dripped hot wax onto the stone where the Spanish ghosts had been sitting the other night. Then I stuck the candle in place on the stone, the flame stirring and pulsing. Next to the candle I laid the jacket very carefully, then climbed to the threshold of the cave, the place where I had been standing when I’d first seen the dead Spaniards in their jackets. I resolved to wait as long as it might take for the two dead shipmates. I placed my hope in them, thinking they might be able to tell me where Francisco was. But now I realized with disappointment that the air did not feel the way it had that night.
The moon was only a smear behind the thick, smoky cloud cover, and the water had none of the clarity and brilliance from all the starlight. There was a vacancy now on the air, as if much of the vivacity from the time when Francisco had been here had departed with him.
Every slosh of tide at the rocks left an echo under the overhang.
I gazed back at the jacket. Even the issue of light from the silver cording was dull, and an awful sensation of emptiness swept over me.
Still, I wouldn’t leave.
I remembered his promise to come back, and I was determined to wait for him.
Very early in the morning, just at the break of dawn, a fisherman passed in his boat and was startled by the sight of me: a wild thing on the rocks, my hair disheveled and blowing, grasping the coat of an armada Spaniard around my shoulders. The fisherman stood awkwardly in his craft and made the sign of the cross.
Da and Ishleen appeared on the rocks an hour or so later, calling me home. I was sitting on the stone shelf curled up into myself, not even caring that the tide was high and wetting me to the bone.
But with the sun up, there was little hope that Francisco might come. My heart had fallen so hard, I didn’t want to move. I felt so helpless against what now felt like Mam’s inevitable sinking away.
Da got his boat and steered it around to where I was.
“Come home now, Maeve,” he said, and reached out to help me into the boat. When I looked into his eyes from under my wind-matted hair, I saw the same look he had given Mam when she’d heard the voice of the swan.
As we ascended the hill at Ard Macha, Da stopped to talk to a local man who told him about all the wreckage from Spanish ships in a confluence of rocks a few hours south of our shore.
After washing and dressing, and wearily sleeping away the afternoon, I heard Francisco’s voice again calling me: “Maeve! Maeve! Help me!”
I prepared for another night’s vigil among the rocks. It was as if I couldn’t help myself.
This time I did not remain in the rocks near the caves, but walked south along the shore in the direction the ship had gone. Some of the wreckage I saw was from Francisco’s original ship. I knew, because I found a warped broken board with the blistered decomposing letters of the wordSoledadon it. But, finding no signs ofLa Hermana de la Luna, I tripped my way back toward Ard Macha, the wick of my lamp now dark and quenched in oil.
It was dawn when I saw Da and Ishleen appear in the boat, with despondent expressions. Shivering, I got in with them.
Ishleen looked wistful.
“I think Francisco is in trouble, Ishleen. I hear him calling me.”
Her eyes darkened, but she said nothing.
Da pulled the boat up onto the sand, and I got out, but Ishleen stayed with him to go out fishing that day.
In Da’s search to find me, other residents had come out to lend a hand. When they saw that I was safe, most of them disbanded, but as I climbed the hill back to the cottage, Mrs. Molloy and Mrs. Callahan were standing there. They stared as I carried the burned-out lamp, my hems torn and soaked, my hair matted from the wind.
“She’s like her own mother, as mad as the mist and snow,” one of them said.
Tears streaked my face as I heard this, but I was not dissuaded.
“Look at her, wearing the coat of a dead Spaniard,” the other whispered.
When I was inside the cottage, I laid Francisco’s jacket on a chair near the fire, to dry from the mist and salt spray. My skin was hot and feverish, and my stomach felt queasy. I knelt before Mam, who was in her wheeled chair facing the fire, hanging her head. Her eyes were three quarters of the way closed, inward-looking. Her breathing was very faint. I laid my head in her lap and cried.
That night before the meal, Da took me aside and told me that he had to leave early the next morning for Killybegs. The remaining men of the Ard Macha faction were going to meet to discuss more action against the English and to try to find a way to bring aid to the fugitives.
“You can’t keep traipsing off every night this way, Maeve,” he said. “You’ve got to stay here and take care of Ishleen and your mam.”
Nervous at the danger he faced and the gravity of the situation, I promised him I’d not do it again. And even though I heard Francisco’s voice, I didn’t go out for three nights.
But on the fourth night that Da was gone, I felt an intense expectation on the air, a certainty that Francisco was waiting for me. The moon was large and hung in aclear sky. I told myself I’d go down to the overhang while Ishleen was asleep but come back well before dawn, and she’d never know that I’d gone. As I was planning this out in my thoughts, she awoke, having somehow sensed what was on my mind.
“There is a storm ring around the moon,” she said softly as we stood by the open door, looking out. She peered into my distracted face. “There will be wind and very high tides in the morning.”
I had not noticed until she’d pointed it out, but she was right. A slender aura of luminous fog encircled the moon, the promise of tumultuous weather.
“If you go,” she said, “something bad will happen.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Ishleen.”
But even after I tucked her into bed and kissed her on the temple, she looked uneasily at me.
Deep in the night, when I went outside, the sky was lit up with the moon and portending storm, flashes of trembling light breaking between massive clouds. I got into the boat and sailed away from the land. A violent wind blew me miles to the south until I beached on a rocky isle, where I came upon a dozen bodies of dead Spaniards lying facedown in the sand. All were wearing the purple jackets, the mysterious white steam rising from the silver cording and disappearing on the air. The tide had soaked them all through, and ran in again now, flooding them and retreating in jetties of foam.
With great effort, I turned each man onto his back and bent over him, searching for signs of life. I wiped sand from their faces, pushed and cajoled until I knew with certainty that each was dead. I was sweating, in spite ofthe blistering wind and icy salt sparks from the tides. My heart pumped hard, my eyes raking the shore for any others.
It was then that I saw the torn side of a hull, bobbing and stuck between rocks. Words were painted there but partially obscured with kelp. I waded in up to my thighs to where the rocks were high, jagged and numerous. Their black surfaces were slippery; it was with effort that I managed to climb them and come close enough to move the kelp and read the words:La Hermana de la Luna.
Turning, I saw the figurehead from the ship, the one that Francisco had insisted looked like me. It was presiding over something in a pool between three or four large peaked stones, something I thought at first was a sea plant, dark fringes waving in unison with the sloshing water. As I pulled myself along toward it, the figurehead’s eyes flashed to mine, peering at me for a few moments before looking down again at whatever she was watching over. As I got closer, my perspective grew clearer and I saw that it was the hair of someone in the water.
When I reached the edge of the rock, I could see the poor soul quite clearly. It was the sailor who had come out in the little boat to bring Francisco back to the ship, the one who had told me that Francisco promised to come back for me. Only his head was above the water-line, leaning back against the rock. His eyes were open, staring but unseeing. His arms were rising slightly from his sides in the water, and softly bobbing on the coldcurrent. I leaned far over the stone, desperate to bring him up somehow, when I saw that one of his legs was caught under a piece of fallen wreckage. It held him there, suspended underwater.
I pushed on the various stones that surrounded him, to see which might be movable, and found that one of them rocked and might be shifted. With my entire body, I pushed until I got it out of the way and, swimming down, pulled the wreckage away from his feet. Despite my exhaustion, I began to drag him ashore; at one point, still half in the water, I stopped to rest, pressing his body near a rock wall. I felt how intensely cold he was. Though it made little sense to do so, I wriggled out of the deluged jacket I wore and wrapped the sailor in it.
Then, as I continued to try to drag him to shore, a strong tide came in. I lost hold of his body, and it went seaward, then under a wave. I swam down after it. The moon shone in a long beam of light into the water, illuminating him, his arms raised all the way up now, as he stared ahead unseeing. I caught him, struggling hard to bring him up by swimming with one arm and holding him with the other, but the effort was too great and he slipped from me, continuing to plummet.
Panicked, I pulled myself deeper, swimming after him, when my need to breathe grew desperate. I had to rush upward and break the surface, gasping for air.
When I went down again, my hopes of helping the Spaniard faded. He was nowhere to be seen. I resurfaced to breathe, but decided to try once more. My heart jumped with hope as I saw a shadow coming up from agreat depth. But as it ascended, I realized that it was the jacket floating there, open-armed and filled with water. Remembering what Francisco had said about keeping him alive, I swam down after it, but the waves had become choppy. The forceful push and pull of the water played havoc with me. I thought I was finally getting close, when the water pulled me suddenly away from the jacket.
A figure that seemed to be wearing a dark gray cape appeared in the depths and came swimming quickly toward me, revealing itself to be a kind of stingray, a wide flat kite-shaped creature with human hands and an angry human face. It bared its jagged teeth and planted a bite on my shoulder, sharp and painful. I screamed, the sound muted by the water.
Four women similar in visage to the Swan Woman approached us in a frenzied swim, driving the creature off. As I swam to the surface, aching to breathe, the women also rose upward, turning into swans as they reached the air. Each ascended to the sky with a tremendous shriek as the light of dawn began to break. Three of them flew westward, while the other hovered close above a few yards away, as if to show me Da’s little boat, which was bobbing on a wave below it.
My shoulder ached badly and bled, and my arms were intensely tired as I trod water and made my way toward the boat. When I got in, the swan flew over me as if magically propelling the boat back north. The dawn light had now driven off the shadows of night. I had not intended to be so long away, and found myself anxious to be home,praying that Ishleen had not awakened and found me gone.
I was almost back at Ard Macha when, to my shock, I saw a small boat riding seaward from the shore, rocking unsteadily. Recognizing Tom Cavan in the bow, rowing the craft, I felt an intimation of dread. A woman in gray-green sat in the boat, too, hunched forward and holding something contained in glass. Neither seemed to see me in the periphery. With tremendous effort, I rowed forward, struggling to see what the woman was holding. It was small, too insubstantial to be called a figure, yet it had a shimmer and a form, and moved within the glass that contained it. For flashes of moments, it took on a solidity. Straining to see, I recognized it suddenly as the transparent figure of a child. Just as my heart sped with suspicion, the swan flew toward them and began screeching.
The little transparent figure grew opaque as it looked up at the swan, and in that instant I recognized a ghostly Ishleen. I cried out, but my voice was drowned by the violent rush and crash of the sea. Soon the boat was swallowed by a sudden mist that opened like a curtain, revealing something massive floating there, a flash of ice and light, before it was again obscured.
I tried to row after them, but a powerful surge lifted my craft from below. The clouds rent apart, and rain fell in a deluge. The sea carried the boat to the shore against my will, lodging it between stones on the high beach. I ran up to the cottage and found Old Peig inside, sitting forward on a chair as if stunned.
“Peig!” I cried.
She turned her head slowly and looked at me, her eyes wet with tears. She hesitated, then lifted a trembling arm and pointed to the yellow curtain, which was pulled closed. I went and drew it open.
Ishleen lay limply beside Mam, wearing the same vacant expression Mam wore. I sat on the edge of the bed and touched her arm.
“Ishleen! Ishleen!” I whispered, shaking her gently.
“She won’t wake,” Old Peig said. “She came to me before dawn when she found you gone. I came back here with her to wait for you. She was playing outside just as dawn was breaking. The door was open and I could hear her singing to herself the way she does. But then she was quiet, and when I said her name, she didn’t answer. I went out and found her sitting on the ground. I said her name and she didn’t turn. As I went toward her, I saw Tom Cavan and a strange woman rushing into a boat. I think they’ve carried off her spirit the way they did with your mam.”
“Do you think they have Mam, too?” I asked.
“It’s the same awful devilry at work here,” she said, and pointed to Ishleen. “I think they must.”
“What do I do, Peig?” I pleaded.
She shook her head.
I ran outside, but the water was still too unsteady and the wind too high for me to attempt going after them. Clouds bulged with seemingly endless rain. I heard on the air itself the voice of the swan, which I could nolonger see. It had now flown into the distance, leaving a vague, melancholy echo.
That night I lay with Mam and Ishleen on the box bed, leaning my face close to my sister’s, making sure of her steady, transparent breathing. Exhaustion set in and I closed my eyes.
The light was very blue, like late dusk or early dawn. A quiet wind was blowing and the sea was still. I was staring at the ruins when I saw an opening through the tower, a dark doorway with faint illumination like candlelight within. I went in and descended a staircase. The place was rough, dilapidated walls and crumbling passageways. I heard Ishleen’s soft breathing and followed the sound into a once-elegant room with a great canopied bed, now collapsed; the walls and furniture were dusty and decrepit.