I began with my mam, just like my daughter began with me.
My mam whispered the story of my birth to hook the fear in me, to keep me shut up at home with her, but as a child I loved to hear how I came to the island, because it linked me to him, the other baby born during the storm.
Mam told it like so: she was stood by the wall in front of our cottage, waiting. No one was about on the road or in the fields, but below her the bay was busy with boats. Purple clouds climbed the blue; thin and wispy at first and building to heavy stacks that spread like flames in the gorse. A storm prickled in the air. Mam scanned about for Dad’s currach but didn’t know his from any other. She thanked God my brother Kieran and the baby Enda were too young to be out and were safely playing in front of the neighbor Bridget’s hearth so Mam could arrange the house before I came. Already the fishermen were struggling back towards the pier against the sharp-toothed waves. The fear had lit the men.
On the island, the sea was what separated women from men. Women weren’t taken by the water. Instead, mothers were drained by dropping tears over the bodies of their dead sons. Grandmothers vanished into old age early, almost as quick as waning moons, and girls were drowned in the tides of birthing blood. Men fought death on the sea, women in the home.
Mam pushed away these thoughts and turned her focus inwards. For weeks I’d been beating against her belly like a bird trapped in a chimney. She couldn’t wait to be rid of me and not a drip of terror had entered her about it. She’d already had my two brothers without a bother. What could go wrong with the third?
Thunder rumbled as far off as the mainland, rolling in across the waves to shake the stones, waking the giant, sleeping whale beneath, the mother of the island. Mam had never heard the tale— and it was Bridget who told me—but still, Mam felt the whale’s shudder and unease build in her as she watched two currachs skip further out across the swell. She could picture the laughter on Dad as he and the other rowers pushed on into the wild waves. If the sea stole him, Mam would be left to fend for herself with three children and she knew if she was alone the island would kill her. She told me all this on one of our many drawn-out days of sighs and work in the kitchen, but still I must have sensed her weakness. With my new fingernails I scratched at a thread inside her and snapped it. Water splashed her bare feet—I couldn’t say why she wore no shoes on that day but before she had me she must’ve lived in a wilder, happier woman.For weeks I’d been beating against her belly like a bird trapped in a chimney. She couldn’t wait to be rid of me and not a drip of terror had entered her about it.
Pain ripped through her then and she sank to her knees as if to pray but it was curses that appeared on her tongue—I know because I shouted those words myself when I was having my own daughter—but, unlike me, my mam swallowed them down, leaving them to rot in her chest.
Mam hauled herself through the doorway and forgot to look back to see if Dad’s boat was coming home.
A square of light shifted across the floor and was extinguished with rain slashing through the wide-open door. Mam sat on the floor, lips bleeding from biting back the shouts inside her while the Virgin watched her from the dresser, a string of prayer beads wrapped around her saintly neck and a wilting meadow flower at her porcelain feet. For the first time since Mam had landed on the island, she didn’t pray to the mother of Himself. She never told me why, but it might have been because she felt she couldn’t live up to the Mother of Mercy with whom she shared a name or she believed a mortal woman was no good in a case as bad as me.
With Mary’s painted blue eyes burning her back, Mam braced herself against the wall and pleaded with God—she only ever made the big requests to Him—to cut the agonies of me, her child, away, but like most men, He wasn’t one to involve himself with women’s matters.
Somehow Mam got herself into the big room. Lightning flashed in the matchbox window and was swallowed by the dark clutch of the storm. The pains tearing through Mam went on and on and on but I gave her no urge to push. She wouldn’t let herself think this was different from the times before but somewhere at the back of her mind she knew I would be the difficult child.
She prayed again to God and listened for His answer, but all she heard was the tormented roar of the storm. Where was Ardàn? Why didn’t Bridget return the boys to her? Through the open bedroom door the kitchen stared its blank emptiness at her. She laid herself on the bed and gave in to the moans and shouts.
On the ragged sea, Dad, Old Daithi and Young Liam rowed back, their laughter plucked from their throats by the wind. They
weren’t far, almost in the shallows, when Dad’s hat was whipped from his head and, looking back, he saw the tiny boat belonging to Colm, the pretty man with wicked eyes who was loved by all the women, even Mam. As Dad watched, the sickle of boat vanished into the tar-painted fingers of cloud and rain.
Over the sound of her broken breaths Mam heard the groan of a door and the drip drip of water on the floor.
The sheets scratched rough against her damp and heaving body. She panted, waiting for the next wave, and as it rolled through her she looked up and a blue vision of the Virgin stood before her. Mam knew in her soul, even though she’d ignored the figurine on the dresser, that the cold ceramic had transformed into blood and flesh and come to save her.
“Holy,” Mam said. It was the only word she could think of for the beautiful, saintly face hovering over her.
The room flickered with shadows cast by one sputtering lamp. Somewhere, far off, she heard a whisper: Your child will die.
“Did you hear that?” Mam mumbled.
No one answered. She looked about, but all she saw was dark and light swirling into each other. Fear gripped her throat and she wanted to weep. Had it been one of the little folk or the words of our Lord? She knew in her bones what she had heard was true.
Soft hands smoothed across her stomach and, above her, hair stuck out like moon rays.
“The baby hasn’t turned. She’s stuck,” the Virgin said in English, and to Mam it seemed right that a holy woman would speak with education. “I need to cut her out.”
“No!” Mam cried in Irish.
“You’ll die if I don’t.” There was something familiar about that shimmering hair, but Mam couldn’t grasp it, even when she reached out and clutched a straw strand, it slipped away. She’s fat herself, Mam thought, with Himself no doubt, but then a hand reached inside her and all thoughts, except of fish hooks, vanished.
Outside the storm swelled the sea.
Dad, Liam and Daithi dragged the currach up the rocks. When the boat was far beyond the shoreline Dad swung the basket of fish over his shoulder, waving to the others, and pushed through the rain towards home. When he banged open the cottage door Mam’s shouts cut through the wailing of the sky. It was many nudges of the clock’s finger before Dad moved, and when he did he didn’t go to her. Instead he poured a whiskey and drank it from the tumbler in one gulp and filled another. The big room was no place for a man.
Someone had caught wind that Mam was having me and a shoal of fishermen trudged into the kitchen, brave enough to come into Mam’s sacred space now they had the reason: to wet my head. They perched on stools, passed pipes and swigged from bottles they’d carried with them through the lashing rain. Old Daithi appeared with my brothers on each hip, delivered back from the warmth of his wife Bridget’s hearth, and laid them down in the nook.
“Did any of yous see Colm go out in his boat?” Dad croaked.
The men shook their heads and Dad wondered if the storm had tricked his eyes.
Young Liam called for a song from Dad, who was well-known for his voice, but he had no fire in him for it. There was a fearful hush among them. Mam or I might die in the cold bedroom while they sat warmed by the tongue burn of poitín and the lit turf. Dad watched the clock by the light of every candle.
Kieran stood up from where he’d been sat in the nook and began to sing. While he sang that tune, bringing mist to wrinkled eyes, my brother was probably the sweetest he’d ever be, still wearing a dress to scare the little people away as everyone was sure it was boys they wanted and not a girl.
No one thought to boil the water for tea.
Mam woke to a searing red pain. She pulled up her dress and across her belly a wobbly line of stitches grinned up at her. The Virgin’s sewing was neat.
She bit her arm to stifle the scream.
In the kitchen, there was a hum of snores and the quiet talk of those who’d woken for another glass. The air was blue with smoke, but as the door of the big room burst open red seeped in and the men still sleeping woke. Stained feet poked from under a splattered nightie and against Mam’s chest she clutched a baby dipped in dye. Red; not like the stacks of kelp that lined the beaches, or the flash of a grandmother’s skirts, or the lips of a child. It was the red of death.
The men pulled away like waves parting from the shore. “Where’s the Virgin?” Mam said.
They shifted and stared at their soft cowhide shoes. Not one of them said a word, but a few glanced fearfully at the figurine tenderly smiling at them from the dresser.
“Am I all alone now?” Mam moaned, somehow forgetting the whole new person in her hands.
“You’re all right,” said Old Daithi, the only one able to find a good use for his tongue. “Will I take the child from you there?”
“No.” Her fingers gripped me. No man would take her only girl from her.
“I’ll get my Bridget to be with you,” he said. “A woman’s touch is what you need, Mary, and you shouldn’t be alone in there.” He pointed at the birth room. No one thought to ask why he’d not gone for his wife earlier. “Amn’t I right, Ardàn?” he said.
Dad stood, blinking at these two strangers who were his wife and child. He was halfway across the kitchen, arms opening, when she turned and trod back into the other room, leaving him looking down at a dark wet patch sinking into the earth-packed floor.
“Well,” Daithi said. “Shall we welcome the child to our island?”
Dad nodded slowly. “I’ve a terrible thirst on me.”
The lamp had sputtered out in the big bedroom; only the scent of burnt fat still hung in the air. Mam lay cold, bare-legged on the bed. She lifted her dress again to run a finger along the grinning line of stitches on her stomach. She shuddered and let the dress drop. Forget, she told herself, forget the Mary with the knife. Forget the voice that whispered to her of death. Forget.
Beside her was a small, mewling thing. She parted its legs and smiled. This girl wouldn’t be like the boys. A daughter needs her mother. A daughter never drowns, never leaves.
She didn’t feed me but I stayed quiet and she thought it a good sign for our future together.
Far from our cottage, on a rocky shore, a woman sat trembling in her blue dress waiting to see if her man would return from the sea. There was blood on her hands and her prayers were not to God or any pure woman, they were to the sea-people, the ones with spined fingers that dragged fishermen down to their deaths. She begged and sang to the waters, calling to them, to her people, and on a bed of fish skeletons and shell coffins she pushed out a boy. The crash of waves was his arrival choir. The howl of the storm his midwife.
The woman named him Felim.
Once, a woman gave birth to a daughter. The girl was beautiful and unspoiled and the new mother loved her. With her baby in her arms, the new mother felt whole and perfect too. Her daughter at her breast, she knew the circular nature of the world. Life flowed through her.
But time passed, and her child grew and grew, and the new mother, no longer new, began to feel afraid.
Excerpted from The Island Child by Molly Aitken. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Knopf.