Cover image for The nature of water and air : a novel
The nature of water and air : a novel
McBride, Regina, 1956-
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New York : Scribner Paperback Fiction, [2001]

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314 pages ; 21 cm
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"My mother was never easy in the world of houses. She was a tinker, a traveler girl who had married a wealthy man. Her name was Agatha Sheehy....There are silences all around my mother's story."
So begins The Nature of Water and Air, set on a patch of Irish coast where, amid a flurry of whispers, we meet Agatha's only surviving daughter, Clodagh. Determined to secure her mother's elusive love and the truth about her, Clodagh is swept into a relationship with a handsome, isolated man. He brings her to the heart of her mother's story, where she must confront the questions "Does a truth change love?" and "What madness will come from chasing a secret?"
Powerfully sensitive, this startling debut novel about forbidden love will place Regina McBride among our most celebrated novelists.

Author Notes

Regina McBride's poetry book, "Yarrow Field", won an American Book Series Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the NEA & the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her poems have appeared in publications including "Boulevard" & "The Antioch Review". Regina McBride teaches creative writing at Hunter College in New York City, where she lives.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Combining elements of a gothic novel and a folktale, this lyrical coming-of-age debut is set in a luminous Ireland. Clodagh Sheehy, who narrates the story in a poised, clear-eyed manner, is the stronger of twins born to teenage Agatha. A former tinker, Agatha grew up on the west coast as wild as a "selkie," or sea sprite. After her husband's untimely death, she inhabits uneasily a decrepit estate house by the sea with her daughters and the pious housekeeper, Mrs. O'Dare. When the weaker twin dies at age five, Agatha rejects Clodagh and begins frequenting the tinker camps again, visiting her mysterious lover there. When she is 13, Clodagh, still hungry for her mother's love, yet unsparing in her judgment of her, dispassionately watches as Agatha commits suicide by walking into the sea. "It seemed to be the nature of water and air, to be random, heartless," she thinks. The novel is paced with gentle insistence, tracing Clodagh's journey from her harsh convent education into young adulthood. She becomes an accomplished pianist, but her ill-fated passion for a copper-haired tinker, Angus Kilheen, leads her to give up her music. McBride, an American poet and teacher, lyrically describes the dramatic sea-swept landscape of Ireland. Occasionally, however, she veers into portentous sentimentality, identifying Agatha repeatedly with the selkie myth. The essential tragedy here is not so much the discovery by Clodagh of her father's true identity though McBride handles the complicated plot line with fluid tenderness but the girl's abandonment of her musical gift. Finely wrought and deeply felt, the novel is a work of supercharged imagination, in which the presence of sea spirits, ghosts and the dire workings of fate contribute to an atmosphere of brooding mystery. Agent, Regula Noetzli. 5-city author tour. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This debut novel, set on the wild cliffs of the Irish coast, is the story of young Clodagh and her mysterious mother, Agatha, who was raised a tinker (traveling gypsy) but who was rumored to be a selkie, a mythical Irish creature from the sea a seal turned human temptress. Agatha had married a wealthy young man and bore him twin girls, of which Clodagh is the surviving child. As Clodagh grows into womanhood, she tries to unravel her mother's secrets, becoming involved with a captivating tinker man named Angus and learning more than she bargained for in chasing the dreams of her mother's life. McBride is an award-winning poet, and her novel is lyrical and sad, infused with fascinating folklore and the chill of the Irish landscape. A literary Maeve Binchy; recommended for public libraries. Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One My mother was never easy in the world of houses. She was a tinker, a traveler girl who had married a wealthy man. Her name was Agatha Sheehy. I don't know her maiden name. There are silences all around my mother's story. People stared at her when we walked on the old road to Dublin or in the nearby fields on our way into town. She was an anachronism, like a vagabond who'd walked off with a wealthy woman's traveling case. A pretty, red-faced girl with long white-blond hair, she had about her a wild, unrefined grace, and a penchant for sequins and beads and things that glimmered. In the bright of morning, on her way into town to shop for eggs and rashers, she navigated the often sopping fields in opulence, dragging the hems of long silk dresses, raking her black boots in mud. Even the old women wore their practical woolen skirts near the knee. She watched the eyes of the townspeople, choosing to read their silent stares as approbation or envy; but some days when her mood was more suspicious, a suppressed smile could send her scudding back across the field and into the house in a breathy tirade about the ugliness of the little ramshackle beach town of Bray, calling the Wicklow hills "lumps," insulting the land as if it were inseparable from the people. She laughed at the Irish Sea, which we could see from the parlor window, and said that even at their most tumultuous, the waves were "demure" in comparison with the waves of the great Atlantic in the rocky west of Ireland, beating and spuming at the Galway crags. We lived in an old estate house on Mercymount Strand, isolated between fields gone out of cultivation. Mrs. O'Dare, the woman who lived with us and did the cooking and cleaning, called it a "decrepit castle." It had no central heating, just the "fires," as the old woman called them: plug-in heaters too puny to heat the vast, high-ceilinged rooms. Most of the house we left empty and unlived in, while my mother, twin sister, and I slept all together in the parlor and Mrs. O'Dare in a smaller, connecting room. In a pillowcase under her bed, my mother kept all the things my father had given her during their courtship, objects I took out secretly sometimes to wonder over. A glass sea horse with pearls for eyes. A porcelain Dutch girl holding a tulip. A pair of linen gloves with a mysterious blue stain on one finger. In the one picture we had of my father, he was standing near a tree, squinting his eyes, his hair ruffled by the wind. The air around him was blasted with daylight so his face looked milky and blurred and I stared hard at him, struggling to read his expression. Though I had never known him, I felt as if I knew more about him than I knew about my mother. With him I associated the area known as Dunshee in the west, straight across on the other side of Ireland; and I could imagine the great mansion in which he'd grown up, and where he'd brought my mother to live. But my mother seemed to have come from nowhere. The one story I knew about my mother's life before I was born was how she and my father had met in the west. He had been thirty years old and suffering from heart disease. My mother had been fifteen. He'd first seen her, standing on Ailwee Head, facing the noisy Atlantic. He'd just come through a week confined to his bed having experienced serious palpitations. She had not heard the engine of the car, deafened as she was by the booming surf on the rocks below. Frank Sheehy had the driver stop. He got out and stood awhile watching her push the hair from her eyes in the wind, her rough skirt stirring wildly at her shins. He'd later tell his unmarried sisters with whom he lived that when he saw her he felt his heart steady in his chest, and a surge of strength come into his body. Overcome by a desire to take care of her, the world seemed a different place. The sun lit the backs of the waves and in the depths of him something vital stirred. He had a dream that same night that she came to live in his house, and he took this as a sign from God that he should find her. Every day after that he went along the beaches and headlands looking for her but a year passed before he saw her, to his surprise, from an upstairs window, driving three cows up a rocky road on the outskirts of his property. Careful not to frighten my mother off, my father had his sister Kitty overtake her on the road and invite her to tea. Surprised and a little suspicious, she agreed, and Kitty Sheehy followed her as she returned the cows to the farmer who'd hired her to drive them upfield. When she'd first come into the house her skin was windburned and her feet hard and black, callous. "More like hooves than feet," Kitty Sheehy had whispered to her sister, Lily. Before tea Kitty directed my mother to the lavatory to wash her hands. When she did not come back to the dining room, Kitty found her at the other side of the house having lost her way through the corridors. My father was fascinated. At tea he stared at her unabashedly with a cocked half-smile on his face. If she expressed interest in any little object on the table he gave it to her. A porcelain salt shaker shaped like a windmill. A cluster of crystal grapes. A pink and gilt cup with a rose painted in the bowl of it. He offered her everything she touched, no matter that the things belonged to his sisters. Kitty and Lily held their breath tolerantly, seeing how she animated him, but behind the kitchen door they moaned about the smell of her, how her hair must be crawling with bugs. Much to their distress my father insisted she stay in one of the guest rooms. They agreed so long as she let one of the servants bathe her and give her something clean to wear. My mother'd been horrified about the bath, particularly when the servant washed and pumiced her feet. And then she expressed uneasiness with staying on one of the upper floors so Mrs. O'Dare, who'd been working for the Sheehys at the time, offered her own room that was behind the kitchen. Right away my mother took to Mrs. O'Dare. "I was the only one among them that treated her kindly. None thought they should be serving her." She hated using the toilet in the lavatory and crept from her room at night to do her water in the cold grass. The servants whispered about her odd ways. A rumor spread among them that she had been living in one of the caves in the sea cliff. A fisherman had reported seeing a dim fire flickering among the rocks each night until the tinker girl met my father. My mother liked Frank Sheehy right away, gazing at him with the same gentle inquisitiveness with which he gazed at her. She was touched by his attention, and though it had never been revealed to her that he was responsible for her invitation to the house, she knew, and her warmth to him increased his affection for her. Soon enough she realized the advantage he afforded her; that it was his word that was most important in a house full of women and servants. She sidled up to that and as she grew more comfortable, sneered at the reluctant servants and pushed her weight with them. Once, she deliberately spilled a bowl of oatmeal and demanded that a certain haughty kitchen servant clean it up. Frank Sheehy asked questions. Where was her mother, her people? Why was a fifteen-year-old girl on her own so? She met his inquisitiveness with dismay and silence, and he did not persist, afraid of driving her away. She was not interested in talking much, except to ask about little glimmering objects. They went for walks together in the house the way most couples go for walks outside. They toured the house, him speaking with a gentle formality, pointing out paintings, statues. Decorative novelties. Her eyes shined. She touched his arm. "The man's besotted with the creature," the servants whispered. "Whatever's wrong with his heart has made its way into his brain." One particularly stormy night she urinated in the water pitcher in her room rather than face the rain or the toilet. The servants complained to my aunts and my aunts approached Frank, wanting to know when she was going to leave. Mrs. O'Dare remembered an argument behind closed doors. She saw my father storm from the room breathing fast. He stopped as he ascended the stairs and shouted to his sisters, "She's keeping me alive." In the middle of the night he had a mild heart attack. The week he was in hospital my mother kept near Mrs. O'Dare. My aunts went out of their way to be kind to my mother, promising Frank that she'd be there, well treated and comfortable, when he returned. My father married my mother in a service in the conservatory in Drumcoyne House. She'd been put through a trial by the priest and had proven she was a Catholic to his satisfaction by reciting the Angelus, the Act of Contrition, and the Hail Mary. He'd asked her, "Who is God the Father?" and she'd answered, "The maker of Heaven and earth." Rumor among the servants was that Frank Sheehy had schooled her, but others cited the fervent Catholicism of many of the tinkers who loitered in the backs of churches on Sundays, earnest for the word of God. My father died the following spring, almost a year after they'd married, and a few weeks before my mother discovered she was pregnant. After his death, Drumcoyne House was a lonely place to my mother. She walked on the beach for hours. A few nights she stayed outside on the windy shore, sallying into the house after dawn, trailing damp sand and weather after her. The brocade and velvet skirts that had been made for her were torn or ruined from walking in the salty tides. And she took things. Cups and saucers. Figurines. She took a small, very expensive bottle of perfume and a pair of sapphire earrings that belonged to Kitty Sheehy, the older, more nervous of Frank's sisters. "Your mother didn't like Kitty Sheehy," Mrs. O'Dare once told me. "She knew the woman had little patience for her." Kitty Sheehy said that she couldn't take it, that her nerves were too frayed by Agatha's presence. What would they do with the creature, pregnant as she was with their brother's child? Kitty floated the idea about sending Agatha east across Ireland to live at the family's empty house on Mercymount Strand. Lily said they should wait until the birth but Kitty insisted that would be worse; that she ought to start a new life elsewhere; that they could provide her with everything, but elsewhere. And so my aunts shipped my mother across Ireland, discharging the old woman to take care of her in the deserted house. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Two Vast and cold, most of the rooms in the house were empty. The walls were pocked and riddled blue with broken paint, wallpapered areas stained and swollen. In one room, cornices ran along the ceilings replete with stuccowork herons and angels. A piano, draped haphazardly with sheets, sat in a far corner. Before it, a dining table chair with a collapsed seat. When we were barely three years old, our mother brought us to the threshold of the hallway that led into the uninhabited area of our house. Squatting down between us she whispered fervently, "You children stay out of those terrible rooms!" The walls issued a damp, forlorn odor. "What's wrong with the rooms?" my sister asked her. "They're sad rooms," she said, staring into the gloom with the same fear and curiosity that filled us. When we were four years old, in an attempt to dispell our uneasiness, Mrs. O'Dare took my sister and me up that hall, the two of us squeezing the hem of her flannel skirt in our hands. "They're just empty rooms, for cripe's sake!" the old woman insisted. One night during a rain we heard a crash from somewhere down the hallway and Mrs. O'Dare went to investigate. Darkness swallowed the light from her batteried torch. We could hear the echoes of her footsteps and a snapping like twigs underfoot. She came out complaining, saying that it was ridiculous that the rooms were left in such a condition. An old gas lamp had fallen from its fixture on a waterlogged wall. Mrs. O'Dare was always on my mother about getting men in to wire and paint. It was a sore point between them, as was the fact that my mother had "lost" the only keys to the door on the second-floor landing that led to the upper house. Once Mrs. O'Dare had snuck in a locksmith who discovered that not only had nails been driven from the door into the walls, but something heavy also blocked it from behind. It was not his area of work to dismantle the door so he left. Mrs. O'Dare said she was tired of the madness and threatened to telephone our aunts in the west to complain about the terrible conditions and ask them to arrange for repairs. My mother's argument never changed: she could only manage to live there as it was; in just the area needed and the rest shut off. It was just too big a house for her. But Mrs. O'Dare came back, saying that it was perfectly fine for my mother to live only out of the kitchen and the parlor, but that the rest of the house should be cleaned and wired for electricity. It wasn't safe otherwise. She had two daughters who should not be raised like animals. "The rooms are full of echoes," my mother pleaded. "Echoes can be driven out with fresh air and good rugs and curtains." "No, Missus! You can't do that," my mother cried. "You have to leave the dead a place to themselves." "What, love?" the old woman asked, looking inscrutable into her face. "The dead, Missus," my mother said softly. "Agatha, stop! The dead are in your mind and not in those rooms." "If you open and light the rooms you'll drive them into the rest of the house and we'll have no peace from them. You'll drive me out into the fields to sleep!" Only in the kitchen with its low, off-kilter ceiling did my mother feel truly comfortable. It was a misplaced, aboriginal room that contained a hearth, a turf fire burning in the grate. She'd told the old woman that she did not trust the little plug-in ranges, the steady orange light glowing through the grills. She did not trust a fire that did not tremble as it burned. Before my sister and I were born, our mother had Mrs. O'Dare move a bed in so that she could be near the hearth. The old woman called it the "buried bedroom," dark as it was with only one small window high up on the east wall, but level with the earth at the back of the house. My sister and I were born in the buried bedroom within half an hour of each other on February first, the feast of Saint Brigid, the night that ends the darkness of the Irish year. "Like peas in a pod, the two of you," Mrs. O'Dare said with emotion, remembering the night, points of sweat appearing on her great red brow. "Everything the same down to the veins in your tiny temples! And isn't your sister still your thinner, sadder replica?" My mother had refused to go to hospital when she started her labor and Mrs. O'Dare had been unable to find a doctor or a midwife so she'd sent for her sister, a Kildare nun who had, during her novitiate many years before, worked as a nurse's assistant. I was born first, drawing in a great gust of air and clamoring loudly. The moment the blood had been wiped from my eyes Mrs. O'Dare was sure to God that I was waiting for my sister to follow. Mare was born with no instinct to breathe, and only after gentle tormenting from the nun did she open her eyes and attempt to pull at the air. "Like a tiny wheezing banshee, the sound of her," Mrs. O'Dare said, pressing a hand to her bosom. "Never had I heard so godforsaken a sound as that wee creature trying to breathe." Even when I was alone running in the field fronting the sea, it was as if my sister were breathing into my ear. The misbegotten noise was recorded in my own cells. "And you, dear Clodagh," Mrs. O'Dare had said to me time and again, smoothing my hair, "you're so hearty. In that way the two of you are as different as night and day." But her words were of little comfort to me. I felt faintly ashamed of my heartiness and thought of Mare's frailty as a kind of saintliness. Mare had been alive nearly an hour when, after a sudden riotous fit of breathing, she exhaled and went quiet. Sister Veronica prodded and pressed at her until she drew again uneasily at the air. And each time Mare seemed to stop breathing altogether my mother wept aloud, demented with the panic. Once she cried out: "She's not ready for the world yet, Missus. Put her back in me, for the love of God!" Sister Veronica, the only one managing to keep her head, pressed an ear to my sister's chest and said to my mother, "She is breathing, but ever so quietly. Her lungs may be confused, dear, but her heart is as sound as a bell! Just listen to it when you're afraid she's disappearing." It was on that first night of our lives that, with all the weeping and invoking of the Holy Mother, my sister was named Mary. In the days that followed, the name Margaret was added to it. "Whatever might strengthen the petition to God to keep the wee creature alive," Mrs. O'Dare had said. "Mary Margaret. The Holy Mother and a great Virgin martyr standing together." When we first began to speak, I could not manage the four syllables of my sister's name so I called her "Mare." For me it would always be her name. "A mare is a horse," my mother would complain. But that was a delight for Mare, constrained as she always would be from physical exertion, and she'd imagine herself freely galloping the fields. Air would always confound and imprison Mare. It struggled to separate her from me. And the fear was ever present in our house that one day air would be all she'd be composed of, eluding and containing her. For the first five years of my life my mother woke repeatedly every night to check on my sister. I must have tuned myself early on to the rhythms of her fitful sleeping because I remember lying anxiously in wait for her, feeling her stir and seeing her shadow loom. Until I was two we were still in the buried bedroom, the dying turf light flickering on her face as she peered at my sister. And then she'd bow over me so I could feel the sweep of her hair on my skin, and hear the gentle bumping of her heart as she pressed an ear to Mare's chest. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Three The rain was incessant early in our sixth spring. Even when it broke for an afternoon, the air was dismal and misty and the sun shown only faintly on the horizon like lamplight through curtains. We were five, trapped inside too much of the time, the grounds of our crumbling house gone to muck and saturation, the limestone walkways lichened. My mother stood at the parlor window, arms crossed at her chest. The sea and sky were gray and diffused, inseparable. Through the screen of the open window we could hear the nervousness of the water and smell the iodine-rich kelp stranded on the shore. "I've seen this weather before," my mother said to Mrs. O'Dare. "A spring that refuses to flower." "Spring will come in its own time, Agatha," Mrs. O'Dare said. "It feels like it never will, Missus. It'll be dark again this day by four." She looked uneasily at Mare, who dozed in the soft little chair my mother had fashioned for her out of bed pillows and bits of tired silk from old slips and blouses. For days Mare'd been lethargic and our mother blamed it on the dismal weather. At night she'd loom over Mare, looking at her as if the turning of the world depended upon her. Some nights she'd carry her, sleeping, into the kitchen where she'd light a turf fire in the hearth, then sit before it rocking my sister in her arms, the smell of damp, burning earth wafting through the darkness of the house. "Come sit down, Agatha," Mrs. O'Dare said. Mare stirred, drawing a noisy, labored breath, and my mother clenched as if it caused her physical pain. "She's off again in one of her dreams, poor Mary Margaret," Mrs. O'Dare said softly. My mother knelt before my sister's chair, smoothing her hair. Through her sleep Mare grew earnest about the eyes, as if she were dreaming that like the spring, she was about to disappoint our mother. "The rainy weather can't hurt her, love," Mrs. O'Dare said, leaning forward in her chair. "There's nothing at all about fresh rain that's bad for weak lungs." "But if she gets too cold in all the dampness..." "She'd be on fire in an icestorm with all the cardigans and shawls you keep the poor creature wrapped in!" My mother shot her a pained look. "You don't understand how the dismal light is driving her to the end of herself. Bloody sun, holding out on her so." "Come and sit down now and have a smoke, love," the old woman said soothingly, and my mother obeyed. Mrs. O'Dare lit a cigarette and blew out the match. A little black ghost from the flame escaped, wriggling upward on the air. She passed the cigarette to my mother, wincing as she straightened her legs. "I'm crucified with the arthritis," she said, leaning back in the chair. She was not a large woman, but soft and lumpy like pillows. What would she fix for tea? she wanted to know. There was a bit of bacon left. Would she boil that with cabbage and potatoes? She didn't want to be driving out to the shops in this dismal weather to fetch anything like chops. She watched my mother's eyes, which were set on the bleak sky outside. Graceful nets of smoke climbed the air. I went to my sleeping sister, lacing my fingers through hers. I knew Mare could feel me through her sleep. I could feel her softness coming back at me. Her forehead was round and hotter than the rest of her face, her eyelashes gold at the roots and feathery brown at the ends. She slept with her mouth open, her head leaning to the side, her body faintly humming. Her eyes opened ever so slightly as I touched her, a little damp light glistening at me from a distance. "Leave her be, Clodagh!" my mother said. I stiffened, but with soft defiance continued to stroke my sister. "She's hurting nothing, Agatha," Mrs. O'Dare protested. My mother was quiet for a little while but I could feel her watching me. "Leave her be, Clodagh! Give the poor creature a bit of privacy!" she cried out with a fierceness in her voice, as if I were the source of Mare's suffering. "Agatha..." the old woman began in my defense. "Stay out of it, Mrs. O'Dare!" my mother cried. "Stay out of what's between my daughters and myself!" When we woke the next morning, rivulets of rainwater dripped down the walls of the vestibule, forming puddles in the uneven dips in the floor. One of the walls was soft to the touch and issued an ancient smell. As my mother and I huddled in the parlor doorway looking at the mess, a chandelier crashed to the floor, bringing with it chunks of waterlogged plaster. "Sweet Mother of Jesus!" my mother cried. Mrs. O'Dare came running out at the noise. When she saw the disaster, an angry, self-satisfied flush burned her cheeks. She telephoned workmen, looking imperiously at my mother as she did. When they arrived they had to break down the door to the upper house. A dank smell descended the stairs, filling my mother with dread. Each time there was a boom of footsteps above us or a banging of hammers, she cried out to the Mother of God. Mare's breathing grew more dissonant and drawn, and her cry strange, like the bleat of a weakling lamb. As my mother loomed over Mare, I touched her arm and she stiffened. She made Mrs. O'Dare take me, saying that she had enough on her over my poor sister. That first day with the workmen upstairs, Mrs. O'Dare took an oil lamp and a broom into the dark hall. With my mother and Mare locked behind the parlor door, I helped the old woman sweep, her lamp casting an ambery church radiance over the broken walls. "Your mother can fight me if she likes but I'm opening the house. The men will replaster and do the wiring in here once the leaks are taken care of." After she cleaned she left the oil lamp still lit on the floor in the usually dim hallway, and my mother, on her way to the kitchen, stopped in her tracks when she saw it. Mrs. O'Dare was standing nearby, ready for a fight, but my mother did not give her one, just stayed awhile where she was, staring. The next day was Saturday and the men did not come. Mare and I played quietly with dolls in the morning and when she drifted off to sleep I went into the kitchen looking for my mother but did not find her there. Mrs. O'Dare had relit the lamp and left it burning in the dreaded hallway in a determined attempt to get my mother used to the idea of renovation. I stood at the threshold, drawn in by the lamplight, which emanated a warm fragrance of burned minerals. From a place where the corridor turned I saw the smear of a shadow and every muscle in my body tensed, but released again slowly when I saw that it issued from my mother, who stood looking into a room, one hand touching the frame of the door. Her face was lifted as if with expectation, and I had the distinct sense that she was looking for someone. As I moved closer to her, the floorboard stressed under my foot. She froze but did not turn. Her terror and expectation flooded the air between us so I thought I would swoon, and it was as if I felt her heart bumping under my own in the soft of my stomach. She turned slowly, and her face, beatified by terror, darkened when she saw me. "Jesus," she cried. "Christ on earth! Can you not leave me a moment of my own, Clodagh?" My throat constricted and tears heated in my eyes. She turned from me, and moving up the hall, looked around even more earnestly. Who was she searching for? Was it my dead father? Once I'd heard her say to Mrs. O'Dare that ghosts listened and watched, remembering for you the things you let yourself forget. While retracing her steps, her body grew heavy. She stopped a moment and stared at the floor, then walked from the hallway, the flame in the lamp stirring the shadows on the blue, decrepit walls as she passed. Breathing in the cold dankness of the air, I remained in the shadows where she'd left me, listening to the din in the silence. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Four Before bed I walked up to my mother, folding my hands as if praying, and looked into her face. "Forgive us our trespasses," I said. She blinked, taken off guard. Color rushed into her face. I reached for her and hesitantly she put an arm around me before withdrawing it, and saying in a low voice, "Off to bed with you now." In the throes of that agony, I went in the car with Mrs. O'Dare to the shops the next afternoon. Driving south we passed a group of northbound tinkers going to settle in a field, their caravans moving slowly toward us, some people walking with their horses. Two wild, freckled girls ran alongside a slow-moving car with their hands open. "Please, a few pence," one cried in a shrill voice. The driver threw some coins into the grass on the roadside and they ran to gather them, laughing. Having found them they turned together in a circle, dancing a reel. I watched, envious of the way they fell laughing together and rolled in the grass, fascinated to think they slept at night in a caravan that creaked in the wind. My own mother had been such a creature. A sun-speckled girl with dirty ankles and wild hair, bleached with weather. People who moved along roads and fields. My mother's people. Uneasy with houses. "They run in herds," Mrs. O'Dare said thoughtfully, puffing on her cigarette as she drove. "Like horses." "The rain must have thrown them off course, poor desperate creatures," Mrs. O'Dare said. "Tinkers don't usually arrive to this field until summer." A tall thin girl passed us with damp staring eyes and I thought of the dark-eyed seals that came in the summer riding the surf. "These are not the same tinkers that usually come through here. I've never seen any of these before," Mrs. O'Dare remarked. A woman with an infant at her breast walked toward us at a steady pace, holding out her hand. "Where's that poor woman's shame?" she asked softly. "Suckling an infant in the light of day. Walkin' along the road as if 'twere nothing. There could be men in this car and do you think she'd hide her naked breast?" The tinker woman held the infant in one arm, her long freckled hand wrapped gracefully around its bald head as if it had been made for only that purpose. As we came up close to her I pressed my face to the glass of the window. "Give her something, Missus!" I cried. "Why, Clodagh! I've nothing extra to give her," Mrs. O'Dare said. "Give her something, please!" "I have nothing, love." When we passed her I knelt on the seat, looking out the back window. The woman turned and met my eyes. My heart drummed hard. She had the same pink speckled skin as my mother, though her hair was a coarse dark rope flopping at one shoulder. The infant trembled and shifted as the woman twisted further round to look at me. Staring after the woman, I was filled with an urgency for her. "Missus," I whispered. In a moment she was lost among the gathering on the roadside. I opened the car window for a better smell of the fire in the field. The same smell that was carried toward the sea every summer when the other tinkers arrived in that same field. The smell that agitated my mother. Mrs. O'Dare had slowed the car and was watching me, a crease forming between her eyes as she looked into mine. "What are ye thinking, lass?" she asked. Silence filled the car. I was confused by my longing for the dark-haired young mother. My face heated with shame. After we made our purchases in the shops, Mrs. O'Dare took me to a tea shop for biscuits and a lemonade. The place was mostly vacant, it being an off hour. We sat at a table near a big window that looked out on an ascending street of houses with rough, gray walls, three or four bicycles leaning against one of them. Our table was covered with a cracked, plastic cloth, a bright pink plastic flower in a bud vase in the center. After we ordered and the woman disappeared into the kitchen, Mrs. O'Dare sighed and sat back on her chair. "It's nice to sit so in the quiet and have another bring you tea." She smiled, the lines softening on her forehead as she looked out at the houses on the damp road. "Why don't tinkers live in houses?" I asked. "On still about the tinkers, are you?" she said, rolling her eyes. "Do you know why, Missus?" "I suppose they're suspicious of houses," she said, sighing. "That they have strange ideas about houses, like your own mother not having the rooms properly wired and cleaned." She ran a hand through the coarse gray of her hair, smoothing it in place. From the inland-facing windows at the back of our house we could see the distant field where the tinkers camped in summer. Sometimes my mother stood outside watching the light and smoke from their fires. "But how are they so different from the rest of us?" "They're rough people," she said, lowering her voice. "Impoverished." A mysterious, wild-sounding word. "Impoverished," I whispered. Like the noise the wind made in the hawthorn tree. "Your mother's an odd one, though. She was all alone when your father saw her in the west. Too young to be on her own. She's a mystery, lass." "Did my mother beg on roadsides?" I asked. "I don't know, lass. And don't you dare ask her such a question." "Why not?" "Your mother's ashamed of what she comes from." "Why?" At that moment the woman returned from the kitchen with my biscuits and lemonade, and when she left I had to ask my question again. "It's nothing to be proud of, Clodagh, being a tinker. There's hardship in that life." "Where is her own mother?" I asked. "She'll not breathe a word on that subject. Not a peep about her life before she met your father. And you mustn't dare mention anything I've told you." "She'll get angry?" I asked. I felt a pang in my stomach when I thought of how easily, how unwittingly I could upset my mother. I took a bite of a biscuit but it was stale tasting, a simple water biscuit. I'd forgotten to ask for chocolate or jam-filled biscuits. I put it down, thinking of the tinker woman. "Did my mother once hold me to her breast the way the tinker woman held her baby?" "Yes, lass. That woman was feeding her child. Suckling it." Before tea that night I took some coins from my mother's purse, snuck quietly from the house, and crossed the field and the old Dublin Road in a light rain. I walked to the tinker camp to find the woman with the infant. I looked into each face peering out of open caravan doors or from under the tarp where the fire was lit. They were all quiet, their eyes on me. But I could not see the woman. The women I did see had fierce faces and none had an infant at her breast. As I ran home across the field and the road I saw my mother standing behind the house, her hand shielding her eyes from the rain. "What in God's name were you doing?" she cried out. I stopped a few feet from her, my heart pounding. "I was looking for a lady." "What lady?" she cried. "There was a lady with a baby that I saw when I was in the car with the Missus." "And what did you want of that lady?" "To give her something." "Give her what, in the name of God?" I opened my hand and revealed the coins. "Where did you get those?" "From your own bag," I said. "Little thief!" she cried. "Give them here." I gave them to her and she stood quiet, her mouth tight. "I want to know what you wanted with that woman!" "I wanted to talk to her." "Why?" "I wanted to ask her something." "Ask her what?" I did not know how to answer her. I wasn't sure what I wanted to ask the woman. I shrugged and she let go a soft, involuntary laugh. But the gravity returned to her eyes. She looked away from me, uncertain of herself. "Come in out of this weather," she said, and I followed her inside. In the middle of the meal my mother looked up from her food and said that tinkers were a dejected lot. Her face flushed so the ginger-colored hairs of her eyebrows grew indiscernible. She watched the quiet that passed between me and Mrs. O'Dare. Her breaths came quickly through her nose. "What have you been telling her about me, you old cow?" Lying in bed, I tried to imagine the night of my nativity. Maybe there was a clue in the buried bedroom that might lead me to remember how it had happened; how I had made the passage so intact; how Mare had never fully left the water of our mother; how she breathed in air like she was drowning. I did not understand that my sister and I had come of a slow process within our mother's womb. Mrs. O'Dare had told me once that identical twins like Mare and me had begun as one baby that split into two. I imagined that Mare had been the original, that I had come from her body the way the priest described Eve coming from a bone in Adam's body. Perhaps, coming from her as I had, I'd taken too much of her heartiness and left her with none for herself. I went to Mrs. O'Dare's room and woke her up. She startled and put her arm around me, shaking faintly. "What's the matter, lass?" she asked. "Why is Mare so sick?" I asked. It never occurred to Mrs. O'Dare that Mare's affliction was my fault. "God makes mistakes sometimes as if he were as human as the rest of us," she whispered, and made the sign of the cross. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Five My sister and I grew used to the comings and goings of the workmen, their tools and tarps and ladders left out, but our mother never did. She was nervous and fidgety over the bumping in the walls. Once they'd finished upstairs, they replaced the demolished door. My mother took charge of the keys and once again the upper house was inaccessible. Then they began work on the first floor, uncovering the windows so that the dark, once forbidden hallway was now flooded with soft gray daylight. They ripped down moldings and door frames, replacing water-damaged support beams and replastering, careful not to damage the existing stuccowork designs. Once they wired they put in electric fixtures and bulbs so that the rooms looked vast and unearthly. They'd grown used to Mare and me, our timid, peering presences. At first they spoke to us, asking our names and such, but we never answered and then they were quiet when we appeared, hammering, turning a screwdriver, swishing a paintbrush. Two men with brown beards and one with a red one. Most of their labor was concentrated in the rooms farthest to the back and we were free to visit the piano room, to sit side by side on the bench and explore the sounds of the keys. Mrs. O'Dare knew a few songs. "Mary and Her Little Lamb," and a fragment of one she called "Clair de Lune." Mare leaned into the old woman, studying the movement of her stiff hands, demanding to see the pieces played again and again, understanding just by looking at the relationship of the keys on the piano that they ran in scales, that she could mimic the melody in a lower or higher register. The two simple pieces rolled from Mare's hand within half an hour and she was frustrated for something more complex. Mrs. O'Dare said she might be able to produce fragments of a piece that required both hands, something she called "The Turning Sea," or "Sea Turns." She couldn't remember. Mare picked it up quickly, revising the old woman's mistakes, elaborating new sounds. Mrs. O'Dare left us to ourselves. I sat to Mare's left and she labored with me, teaching me the lower notes to the piece, her hands so restlessly adept, so in tune with the gradations of sound. I breathed the humid warmth Mare issued, everything she learned flowing to me. Like thoughts that were nonexistent one moment and there the next. The lower notes, the ones I played, evoked the boom, the underrush of the sea, and she played the melody, the higher pitch of the waves, the mood and the yearning, the sparkle of the spume. We held hands, my right and her left, the two resting between us on the piano bench. Over many rainy days waiting for spring to come, the music grew into a kind of breathing, her hand moving in a graceful side crawl, her fingers strangely independent of each other, quickening, flexing and slowing. She was the force that sent out and drew back the tides of my playing. Her left hand sweat in my right. She squeezed my fingers. We had grown accustomed to finishing the piece by softening our pressure on the keys until we barely grazed them, and found ourselves in silence, the vast heights of the room remembering the brilliance of the music, vibrant and awash above us. I pressed the side of my face to hers. My original. My beloved, knowing in the heat from her hand and shoulder that she was about to draw me after into "Sea Turns" again. One day in the middle of May, with still no sign of spring, the men were working in the piano room. Mare was restless and fidgety, wanting to play a hiding game. To keep her from exerting herself, my mother suggested that instead we defy the weather and take her out in a wheelchair, rigged up with umbrellas and an oilcloth tarp. But the wheels sank in the blackened ruts of the road and we had a terrible time pulling it loose. Inside Mare asked again to play the hiding game, begging until our mother agreed. Mrs. O'Dare and my mother went to the kitchen and counted to twenty-five. In the vestibule were two closet doors, one of them a "dummy." In various places throughout the house niches and closets had mates: one useful, one dead-ended, put there apparently to give the appearance of symmetry in the architecture. Mare was fascinated by these oddities. She stood before the dummy door, opening and closing it. "This is the tiniest room in the house," she whispered, "but we can fit inside it and they'll never know to look for us here." We could barely close the door. I thought they'd find us right away with the noise of Mare's uneven breathing, amplified by the tight space. But again and again we heard our mother's bewildered footsteps passing our hiding place, and her calling out, "Where are you? Where are my lambs?" Long after I was ready to come out, Mare held me back, lips tight, suppressing her laughter. "She can't find us!" Mare whispered. "She can't find us!" Even when we heard anguish in our mother's voice and the urgent echoes of Mrs. O'Dare's nailed shoes as she searched, too, Mare was giddy over the deception. "I hate her," Mare whispered, looking elated. "You don't," I said, stunned. She snorted. "I don't, but I do!" I had to pry her hand loose of the knob to open the door and once I did she seemed relieved, disoriented as she stepped out. "We're here!" I called out, and our mother, followed by Mrs. O'Dare, rushed in to us from the parlor. Our mother took Mare in her arms. "You'll keep to your little chair the rest of the day, love. Promise me that," she said. Mare rolled her eyes. "Promise me!" "Yes!" Mare said. But all that day my sister was restless to play. In the afternoon when the men had gone, our mother walked across the damp field into town and Mare and I visited the piano room. They'd finished painting now and the walls were a clean apricot color, the moldings and cornices bleached: fat, snow-white infants peering through vines. While Mare stood before the piano moving her hands softly over the high keys, I asked her, wasn't it an odd thing that our mother had once lived in a cave in the wall of a cliff in the west and that our father had brought her into his house; that she was a tinker and never wore shoes so she'd had dark, leathery feet that had to be scrubbed, and bugs that had to be washed from her hair? Mare listened thoughtfully, tilting her head, her fingers running a quiet scale. I reminded her about the two tinker girls who had begged on the roadside and the freedom they'd had to play. I asked her, wouldn't it be a wild, free life, sleeping outside at night? I described the way they'd rolled about in the grass, and saw my own exhilaration reflected back at me in her face. She lay down on the floor and rolled from one end of the room to the other while I jumped over her, both of us giddy. Breathlessly I described the reel the tinker girls had danced together and we held hands spinning until the air swirled around us like water. We had both fallen to the floor joyful, the earth shifting wildly beneath us, when we heard Mrs. O'Dare's nailed shoes echoing in the hallway. Finding Mare lying on the floor without cardigans and shawls, face flushed and eyes damp with exhilaration, Mrs. O'Dare lowered herself painfully to her knees. "Ah, lass, you'll not let your mother see you so. Quickly now, let's fix ye up before she's back." She settled Mare in her chair in the parlor, admonishing us softly the entire time. That night at tea Mare reached for my hand under the table, squeezing it with the pleasure of our secret. She leaned into me and whispered, "We are wild tinker girls." But for that afternoon of joy, my sister paid with a night of labored breathing, and me awake beside her feeling helpless, the air moving effortlessly in and out of my lungs. The next morning my mother sent me from the room when Mare had a breathing fit. I sat in a chair in the vestibule listening to the chaotic gasping behind the closed parlor door. Whenever Mare suffered I held myself very still, closing my eyes, my mouth filling with a brackish taste, a pain concentrating itself at the soft point under the arc of my ribs. When I heard her quiet I got up and ran dizzily into the room. Mare's face was sweat soaked, and though my mother hovered over her, Mare kept her focus on me. I reached with my right hand for her left and heard my part in the "Sea Turns," and soon felt Mare accompany me. Afterward when she slept I lay with my face beside hers on the pillow, and smoothed her hair. Watching nervously from the doorway, my mother told me to leave her, but I wouldn't get up. I told her I was tired too, and closed my eyes. There was in me, that day, a wildness to be near Mare; an unquenchable loneliness for her. With "Sea Turns" between us we were almost one; and on the verge of sleep we remembered who we once were: something singular and faceless. Drenched in light. The doctor came and examined Mare that afternoon. Afterward when he sat down in the foyer, Mrs. O'Dare gave him a cup of tea. He sighed, holding his cup in one hand, his saucer on the palm of the other, gazing distantly at the wall as if he were staring out the window. My mother waited for him to say something and when he didn't she pleaded, "Will she be all right?" He turned his head, and the daylight coming through the vestibule window pooled on his glasses, obscuring his eyes. "She's weak. Keep her comfortable, Mrs. Sheehy." When he left my mother fretted and sighed, guilty over having let her play the hiding game. After helping Mrs. O'Dare do the washing from breakfast, I stood before the parlor door. Mare sat on the bed while my mother knelt at the foot of it, ransacking the drawers of her small oak chest, usually forbidden to us. When she'd first come to Mercymount Strand my aunts in the west had, over the telephone, set in place for my mother an account at Rafferty's Antiques and Acquisition Shop in Bray so that she might furnish the mostly empty house. But instead of buying furniture she had bought knickknacks and crockery and jewelry; little charms and novelties of all kinds, and hoarded them in chests and presses. From the doorway I could see a selection of her precious keepsakes laid out before my sister, my mother leaning with her elbows on the perennially unmade bed, examining something in her hand, speaking in a whisper as if she were in church. "Clodagh! Come in here," Mare cried. A shadow crossed my mother's face when she saw me, but she looked back at the object in her hand. The window was open a crack, the air mineral-smelling from dim blasts of lightning breaking over the sea. I came in slowly and stood near the bed. The object in my mother's hand was a watch with a cracked crystal and a little garnet like a bead of blood over the twelve. The metal that encased it had turned green. "It doesn't tick," Mare said when my mother offered it to her. "It doesn't matter, Mary Margaret," my mother said. "Look at the beauty of the thing." "Yes," Mare said and passed it to me. I did not see the beauty of it. I must have made a face because my mother took it from me and said, "You have to develop a taste for beauty." She held it again, seeming to cradle it in her hand. Everything about her slowed down. It seemed to be the stillness, the steadfastness of the thing, that captivated her. And I thought then that if it had ticked she might have liked it less. Her mood and the soft noise of Mrs. O'Dare sweeping in the hallway made me feel sleepy. "A beautiful thing like this will outlive us all," she said, holding it to the globe of the lamp. "Such little things are slow to change." I wanted to understand her reverence for things kept in the locked chest, taken out into light only on occasion, fawned over and returned to airlessness. In Mare's lap I saw a hair comb with a satin ribbon attached to it, and the porcelain Dutch girl my father had given to my mother. My heart constricted in my chest. I knew somehow that my mother had given these things to my sister. But I told myself that Mare deserved special treatment. Her tie to the world was so tenuous and mine so strong. She deserved the tenderness of our mother. And I told myself that whatever our mother gave to Mare she also gave to me because the cords that once connected us in the womb still kept their phantoms in our sides. In spite of all these thoughts, my face burned. I ran my fingers roughly over the tangle of necklaces and jewels on the bed and my mother stiffened. "Stop that now!" she admonished in a harsh, quiet voice. I looked angrily at her, holding back tears, stirring the necklaces again roughly before withdrawing my hand. The rain deepened outside and the light from the sea seemed bright and dark at once, the shadows of the rain moving over the bed where everything lay, and making the little novelties on my sister's lap appear to shiver. That night while Mare slept I went into the kitchen where my mother and Mrs. O'Dare sat at the table smoking. "Clodagh!" the old woman said when I appeared in the doorway in my nightgown. The back of my mother's chair was against the wall. She leaned one arm on the table and her legs were crossed. I approached her quietly, watching her face. "Can I have one of the presents my father gave you?" I asked. "What?" she asked impatiently. "You gave Mare the Dutch girl." "You're rough with things, Clodagh," she said, looking away from me and puffing on her cigarette. "I'm not," I said. She would not look at me. "I'm sorry if I was rough with the necklaces," I said. "Go to bed now, Clodagh," she said. But I did not move, hungry, uncertain. "Agatha, love!" the old woman said. "Give the poor creature a kiss!" My mother stiffened. "Go to bed, Clodagh!" she said in a soft, angry voice. I walked from the room and stood in the darkness of the hall listening to them. "Why must you always intervene between myself and that one?" my mother cried. "For the love of God! Don't you see how much that child needs you?" "Yes, I see it! I bloody well see it. She watches me like a cinder that won't go out." "Why can't you offer her any comfort?" My mother let out an exasperated sigh and the certainty left her voice, replaced by something faintly desperate, regretful sounding. "I don't have enough in me for the two of them, Missus." A moment of silence passed before the old woman said, "You do, love." "Things'll be better when we have a bit of sunlight again, Missus. Mare will get better and I'll be better in myself." I crept up the hall and got into bed. A few minutes later I heard the door creak open. "Clodagh," my mother whispered and I sat up. She put her arms around me and I felt her heart beating against my throat. "Good lass," she said in a light, high-pitched voice, tender with guilt. She kissed the top of my head. I lay down and she pulled the blanket up around me and moved away in the dark to her own bed. Mrs. O'Dare drove to the shops in the morning for fresh bread and sausages. She stopped at Bourke's, the newsagent's for the Irish Press, and after breakfast she read it at the table, muttering, making little interested sounds as she turned the pages. "Bless us, Holy Mother! It says here that the weather is about to turn!" she announced. "I'll not believe it until I see it," my mother said, her voice still softened by confusion as if the old woman's words from the previous night had not left her. She looked plaintively at me, then away. "The seasons always change, Agatha," Mrs. O'Dare said. "No, Missus," she said and gazed into her teacup. "There was a spring once in the west of Ireland...that did not flower." "Maybe there were no flowers in the very rocky places..." "Even in the rocky places the maidenhair ferns and the little purple flowers come up between the stones," she said slowly. "But one year I was there they never came up at all." "I don't remember that," Mrs. O'Dare said. "'Twas before I met you, Missus," my mother said softly. The old woman lowered the newspaper from her face and gazed at my mother. "That particular year the rain destroyed the Brigid's Beds," my mother said. "Brigid's Beds?" the old woman asked. "Have ye not heard of such things?" my mother asked. "No, love," the old woman breathed. "A grave for an unbaptized child. The rain was terrible that year, exposing the infants in their awful privacy, sending them adrift in the washes." Mare fidgeted in her chair. "Tell us, love," Mrs. O'Dare said. "Was it before you were alone in the cliffs?" My mother held her breath. For a moment she looked so much like my sister that I could have believed Mare was her own twin and not mine. She seemed to be considering how she might answer and if the old woman's voice had not suddenly rushed with insistence, maybe she would have. "Tell us, love," the old woman piped, leaning toward her. My mother's forehead tightened and the graceful vein that ran there appeared and imposed itself, casting a shadow. "You're full of tricks, you old cow!" "What could be wrong with wanting to know something of your girlhood?" "I had no bloody girlhood," my mother cried, her anguish now turned to anger. "Your language, Agatha!" "Let me ask you a bleedin' question, Missus! If you never had children o' your own why are your legs swollen and spidery with the veins?" The old woman drew a breath. "God give me patience," she said. "Is there a child ye left somewhere in the ditches of Ireland?" She was boisterous now, her voice growing hoarse as it climbed in pitch. "Or was it more than one child?" There was nothing to be said to her in this state. She was like the force that drives the waves. Deaf and stubborn as the spring that would not come. I retreated to Mrs. O'Dare's skirts, which smelled of potatoes and baking flour. My mother's eyes darted at me as if she thought I was in some conspiracy with the old woman. My head began to drum. She hated me as much in that moment as she hated Mrs. O'Dare. "I need the patience of a saint," the old woman muttered. Mare's breaths quickened and grew loud. She scratched the silk skin of the chair with her nails. My mother took her gingerly in her arms and out of the room, Mare disheveled against my mother's shoulder. "What'll we do, Missus," I asked, squeezing the folds of the old woman's skirt in my fists, "if the spring doesn't come?" The next morning a piercing ribbon of sunlight entered the room through the side of the curtain. I slipped from bed and went into the hall, my temples aching with the strain of the light. Without shadows, the architecture of the high rooms felt unfamiliar. The walls blasted with brightness looked pillaged, cindery. Dust motes floated like plankton in clear water. I opened the front door and was rushed with a clean cold smell of sea air, my nightgown blooming like a sail. The field was flooded with sun, the crests of incoming waves lit a blinding white. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter six The sunlight did bring a change. Mare's lungs began working so quietly, so efficiently, the doctor was stunned and hopeful. "It's as if something has opened," he said. Mare wanted to hear stories about banshees and phoukas. She ran in circles imitating a banshee's agonized posture and cry, the high-pitched shrieking, the grimacing face and relentlessness of her game designed to torment our mother. My mother looked startled, pained by Mare's wildness. The silent, intimate dialogue between them changed. She stared at the floor, bemused. Where was her complacent, beloved girl? The earnest little creature? In the middle of one of those dry, still nights when we could hear crickets outside in the new clumps of mint, Mare woke me and we snuck into the piano room, switching on the bright overhead light. Riding on her urgency we settled at our appointed places on the piano bench. She began "Sea Turns" and I struggled to follow, the music grazing my still-groggy nerves. Mare did not watch her hand on the piano keys. She gazed up at the wall, staring through it, emanating heat. Her pace quickened until it was almost frenetic. I closed my eyes, washed in the swell, the music lifting and dropping me. We reached the pinnacle of tension in the song, the edge of the crescendo, but she would not allow the piece to resolve, backtracking on one phrase again and again, the music tinkling and begging, repeating its bewilderment at the high registers. And then she stopped. Extricating her left hand from my right, damp and hot, she got up. "Come on, Clodagh," she said, and I followed her to the kitchen where she found an empty jar, then to the front porch where she switched on the light, waiting for the frail insects we called fairy moths to come. Soon, surrounded by insects, Mare dropped the jar and ran back and forth breathlessly grabbing them out of the air, fiercely clenching her teeth, her arms shaking as she squeezed them to death in the palms of her hands. When our mother arrived at the threshold, crying out for Mare to stop, she kept going, her hands clotted with the smashed moth bodies and broken wings. For a moment my mother turned off the porchlight, thinking that might stop her, but Mare kept moving as if she did not know how to break the momentum that propelled her. My mother switched on the light again and grabbed her, kneeling down to hold her still. "Stop it now, Mary Margaret. Stop!" Mare stilled a moment, fixing our mother with her eyes, before fidgeting to get free. Our mother tightened her hold on Mare's upper arms and it must have hurt because my sister winced and let out a little cry before spitting in our mother's face. They both froze. Our mother let go of her, wiped her face with her forearm, then dropped her arm to her side. Mare breathed heavily. "Mother," she said weakly and touched her arm, but our mother's face was hard and quiet, the porchlight hitting it as if it were made of crockery or glass. Our mother got up from her knees and Mare grabbed the hem of her nightgown. "Mother," she said again, but our mother pulled the fabric loose of my sister's hand and uttered, "Don't touch me, you devil." She turned and went inside, a few flurrying insects in her wake throwing themselves at the lightbulb. My mother went out and was gone all the next day, something she'd never done before. In the afternoon Mare and I sat next to each other at the piano pressing the sides of our faces together. We held hands and she led me in "Sea Turns," our hearts beating out of tune with each other's. The edginess of the previous night was still with her. She had difficulty concentrating. She'd begin a phrase and would lose it halfway through. She huffed and brought her fist down on the keys in exasperation. She was set on the task and overcome with it at once, fast shallow breaths coming through her nose. Perspiring, she focused hard on the keys, and clenched her mouth like our mother did when she was tense. Our mother came home in the evening with an old-fashioned chiffon gown she'd bought at Rafferty's. She put it on and looked at herself for a long time in the big parlor mirror. The numbness that had come into her face the night before was still there. She didn't join us for tea. She got out of bed in the dark that night and put on the dress. She stood before the mirror circling a votive candle around her waist, the clear and silver beads glimmering in the flame's light. At the evening meal my mother would not meet Mare's eyes. "Mother," Mare said once. My mother's lips tensed and she asked Mrs. O'Dare had she put butter or cream into the potatoes. She was quiet, ate only a little, and left the room. I reached for Mare's hand under the table but she pulled it away. I felt her bafflement like a pain in my side. She'd never fallen from grace with our mother before. She'd never known my mother to be as cold as stone. After the meal Mare isolated herself in the piano room. Through the closed door I could hear her humming and playing random notes. I wanted to sit next to her, to press the side of my face to the side of hers, to hum with her. When I walked in she stopped and I could feel the terrible drumming of her heart in my side. She told me to go but I wouldn't, staring at her across a mute field come up between us. I didn't understand then that she was trying to break from me. That it was only me now holding her like a weight to the earth. The whole right side of me, the side of me that was partly her, felt bereft. That night she left the bed and went back to the piano room. She chose one note high on the keyboard that she played again and again. When she played it a last time and the sound faded, its tension remained on the air like a question that had been inadequately answered. Mare complained of being tired early the next evening. My mother asked Mrs. O'Dare to put her to bed and Mare hung her head as the old woman led her out. "Good night," my mother said to her hesitantly. I started to follow but my mother said, "Stay with me, lamb." There was a nervousness about her, an urgency as she held her hand out to me. I could not move, polarized between her and my sister. "Would you like to see a lovely trinket I bought, Clodagh?" she asked. "Yes," I said. "Then come here." Her tone was soft but insistent. She drew something out of a box in one of the cupboards near the sink, then opened her hand, showing me a little black dog made of glass. She let me touch it with the tip of my finger. "'Tis so lovely a creature, Clodagh," she said in a low voice, strange with sweetness. "'Twouldn't it blind you?" She looked into my face with a kind of appeal. "Yes," I whispered. We sat down and she put the dog on the table between us, light gleaming in its dips and curves. It emitted a tranquil din. I lay my head on the table and gazed at the dog, shifting my eyes from it now and again to my mother's face, which was soft with contemplation. That night my mother slept heavily. She did not get up to check Mare's heart. Once I opened my eyes and saw Mare's face close and gazing into mine, and once or twice that night through my sleep I thought I heard "Sea Turns"; felt the melody pulling at me, backtracking, refusing to resolve. In the morning I awoke to a soft commotion. "She's dead," my mother said quietly. "She's dead." "Holy Mother of God," the old woman whispered, holding Mare's forearm in her hand. The light hit the curves of Mare's face. It was all surface and weight, with no fret and agitation. Her half-open eyes were brilliant. "She's dead," my mother said again quietly. But I heard the noise of Mare's disembodied breathing as if she were resting her head on my shoulder, and as I got up and backed away from the bed it stayed with me, soft and steady. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Seven The small casket was placed on the piano bench in the vacant music room, the windows open because the day was so still. But a wind came up later and set the long gauze curtains luffing and stirring and blew out the two candles at the casket's head. Mrs. O'Dare relit them and closed the windows. She had just set up chairs for the people who would soon come, when my mother appeared in the hallway in her antique dress. The old woman pleaded with her to change into the black woolen one she'd laid out for her on the bed. But my mother would not be persuaded and seemed to take satisfaction from the old woman's distress. Her face was flushed as if with fever. The room stank of lilies. I turned quickly away when I saw Mrs. O'Dare manipulate Mare's fingers around a white Sunday hymnal. When a few people came from town my mother disappeared. I hid as well, walking restless circles in other rooms. I could not bear their horror and intrigue. Once when I came to peer in at them from the doorway I heard a townswoman say to a woman accompanying her that the poor innocent had been too young to make a perfect Act of Contrition. But to Mrs. O'Dare's weeping face, she spoke of the happy deaths of children called home to the breast of God. "She's the Holy Mother's little girl now," the woman said to me, clutching my hand in her two damp ones. "You shall meet her again, dear girl, if you stay the right side of God." When the priest arrived to bless the body, everyone assembled in the chairs. My mother looked like a bride as she walked in, all ice and light with sprigs of lily of the valley in her hair. Even the priest looked up from his book and hesitated. She stood suspended on the hush that rose around her, a soft look of elation on her face. Mrs. O'Dare took her arm and led her to a chair. Throughout the Mass people looked at her stunned, embarrassed. I sat heavily in my chair trying to keep my eyes open, all the while seduced by the hypnotic steadiness of my sister's breathing. Once when no one was talking to her I saw my mother let go of a shallow sigh. She hunched forward and looked into her hands. Near the end of the day when we thought no one else would come, two women from the Marion Society knocked at the door holding a loaf of soda bread and a small pot of stew. Mrs. O'Dare took the provisions and thanked them, trying to explain that my mother was not up to taking visitors, when she appeared in the doorway in her incandescent dress. She looked rapt, her skin bright. "We're praying for you, Mrs. Sheehy," one of them cried out. "God is good to the wee ones He takes unto His breast," said the shorter, younger one, who wore a blue serge hat. "What a lovely blue hat, Miss," my mother said. "Oh, thank you," the short woman said, touching it nervously. "It's the color of Our Lady's mantle." My mother nodded faintly, and as everyone seemed afraid to breathe, she withdrew. "She's beside herself," Mrs. O'Dare apologized, red to the roots of her hair. "Of course she is," said the taller woman. "Of course." "God bless her," said the other. At the burial service a priest read from a little white book, something about Resurrection and the cycles of suffering coming to an end. Three old women in black stood just outside our small circle. As the gravedigger shoveled earth in over the coffin the women began to keen, a wild, grief-driven shriek that chilled me and brought poor Mrs. O'Dare to her knees with the tears. My mother stared off at the Wicklow hills, transfixed, and when the keening stopped she watched the women depart. A flash of anger broke in me and I shook, holding back the urge to rush at her, to hit her with my fists. She must have felt something because she switched her focus to me. There was lethargy and strangeness in her face and when I looked at her, my anger dimmed. I ached for her, and when she looked away from me I was bereft. As we walked from the cemetery to Mrs. O'Dare's little car, I felt as if I were floating. "I'm dreaming," I told myself. "I'm having a dream." When we got home I complained to Mrs. O'Dare. "She doesn't cry for Mare at all." "I don't know where she goes in herself, Clodagh," the old woman said, shaking her head. But a few minutes later I walked into the parlor and found her sitting on the bed gazing out the window. She did not seem to hear me. Her mouth hung open like the wind had been knocked out of her. For a few days I let Mare bring me with her into quiet, often dreamless sleep. We drifted above the town, carried along on currents of air. Below we could see the tides moving in and away on the strand. It seemed we moved aimlessly together a long time until I found myself flooded by the smell of the trees coming from a bit of forest in the Wicklow hills and had a sudden, terrible hunger to be located again, to be weighted. I was shepherded back to the ground in a storm of leaves while Mare remained above me, rising and drifting. I awakened from dreams in which Mare was alive again, shivering and barefooted, smelling of evergreens. Death had been a kind of journey for her. It had exhausted her, left her frail and full of terrible knowledge. I stopped sleeping at night. I lay in the dark thinking of the night just a week or so ago with the moths when our mother had gone cold to Mare. I let myself feel the anger that had flared up like lightning for a few moments at the burial. I let myself feel it cautiously, looking at my mother's sleeping figure. While placing Mare's death certificate in a folder of papers and family records, Mrs. O'Dare found a never-before-seen photograph of my father in an envelope: a sad-faced man gazing placidly into the camera like someone looking through a window, the background complicated with shadows. I wondered if he would recognize Mare if there was a place where the dead walked among other dead. I prayed to him with the same reverent, pleading tone of voice that Mrs. O'Dare used to pray to Christ, to find Mare, to console her. But like Christ, my father was elusive. Reticent. I could not feel him there. My sister remained with me, my system flooded now and then by her excruciating sadness; her bafflement at our mother's withdrawal. "Sssshhh," I'd say, when I heard Mare stirring uneasily. I curled up, rocking myself, imagining our mother touching her face. "Ssssh, girleen." I asked the old woman to tell me all the tender things that had been there between my mother and Mare, and then I'd work hard to imagine them, to reconjure them. Mare did not have the energy to remember. I had to help her. For a while, a few weeks or a month, Mare stayed with me; sleeping much of the time so I could hear her hoarse, steady breathing. Once the shock had settled, I imagined her drifting, traveling out into death. Days passed where she was fully gone from me. I could not sense a pulse or an intake of air or an uneasy thought that was not my own. Sometimes I could not remember her face, strange as that was since her face was so much like my own. I could not quite fix her in my mind. It was at such times, when the loss of her had grown easier, her memory diffused, that she would return to me with a sudden, visceral power. A pressure in my chest. An aching in my fingers that caused them to shake. I struggled to soothe her, concentrating on our mother's love for her. I was afraid to approach the piano. Mare had consecrated it; and now like the music that came from it, Mare traveled on air. She swelled and ignited, then dimmed and faded. She was weightless, infiltrating. I stood at the door of the piano room watching the stiff linen curtain move, afraid and in awe of air that could move things and separate the dead from the living. If I gazed a long time at the piano so that I was seeing past it and through it, I could almost see Mare there at the sides of it, and the fear that filled me in those moments felt like a betrayal. In the visible world my mother and I were left to each other. I found myself possessed by a hunger for some pure, original memory of who we were to each other. A wild notion came into my mind that now my mother might fall in love with me. I left the little bed I'd shared with Mare and got in beside my mother. I longed for her to press her ear to my chest and listen with faint desperation for my heartbeat. Or to gaze into my face, appealing to me as if my existence might sustain the world. I fashioned early memory for myself out of the details Mrs. O'Dare had already supplied. My mother hovering over me in the reddish light of the turf fire, fiercely tender. The reedy high-pitched noise of her voice as she sang to me. The bumping of her heart as I suckled her breast. My greed for her coursed through me each time I closed my eyes and conjured that moment. The sweetness of her filled my mouth. A taste I now associate with impermanence. And if I made the moment real enough in my mind, if I searched the air of the memory strenuously enough, I could feel her greed for me. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Chapter Eight More than six weeks had passed since Mare's death. Mrs. O'Dare said my mother was tired. For five years she'd hardly slept, senses kept awake for Mare. Now with Mare gone she could sleep. And she did. Long meandering sleeps that frightened me, so heavy and dead did they sometimes seem. I'd press my ear to her back and listen for her heart. With Mare gone, what would keep her here? We were awakened one morning by wild barking from the sea. I followed my mother out across the field and stood on the grass at the edge of the sand, a strong wind tormenting our hair and nightgowns. She pointed at a group of seals appearing and disappearing like black dots on the crests of waves. I followed her north along the strand where she'd spotted a few seals basking on a jutting rock. They perked their heads up, watching us approach. "Sweet girls," my mother said, slowing her pace and stopping a few yards from the rock, my heart quickening at the tender familiarity in her voice. Their faces were earnest, darkly human. Their nostrils moved as they breathed. Leaning forward from the waist and extending her arm, my mother cried out to them again in a soft, high-pitched voice, "Lovely girls." One seal twitched, a shiver running the length of its body as if in response. It blinked its eyes. The wind grew suddenly stronger as a tall wave came in, hitting the rock, a curve of spume rising on the air and spattering down on the seals. They undulated and barked, pulling themselves to the rock's edge. The one that had twitched looked again at my mother before it slid into the sea. We stayed where we were, watching them ride the swells. "The seals make me yearn after the west," my mother said. "The beach at Dunshee?" "Yes." The word escaped on a breath. Seabirds keened over the noise of the surf. She let go a sigh and stared off at the horizon, complacent, heavy from so much sleep. I reached for her hand and she took mine, the mild sunlight causing us both to squint as we moved slowly back to the house. The next morning she was not in bed when I woke. I went outside and saw her in the distance standing near the jutting rock. As I ran along the sand toward her, she turned and held her hand up as if in warning. That's when I spotted the seal near her on the rock, becoming uneasy at my approach. Before it slipped on its side back into the sea my mother grazed its pelt with her hand. "You frightened her!" she cried out to me over the noise of the surf. I moved slowly toward her. "I'm sorry," I said, afraid she'd remain angry with me, but she just shook her head and gazed after the seal on the waves. I sat at the kitchen table drawing pictures of seals, showing them to my mother who sat near me drinking a cup of tea. Mrs. O'Dare stood at the sink doing the washing up from breakfast. "Are seals as smart as people?" I asked. "Some in the west say they are," Mrs. O'Dare said. "There's a tale about seals." "Tell me," I said. "What are those creatures called, Agatha?" "Selkies," my mother said quietly. "Tell me the tale," I said. "Something, I think, about a woman who became a seal..." Mrs. O'Dare said. "No," my mother said. "Wait." She got up and went to the parlor, then returned with a small book I'd never seen before, in glossy, pale blue binding. "Read this to us, Missus," she said to the old woman. Mrs. O'Dare dried her hands on a tea towel, then sat down with us. My mother leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms, a soft seriousness on her face as she listened to the old woman read: "'I am the Irish selkie who emerged full grown from my sealskin, licking a gluey membrane from my own body, and drying myself on the rocky crag, my skin folded carefully beside me like a glossy dress. It was the cries of a fisherman that lured me ashore, lowing like a bull seal, floating in a boat over my bedroom in the night sea. He took my sealskin from me and made me his, then brought me to his home. He married me and we had a child together. "'My life was marked by my departure from the sea. I saw the seam between worlds and I thought I'd always be able to pass there. But that kind of grace comes along rarely in a lifetime.'" As the old woman read, my mother watched her eyes. "'I could no longer bear the deception of my life, the dry vacancy of air, the sun lighting everything in my path. When the day came that I found my old sealskin in the floorboards where my husband had hidden it, I left my life ashore and my child, and walked back to the sea. It was, after so many years, strangely easy. I'd grown tired of being human and dreamed of a second chance at grace; pushing the seam between worlds, looking for the glimmer of an underwater room.'" I waited for something more but Mrs. O'Dare was quiet and closed the book. A soft panic made my heart quicken. "I don't remember it being so dark a story," the old woman said. "Why did the selkie leave her child?" I asked. "She was a seal," my mother said softly. "She belonged in the sea." "Why didn't she take her child with her?" My mother peered at me but did not answer. "Why did she go away?" "Oh, Clodagh, love," Mrs. O'Dare said. "It's just an old folktale!" My mother lit a cigarette, drew at it and watched the smoke travel on her exhalation. My heart was in my throat. "Mother," I said and touched her arm. "Tell me why the selkie went back to the sea." My mother looked fully at me so I felt bright, transparent. "Don't you remember what it said in the story? She was tired of being human." My pulses clamored. I searched her eyes. "Did someone make her tired of being human?" She thought hard before she said, "It was her nature, Clodagh. You can not change a creature's nature." I picked up the little book from the table where Mrs. O'Dare had put it. Inside were three simple illustrations. The first was of a seal lying on a rock. The second of a blond woman climbing out of the sealskin. The third of the same woman standing naked beside the sealskin. I thought of my mother sitting alone at night in the kitchen with the sods burning and the little window open to the cold. She had once made a dim, buried cave of this room to suckle my sister and me. I was filled with an amorphous yearning for my mother and an uneasy curiosity that would grow in me like an affliction. It was summer and warm air blew in from the sea. Mrs. O'Dare moved out of the house and in with her sister in Bray, who had sprained an ankle, but she came every morning to see to things, and left each night after the washing up. One evening near dark Mrs. O'Dare was baking a meat pie in the kitchen by the light of a paraffin lamp. The aroma of the food and the dim light traveled up the hall and to the vestibule where I stood watching my mother through the parlor door. She had opened the top drawer of her dresser and was stirring things about until she withdrew a jeweled comb that she pressed into her hair before the mirror. The top buttons of her dress were open and she ran her hand over her breastbone, then toyed with a bit of loosened ribbon. She leaned into the mirror, a strange excitement on her face as she whispered to herself so softly she barely moved her lips. The main door was open and on a gust of wind I smelled the summer fires of the tinkers newly camped in the north field. That night after the meal my mother did not come to bed but sat on the porch humming. She'd opened all the windows in the house and every few minutes the curtains would stir and once they flew almost horizontally into the room and somewhere from the back hall I heard a door slam. I was afraid to sleep with my mother so wistful. So easily could she have slipped like a shadow into the waves of the night sea. The next morning she got up in the early dark. I followed her to the kitchen where she lit the kettle. I opened the little smoke window for her as she lay rashers in the pan, stirring them with the fork as they cooked, the smell of bacon passing across the expanse of rooms in the cross ventilation. After she removed the bacon she left the grease to sizzle, cracking three eggs into it where they bubbled and popped and fried up with ruffled edges. She seemed that morning full of a confused, well-meaning urgency, and she watched me eat as if she were trying to remember something, encouraging me to sop bits of bread into the dripping yolks. When Mrs. O'Dare came in she ate with her fingers until the old woman was on her to use cutlery. It was the first time since Mare had died I saw her looking to incite Mrs. O'Dare's remonstrances. Everything that was left she ate with her fingers, including an egg gone cold in the pan, the fat around it whitened like pond ice. But later in the day when the tinker fires began again her mind was elsewhere. She dressed herself and went out for a long walk toward the Wicklow Mountains. She came home late that night and made a show of undressing and coming to bed. Rain was hitting the window hard when I fell asleep. In the wee hours her place beside me was empty. I got up to go to the lavatory and noticed that she had a bit of a fire burning in the kitchen hearth, and set up before it was the old folding bed that she used sometimes if one of us was ill and needed the warmth of the turf fire. Returning to bed I felt a cold rush of air, a barge of shadow moving past me just outside the door to the parlor. I slipped behind the door, my heart pounding. I waited a few moments until I heard the faint sound of my mother's laughter from the kitchen. The smell left in the wake of the shadow was somehow familiar to me. Dampness and horses and peat. It had come and gone before, I thought, though I could not have said when. A soft barrage of impressions that had the feel of dream residue. I had a sudden clear flash of memory: I must have been very small because I was in my mother's arms, with just a bit of flickering red light illuminating her. I remembered her heart quickening at the approach of the smell and the shadow. My mother laughed softly again in the kitchen. Concealed in darkness I walked into the hallway. I saw the large shadow merge with hers. I heard my mother take in her breath. There was muffled laughter. "Stop," she said softly "Stop." The bedsprings complained as if under a great weight. "Sssshhh," my mother said as if she were talking to the bed. The deep animal timbre of the other voice sounded muffled as if he were speaking into her neck or hair and the bedsprings began lapping like water at the wall as if the room had somehow been flooded. And then the soft cries began. The cries I could not understand, the two voices growing indistinguishable. It sounded as if they were caught in some mutual struggle, a sadness building between them. I felt then that what they were doing was terribly dangerous and I wanted to scream out and tell them to stop. But I was polarized, afraid that if I startled her my mother might slip away with him into his animal darkness and never return. And when I thought I could no longer bear it and that the world itself might end, everything stopped. The lowing animal voice said, "Bless us, Mother of God." I peered into the room, and in the turf light saw a big man lying on his back in disheveled clothing, his shirt open. My mother lay with one side of her face pressed to his bare chest, one naked arm and leg draped across his body. For a brief moment he turned his face away from her so that his forehead and eyes were faintly illuminated, and from his expression it seemed the sadness of the world was upon him. The next morning while she stood over the stove poking at the bacon as it fried, I said to her, "I saw the man." "What, Clodagh?" she asked. "I saw the man who was here." She stood without breathing a moment then crouched before me, holding my shoulders, her face shining with cooking. "The one you saw was the ghost of your father. Ghosts of men are noisy, clumsy things and they come and go in death the way they do in life." I was moved by the proximity of her face to mine, and by her earnestness. "Just the ghost of your dead father, love." Her voice warbled and she touched my temple with her fingertips. "Ye should not tell the old Missus. Ah, there's a good girl. An old ghost gets lonely again for the world. Do ye hear me, love? It's our secret about the ghost." "What were you doing with the ghost?" I asked. She paused. "Comforting the poor creature," she said. "He was very sad," I said. "Yes, he was," she said, taking me in her arms. At the threshold of tears, I asked her, "Are you going to go away with the ghost?" She held me at arm's length and cried, "No, lass!" "The ghost left muddy footprints in the vestibule," Mrs. O'Dare said, having suddenly appeared from the hallway. She crossed her arms and looked indignantly at my mother, who faced her a moment before storming past. "What's wrong, Missus?" I asked. "Nothing, lass. I'm just sorry to hear that your mother is consorting with the dead." It was that same day, with things uneasy between my mother and Mrs. O'Dare, that the old woman received a telephone call from Lily Sheehy in the west. We'd heard from the aunts once before Mare had died and after they'd gotten the first bill for the repairs on the house. Mrs. O'Dare had defended the expenses, describing the collapsing walls and unlivable conditions. "You told me, Miss Sheehy, to oversee things here. The conditions were dire. Dire!" Mrs. O'Dare had cried. Lily Sheehy had said then that they would come to see the house; that it had been too long anyway, and in a more apologetic tone said that they'd been meaning now for a very long time to meet Frank's daughters. "I told them you were both the image of their dead brother, just to stick the knife in!" Mrs. O'Dare had told Mare and me at the time. "They don't behave like family at all." But the aunts never came. Now, Lily Sheehy called to let us know that their plans were definite, and they'd be here in two days. Later I heard my mother arguing with Mrs. O'Dare in the kitchen. "This is my bleedin' house, Missus, and it's thanks to me alone that you have a roof o' your own and praities enough to keep you fat." "You'll give up your bucking if you want to keep this great edifice over you," Mrs. O'Dare said with gravity. "You better take care to keep your place here." "Leave off on me, Missus." "Don't get careless, Agatha, now that your wee lass is gone. You've still got another to think about." My mother stormed up the hall and slammed the parlor door behind her. A little while later she left the house with her jacket on and a basket on her arm. "Don't be seen in the tinker camps!" Mrs. O'Dare cried. "I'm not going to the bleedin' tinkers!" she cried out. "I'm goin' to Mrs. Rafferty's shop." She came home later that day from Mrs. Rafferty's with a blue platter, which she placed standing up against the shelfback in the linen closet. I heard her that night rearranging the cabinet. I got up once for a glass of water and saw her in candlelight, holding the blue platter in her hands, admiring it. When my aunts came to Mercymount Strand, they were stunned by the lack of furniture, and my mother feebly explained that the house was too big for her. Mrs. O'Dare and I had moved the great couch from the parlor into the piano room, and dressed it in the nicest bedding we had, some green and beige striped Irish linens. When they asked for the key to the upper floors, my mother was resistant about giving it to them. She said that the repairs done up there were bare bones, only things absolutely necessary to save the main living area. There was nothing much to see but empty rooms in need of paint. But they insisted and Mrs. O'Dare took them up. I stood at the foot of the stairs, stale, forlorn air descending from the open door. The first afternoon with the aunts there was awkward. I'd run into them in the hallway or the foyer, their expressions serious, appalled. The impression of them was everywhere, fierce shadowy archangels whose strain and disapproval wafted through the rooms of the house like sea air. I was afraid, in awe of my aunts, yet I wanted them to like me. Lily Sheehy, heavyset with light hair swept carefully over her ears like the feathers of a dead bird, seemed sterner than her nervous sister. Yet she treated me with a reserved kindness. I went up to her once and touched the gold crucifix she wore around her neck. I turned it in the light, a tender feeling passing between us. Kitty Sheehy, thin and with iron-gray pincurls framing her face, was overanimated around me. She'd brought me a puppet, a red velvety queen with a papier-mâché head, which she worked with her hand, opening and closing its arms with her fingers, speaking in a high-pitched, squeaky voice: "Isn't Clodagh Sheehy a pretty girl?" "Little Clodagh Sheehy" this and that. Her face grew red with the exertion of her game. She'd stop suddenly to recover her breath, extricating the puppet from her hand. "That Kitty Sheehy," Mrs. O'Dare had said to me in private. "A voice of violets and a heart of briars." Still I tried to make her like me, feeling my mother's disapproval once when she walked into the parlor and found me on Kitty's lap, my arms around her neck. The aunts stood together in the kitchen going through the cabinets and cupboards, commenting to each other under their breath. Upon opening my mother's china closet and examining the great cache of chipped, discolored and unmatching crockery, and a few broken ones that my mother'd left there with the intention of repairing, Aunt Lily shook her head and said to Aunt Kitty, "It's what she comes from." I thought of the wild girl living in the cove. The girl who preferred to urinate in the grass. Did my aunts know if she was a selkie? They sent Mrs. O'Dare to the shops for mutton and vegetables and ingredients for a gravy and a fruit compote. They oversaw her cooking all afternoon, Kitty Sheehy giving nervous instructions, undertaking the chopping of the apples into cubes, getting exasperated from time to time with the poor overwhelmed Mrs. O'Dare, who had grown unused to such demands. A table was set with a cloth. Two forks and two glasses at each place. Candles were lit and Mrs. O'Dare was instructed to refill the water glasses whenever they were down to half. Aunt Kitty served a wobbling blancmange with silver implements that none of us had seen before and decided later that she must have brought with her. I felt ashamed of my curiosity. But I could not stifle it. I approached my aunts while they sat alone in the foyer chairs drinking tea. "Where did my mother live when she was a little girl?" I addressed the question to Aunt Lily. She fixed my eyes as I spoke to her, her nostrils flaring slightly as if I were asking something distasteful. They exchanged looks and during their silence I felt my face going warm. Aunt Kitty's eyes darted back and forth. "Is Dunshee the place she's from?" I asked. "Yes!" Aunt Kitty said, smiling. "And that's where our dear brother, your father, met her." Her head bobbed slightly when she spoke. She seemed anxious that our interaction be lighthearted. "Dunshee is a beautiful place. A rocky landscape and a crashing sea." She waved her arm dramatically. I peered at her and held my breath. "It's a legendary place," she went on, sensing my anticipation. "Not far from Drumcoyne House. They say it's enchanted, the meeting place between the dead and the living." I wanted to ask what she meant by the "meeting place between the dead and the living," but Mrs. O'Dare came in with the teapot to refill their cups and the three of them became engaged in a conversation about a particular beech tree that looked diseased and what should be done about it. The conversation went on and on. Who might be called. Mrs. O'Dare mentioned the brother of a friend, Mr. O'Halloran, who had experience with trees. She'd ring her friend and ask. I sat there waiting for them to finish, but as the tea things were cleared away they were taken up with other questions regarding the yards and the plumbing and some talk about the door being removed from the second-floor landing. "How late does the girl stay up?" Kitty Sheehy asked Mrs. O'Dare in a soft voice as if I could not hear her. She eyed me over her glasses that she'd put on to make notations. "Clodagh, love," Mrs. O'Dare said, "It's ten o'clock. Off to bed with you." I was ready to challenge her but the aunts were off ahead of us, disappearing around the turn in the hallway. When I awoke the next morning they had gone back to the west. Copyright © 2001 by Regina McBride Excerpted from The Nature of Water and Air by Regina McBride All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.