One Year Earlier
The Yank arrives on the first day of summer, with the pigs. She comes in Festy’s boat, which has to drop anchor and wait for the island men to row out in a curragh. They hand her over the side, along with the mail and two squirming sacks. Rumor has it the Yank has been waiting on the mainland for two weeks, staying in the room above Oliver’s bar as the last of the spring storms battered the quay and made it impossible for anyone to approach the island. Emer’s son, Niall, has been watching the quay all morning. His father and uncle rowed out early to purchase this year’s piglets. Every May, during the festival of Beltaine, which marks the beginning of the summer, each family on the island gets a new pig. They are raised into the autumn and slaughtered one by one over the winter, so fresh meat can be shared among them. Pig day was a favorite for Emer and Rose when they were children, and now it is her son’s turn to be excited.
“They’re in,” Niall comes running to tell her, though she has already seen it from the window. “They’re helping Festy bring that Yank.”
“Amadan,” Emer’s mother hisses from her perch by the fire. Fool. No one responds. Their mother is used to complaining to the air.
Emer, who has been peeling potatoes at the kitchen table, slips her small knife into the pocket of her apron and dries her hands. Normally, Emer would send Niall down alone, to avoid Rose’s husband, and the other islanders who avoid her. But she wants a look at this Yank. She wants to know what sort of woman she is, coming here all on her own. Americans, the islanders know, are used to comforts that St. Brigid’s Island is not able to provide. Emer wants to see for herself if it takes something more than a fool.
Niall runs back outside, twirls downhill in the sunshine, then circles back for his mother to catch up. Emer should call in the other direction to Rose, invite her to come along, but she walks quickly to keep up with Niall, without looking back. No women will be clamoring to meet the Yank, she knows. They’ll keep their distance, wait to see if she is staying a decent stretch. Emer wants to meet her first. Emer is tall, like most St. Brigid women, sharply angled and awkward, nothing soft to ease the protrusion of bone. She keeps her dark hair trimmed to the length of her jaw and banished behind her ears. Her skin is decent enough, sallow, with olive tones left over from Ireland’s collusion with Spanish pirates. As if reinforcing that theme, she wears a calfskin patch over a stolen eye. Beneath the patch is the fat worm of a keloid scar that seemed to widen long after the rest of her stopped growing. The eye she has left is striking, always wet, lipping over, like a dark blue stone sitting at the bottom of the water, far too deep to reach.
They say Saint Brigid pulled her own eye out, to repel a man sizing her up for a wife. When he was gone, she popped it in again, beauty restored, reputation sealed. No one dared propose to her after that. The fairies took Emer’s eye, but the one they left suggests she is capable of doing something similar. Of ripping away what is precious should you look at her the wrong way.
The men have rowed out in two curraghs to meet the boat, transferred all the Yank’s bags and trunks, and are hauling her up onto the quay, one man for each arm, grunting and apologizing. She has a fierce lot of bags and wooden crates from the shop in town. Piled on the quay along with all her things are supplies for the island, which hasn’t had a delivery in three weeks: mail, flour, sugar, tea and tobacco, and two sacks that are bulging and emitting the muffled squeals of terrified baby pigs. Niall skips over to them and nudges the lumps in the brown fabric with his bare feet. Emer stops just before the stone jetty, to look at the Yank from a distance. The young men are already taken with her. Rose’s husband, Austin, and his cousins, Malachy and Michael Joe, are slagging her about the pigs; apparently she sat down on one of the bags on the way over. She seems able for it—hooting at their jokes, throwing her head back with a big American laugh. She isn’t bothered by them grabbing her around her long arms and jostling her breasts as they settle her on the quay. Her hair is loose and frantic with wind, auburn with streaks of fiery red, the curls springing every which way about her head like they are trying to get away. She is wearing trousers and a massive yellow jacket the men are praising as American genius. (“Sure, doesn’t the water bead right off the thing.”) She pumps the hand of old Jimmy Moran too fast and eager, not seeming to realize that he would prefer a simple nod and wink of welcome. She catches sight of Emer and smiles, revealing dazzling white teeth, so Emer is forced to step forward. She holds her hand out as Emer approaches, and Emer hesitates before taking it.
“I’m Brigid,” she says, pronouncing her own name wrong, hard on the last d instead of softening it to barely there. Emer takes the woman’s hand and wraps her fingers around the palm.
What usually happens doesn’t happen. Brigid seems to have no aversion to Emer’s hand. Instead of Brigid pulling away first, it is Emer who lets go. She doesn’t do what most strangers do, look back and forth indecisively between Emer’s remaining eye and the patch over the other. She looks at Emer straight on, as if both eyes are still there. Brigid’s eyes are auburn and match the darker streaks in her hair. Even after Emer lets go, she can still feel the woman’s palm, pulsing, relentless, like a child chanting the same demand over and over again. Emer flushes and tells her name.
Brigid makes her repeat it twice. Ee-mer. She is not only loud, but also asks other people to speak up, as if she is slightly deaf. Most Americans are like this.
“Brigid and Mary be with you,” Emer mutters automatically.
“Everybody keeps saying that,” the Yank booms. “My mother used to say that too. When I was little I thought it was about me, but then I found out it’s about the saint.”
Emer gives no response to this. She makes no effort to nod and smile while others are speaking, or fill awkward pauses with chatter. Like talking to a stone, islanders say about her.
Niall skips over to them.
“Mammy, may I have my pig now? Austin says I can choose. I want a spotted one.”
“Where have your manners gone to?” Emer says. She often chides him in front of others, out of an attempt to appear herself. She is a different person altogether when they are alone.
Brigid winks at him. “What’s your name, handsome?”
“Niall,” he says. He has to say it twice, Nye-l, then spell it.
Brigid holds her hand out and he takes it. Emer has to quell the instinct to stop him, to prevent her son from touching her at all.
“Look at those eyes,” Brigid croons. Emer crosses herself quickly. Brigid notices, flicking her eyes quickly back to Niall.
“They’re a fairy’s eyes,” Niall says, mimicking what the islanders say about him. The outer ring is a cloudy, feverish blue, the inner area, around his pupil, as orange as a hot ember. Emer can be feeling her worst, cold and damp and scatterbrained and trapped, hating the island, Patch, her bright, smiling sister, her sullen, crippled mother, who divides her time between Emer’s and Rose’s houses, and she only needs to look at Niall’s eyes and the burning settles her right down.
Where he got these eyes, however, she can’t think about for too long or she forgets how to breathe. He didn’t have them when he was born.
“It’s only an expression,” Emer attempts.
“I have fairy ears, myself,” Brigid says, hauling her hair back to reveal a cold-reddened ear protruding a fair distance, slightly pointed at the top. “Wanna trade?”
Niall beams. This is the sort of teasing he is used to; the Yank wins him over instantly, and Emer isn’t sure she likes it.
“Mammy?” Niall nags.
“Go on and choose your pig, then,” she says.
Austin unties the sack and holds it open for Niall, who sticks his head and arms right down into the screaming pit. He emerges with his hands full of squirming pink and gray flesh and tucks it into the front of his sweater, crooning and stroking it until it settles against his small chest like a contented baby.
The men whistle and hoot at Brigid to get moving, they’ve loaded as much as they can onto the donkey and are carrying the rest. Niall joins the procession, walking next to Brigid. The piglet, a spot like coal dust around its eye, falls asleep. Niall twirls around and winks at Emer, daring his mother to follow them.
“What will you name it?” Brigid is asking. Emer walks just behind them.
“We’ll slaughter it come autumn.” Niall explains this kindly, a bit condescending, as if Brigid is a child and he is the adult.
“Can’t it have a name in the meantime?” Brigid says.
“You might name it Rasher,” Emer says. No one responds to this.
“How old are you, Niall?” Brigid says. He looks at her oddly, this is not the way they ask in Ireland.
Emer translates: “She wants to know what age you are.”
“I’m six,” Niall says. “Today.”
“Is it your birthday?” Brigid beams. Niall nods. “And I didn’t bring you a present.”
That’s when Emer realizes that her husband is not among the men hauling her gear.
“Where’s Patch?” she asks Austin.
“He’ll be along later, sure,” Austin evades her eye.
Not likely, she wants to quip. He’s at the pub and won’t be back for three days, not until his brother bodily collects him.
Niall has run ahead, but he circles back to bestow a curative squeeze to her hand. He knows what it means that Patch is not there, but it doesn’t bother him, beyond regretting that it bothers her.
“Were you named for the druid Brigid or the saint?” Austin calls out to the Yank.
“What’s the difference?” Brigid says.
“Some say there isn’t one.” Austin is flirting with her. He wouldn’t speak to her at all if Rose were around.
“The first Brigid was a druid goddess, daughter of the original fairy race of Ireland.” Austin, who finished secondary school, is showing off now. “The one who lived here was a Christian nun. Some think that it was one woman who changed camps when it suited her.”
“Even Britain is named after her,” Niall adds.
“I didn’t know that,” Brigid smiles politely. “But I think my mother just named me after this island. Because she missed it.”
Emer makes a quick gasping noise in her throat, a noise particular to island women, a noise that makes Niall look up and wonder what has his mother so peeved.
They make their way up the west road. Brigid is explaining to them how she wrote to the priest to say she was coming to live in her uncle’s house after Old Desmond died, but they all know this already. The priest’s housekeeper couldn’t resist such gossip and told them months ago. Desmond’s is the last cottage before the road ends, and only sheep paths continue up and around to the cliffs. The view from one side is of the open Atlantic; from the other, the house looks out on the mountains of Connemara and the neighboring island, Inis Muruach, which has four times the population, the priest’s house, a church, a shop and a pub and gets mail delivered year-round. No one has lived in this house in the year since Desmond died, unnoticed for long enough that the body had started to turn. He hadn’t spoken to another islander willingly in forty years. Emer watches for the Yank’s reaction as they get closer. The house looks no better than derelict, whitewash worn away to gray stone, one window broken into a circle of jagged teeth, thatch on the roof half–eaten away, wrens rising in commotion as they approach. When Austin halts the donkey in front of it, the Yank stops for a beat and blinks, but presses on, stepping over the fallen stones and crushed barbed wire of Desmond’s wall. The men mutter and apologize, prop the door open to let in the air, reassure her she’ll have it sorted in no time, unload her belongings and pile them neatly inside. They scurry off like startled mice, promising to bring down a load of turf, leaving Emer and Niall alone with the Yank in the house. It smells of damp that has been let to win, urine and the old, bitter man who died inside it. If she were that Yank, she’d walk straight back to the quay. She imagines she sees a dip in the woman’s broad shoulders, a weary release, as if the state of the place is a last straw. But Brigid puts her hands on her hips, which are square and strong on top of lean legs. She is almost as tall as the doorway, taller than most of the men who hauled her things up, though St. Brigid men are not strangers to being towered over by women. She blows a stray cluster of red curls away from her eyes. It bounces up and back like a live, opinionated thing. Her complexion is as bright and as varied as her hair, milk-white cheeks giving way to a wave of auburn freckles across her nose. She might be Irish, except for the teeth.
“Well, this is even worse than I thought,” she says, forcing a brightness, taking off the yellow jacket and pushing up the sleeves of her sweater. And though Emer hates to clean house, as her sister, mother and husband can attest to, she can’t really bring herself to walk away. Women are expected to do such things, just as the men were expected to load her things inside and take off for another chore. Emer suspects that it is no different in America. There is something about this woman—her resolve seems to border on desperation—that fires up Emer to help. She wants to see what she might do next.
Niall goes back outside to let the pig run around on the hill behind the house. Within a few minutes he has taught the thing to play a version of tag.
Emer and Brigid open three of the four windows, pick the last one free of broken glass. They sweep out the cobwebs and mouse droppings from the cupboard, clean the ashes from the hearth, and start a new fire with the turf Austin brings back in the donkey’s creel. For luck, Emer knows they should borrow from another fire to start it, but she doubts the Yank knows or cares about this, so she uses a whole box of damp matches that Brigid brought from the mainland to get it lit. Emer tells her how to bury the fire at night and dig out the embers in the morning so the fire will never go out and no more matches will be needed.
“My mother used to do that,” Brigid says. “There’s a chant you say, about Saint Brigid.”
“No fire, no moon, no sun shall burn me.” Emer’s recitation is quick and without feeling.
“That’s it,” Brigid says. She flicks her head, as if chasing away an unpleasant memory like one of her curls.
Niall comes in to check their progress. He has found a bit of rope and fashioned a leash for the piglet. It trots beside him happily, the screaming emigration over the water in a canvas sack wiped forever from its mind.
“What about Saint Brigid’s well?” Brigid says. “The holy well the island was named for. Is it nearby?” Brigid says this casually, but Emer can tell she is holding her entire self in check awaiting the answer. There is that feeling from her hand again, a pull, a frantic grab, though her face remains prettily detached.
She’s come for a miracle, then.
“The island was named for the saint, not a stream,” Emer says. “You’ll hear a lot of nonsense about what she could and could not do. But there’s plenty of wells,” she says. “You won’t want for fresh water.” Niall, who has been trying to get the piglet to sit on command, looks pointedly at his mother.
“Take that creature outside,” Emer says, to stop his tongue. They don’t share the well with outsiders. Not anymore.
She sends Niall out for ordinary water. He takes the job on like a game, cheerfully bringing them the bog-stained liquid and pouring the dirty buckets into the dike when they’ve used it up. If Brigid can hear his chattering, the back and forth of a half-invisible conversation, she doesn’t say so. Perhaps she thinks he’s talking to the pig.
Emer marvels at the groceries, luxuries they only see on a holiday: store-bought milk, butter and yogurt, white sugar in a paper bag, sliced bread and potatoes scrubbed so spotless they look bland. Rashers sliced thick and ready to fry. Chocolate, currants, soap wrapped like a gift.
“I guess I wasn’t thinking,” Brigid laughs uncomfortably. “I was expecting a fridge.”
“We haven’t been given the electricity like some places,” Emer says. She shows Brigid the low, dark shelf where she can store the perishables.
“I’ll bring you milk and butter until you sort out a cow,” Emer says. “You can buy mackerel from the lads at the quay. They set aside some before selling the rest on the mainland.”
Brigid nods and smiles, taking it in as if she’s lived on a remote island in Ireland before and it’s just a matter of remembering how to do it. There’s a tension to her smile since she asked for the well, a tight crack in her face.
“Are you from New York?” Niall asks when he whirls in again.
He has tied the pig outside and it squeals painfully for him.
“No,” Brigid says, “Maine.” She has to explain where this is. She ends up saying it’s above New York and below Canada.
“What’s it like?”
“Like this,” Brigid says, gesturing to the sea. “Rugged, rocky coastline. But with trees.”
“Like a forest?”
“Yes. We call it the woods.”
“Have you got fairies in it?”
“I used to make houses for them,” Brigid smiles warmly now. “Don’t you?”
Emer is glaring at him with one cold eye. Niall sees this and shrugs.
“Em,” he says. There is a pause where all they can hear is the pig still crying for him. And for a beat longer than is comfortable, Niall is gone. His pupils contract, making the fiery ring around them look larger. Emer darts toward him, alarmed, but it is over quickly, he pulls himself out of it, whereas often he needs to be hollered at, or shaken. Still, it is a few painful seconds before he speaks again. “We’ve tree roots in the bog,” he says, as if there was no pause at all. “They’re massive.”
Brigid smiles, but Emer can see that she noticed. Noticed his absence, and Emer’s reaction. She probably thinks he is simple.
Emer tells him to go outside and silence the pig.
“Is he your only child?” Brigid asks when he’s gone, and Emer sets her jaw.
“He is,” she says, ready to defend herself.
But Brigid only nods, as if this answer is acceptable. “You must have had him fairly young,” says Brigid.
“I’m twenty-three,” Emer says defensively. Brigid chuckles and shakes her head.
“I’ll be forty in February,” she says. Emer forgets for a moment to hide her thoughts, letting her mouth hang open in shock. Her own mother is forty-two and looks ancient compared to this tall, glowing, barely wrinkled woman.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Brigid says. “Are your children grown?” Emer asks.
“Haven’t had any,” she says casually, not even looking at Emer, as if she might just change her mind and start a family next week. But that smile again. So tight it has begun to quaver.
That’s what she wants the well for. The stories were that Saint Brigid used the water to heal sick children, or to revive barren wombs. The islanders guarded it, though there was no evidence that it still worked. Emer could discourage her. “They tried it on my eye,” she could say. “I lost it regardless.” But she holds her tongue.
Emer says she needs to go, so they walk outside. Brigid squints out over the view, the mountains on the mainland, the sea like a calm blue walkway pretending as though it never tries to trap them in rage.
“It’s beautiful,” Brigid says, but she doesn’t mean it. Emer sees it in her face, in the set of her shoulders. Looking at the sea brings her something other than peace. Emer sighs.
“What was my uncle Desmond like?”
“A bit touched,” Emer says. Brigid doesn’t need to ask what this means, like most Americans would.
“Did any of them come back?” she asks Emer. “Of my mother’s family? Anyone before me?”
“No one comes back here once they’ve gotten away.”
“Can you imagine a more desolate place?” Emer scoffs. Brigid raises her eyebrows.
“We’re to be evacuated,” Emer blurts. “The priest on Inis Muruach is trying to get the county to give us land in town. We’ll have new houses, council houses.’ She almost pulls out the planning sketch the priest gave her, which she keeps in her apron pocket, of the council houses, painted in cheery pastels, concrete paving around them. But she decides against it when she sees Brigid’s face.
“Sounds like you want to leave,” Brigid says. Emer shrugs. “We’ll be gone by the time Niall is seven, please God,” she says. “What’s happening when I’m seven?” Niall says, coming around the side of the house, piglet in tow. “Whisht, you,” Emer says.
Brigid shakes her head, as if she can shake Emer and her pessimism right off her like she does her curls.
“Well, I’ve come to stay,” she says. Emer says nothing. Let’s see how long you last, she thinks, with no phone, no electricity, no doctor or priest, no newspaper unless the weather permits it, and weeks on end with no contact whatsoever from anyone but the same people you’ve seen every day of your life.
“Mammy!” Niall calls. Both the Yank and Emer turn to where he is pointing.
A dog is crouching in the weeds to the side of the house, a low growl in its throat, the skinny red body arched as if to run or attack. “Mind that dog,” Emer says to the Yank. “It won’t take to anyone since Desmond died.”
“I’m supposed to mind it?”
“That means be careful of it. The lads drowned her litter before you came. Couldn’t catch herself, though. Too clever for death, sure.”
“How cruel,” Brigid says.
“You won’t say so after it’s bitten you,” Emer says. Just like a Yank, she is thinking. Fussing over dogs as if they are children.
“Sure, she’s only a mongrel who couldn’t feed her pups,” Emer adds, for Niall’s sake. Despite what he says about slaughtering the pig, he is on the touchy side about animals as well.
Brigid goes inside and comes out with a plate and two of the precious store-bought rashers. She puts the plate just below the stone wall. The pig squeals. The dog looks at the pig, then the plate, and growls low in her throat.
“That’s a waste of good rashers, that is,” Emer says. Niall laughs and jumps up and down, clapping his hands.
“You’re like Saint Brigid,” he says. “Giving bacon to the dogs.”
“She’s not taming lions, for pity’s sake,” Emer scolds.
“Thanks for all your help,” Brigid says. She has learned to direct her smiles to Niall already. He’s the one who returns them.
“See you tomorrow,” Niall chirps. Emer takes his hand. She has to pull to get him to turn away from Brigid and start walking home. The pig trots beside them, stumbling every once in a while on the uneven ground. Niall’s hand is in hers. She squeezes it lightly and rubs, milking the comfort. He leans briefly against her, and she allows herself a quick brush of her lips against his glossy ink hair. She mutters an endearment in Irish: Ta tú cuisle mo chroí, and he whispers it back. She never lets others see this sort of thing, but there’s no one watching now but the pig.
They walk the long way round the field to check on the sheep. Niall sings softly, as he often does while walking, to himself or to something else, Emer is never sure. The pig seems to join in, squealing and grunting in perfect rhythm.
The wind is gusting when they round the cliffs, and the pig stumbles. Niall picks him up, buttoning his sweater around it once more.
“I like the way she talks,” Niall says. Everything he says to Emer is a thread from one long, uninterrupted conversation.
“Do you now,” Emer mutters.
“Is Brigid our cousin, Mammy?” he asks.
“She’s not. Desmond was no relation to us.”
“Is she our friend, then?” he says hopefully. Niall hasn’t started school yet. When he does, he will be related to every child in his classroom. The concept of friends is as foreign as the Yank herself.
“Would you like her to be?”
“I would,” Niall says. “She’s lovely.”
Emer bristles, though she has been thinking the same thing.
Thinking how ruined she must look in comparison. “I’d say she’s fond enough of you,” Emer says. “Her smiles have frowns in them,” Niall says.
“And what do you mean by that?” Emer says, but she already knows. It was in Brigid’s hand as well. Emer couldn’t put anything bad into it, there was so much pain already there. Still, a charge comes off her, as lively and invading as the copper glint of her hair. Emer finds herself thinking ahead to tomorrow, and the next day, of the moments between chores that they might find a way to see her again. Chance a greeting from that fiery hand.
“Will you not tell her about the well?” Niall says.
“I won’t. And don’t you go blabbing it either.”
“Auntie Rose says it gives you babies.”
“Your Auntie Rose could do with a few less herself.”
The wind turns and assaults her with a whiff of the pig at her son’s neck.
“That thing is ripe,” she scolds halfheartedly. “And now you will be as well.”
“Sorry!” he laughs, letting go of her hand and running ahead to chase the sea birds. When he runs to the left, toward the cliff, he vanishes from her limited vision. Her neck grows tight and she yells for him to mind himself. She misses the days when she still carried him everywhere, bound to her chest with a woolen shawl, and she didn’t have to rely on her faulty vision for vigilance.
“Mammy, can I bring the pig in the house?” Niall says. “So he can sleep by the fire?” Emer grunts but knows she will let him. Her mother has gone to Rose’s house, and there is no sign of Patch returning. No one is there to remind either of them not to get too fond of something that will only be taken away.
Inside Emer’s mind, she still sees with both eyes. The image of Brigid’s bright new face burns there now. With the wind from the cliffs screaming memories into her ears, Emer can’t decide what she is feeling. There is a striking similarity between anticipation and dread.
From THE STOLEN CHILD. Used with permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Carey.