Summer was passing us by, growing heavy. I was in the garden with Honor, too many butterflies, too much gravity, and a cool glass of wine, when the black dog came shuffling up the lane with the sky on his back. The girls are returning,’ she said. I followed her gaze to the mountain, this time we were ready. She went back to her deadheading, me to my wine, but everything was different.
On the day the girls came, dark clouds rumbled low in a gunmetal sky from the dawn. Dark things to come I thought with interest as I gathered some interest myself among the throngs at Dublin airport. I’d been standing, hands on hips, my face turned to the maelstrom above.
Ten years before we had sent them away. It was after Bilberry Sunday when the people had turned on them. It wasn’t the girls’ fault. They couldn’t help what they were and the townspeople couldn’t help but take their chance for rage when it came along. A combination of fear and need is a difficult one.
It wouldn’t have lasted of course. They’d never drive us out, not that we could go. We were tied to that place as the mountain itself and with the wisdom of ages we knew, when modern medicine failed them, when they couldn’t find comfort or cure, it was back to us they would come, eager for the charms, the healing herbs, the water, and the hands.
Ours was a last chance saloon for many and no one would forget it soon, but Aunt Mae had been right. There was no need for the young girls to suffer it. Their time here would come soon enough and the mountain would have its way, but not yet. We sent for their father.
As light broke on the appointed day a grey mist morphed into swirling clouds, as if stirred by an angry invisible hand, and the wind cried with bone chilling eeriness. Marius was a concern, driving in these conditions and still hours away. We’d invoked protection from the Cailleach’s wrath, but there was still a chance he wouldn’t make it.
All we could do now was wait, the old aunts Ellen and Mae, my twin Honor, our nieces and me. My chest tightened with pain for the waiting, the silence, and what we must do. The clocks struck one. ‘It’s time,’ said Mae. We made our way through the rooms, a quiet determined procession, while all around us the house creaked and swayed as an old ship forlorn for the parting. Living here I often imagined like living at sea, though none of us had ever seen the sea. I thought too of the difference, a ship is free.
In the hall the volume of elements rose and the temperature dropped along with my resolve. Was this right? What if he hadn’t made it? But like gladiators meeting the crowd the aunts heaved and threw open the door. In rushed the darkness, the stinging rain, the monstrous wind. I was aware just a moment of so much hair, jet, gold, slate and vermillion, fill the air, then fall in waves of slow motion. But there was no time to lose in dreaming. Honor led Dea and I led Devlin down the treacherous steps to the lane and their father there waiting.
We turned for Dara, tight lipped and pale as a changeling but steady and coming alone. Looking up to the house, the mountain above, the sky on top, it felt as if any minute the whole lot might come crashing down. No words were spoken and the handover was swift, brutal. What could any of us say? We stepped back to the wall, back up the stone steps, like sentries who know the drill well and are weary of it. And we watched them leave. ‘There go the roses,’ said Ellen.
As the car pulled away Devlin and Dea looked back. It had comforted them to see our calm exteriors illuminated in the doorway, and they watched for as long as the forest would let them. We didn’t move or bow our heads. We were used to the storm, to that life in the shadow of the mountain. I supposed that Dara heard the sound as we did, that she steeled herself against it much as we were doing. She was strong for her age and not once did she turn around. I admired her grit. Someday she was going to need it, we all would.
We watched the car as it slowly snaked the road, sometimes visible, sometimes only the lights through the forest. Once we knew not only that they’d made it down but that they’d crossed the bridge at town we invoked the elements into a banishing.
For how long we wondered? Not forever we knew, but our hearts were still broken. It was a strange thing to wish them away when we needed them with us so badly. ‘Be safe little birds,’ said Mae. The air was still now.
After that was a hard time for us and for Honor especially but life soon went on as before. We were strong enough, two sets of two sisters, Ellen and Mae, Honor and me. But it was a terrible thing to lose the girls and especially Dara, because you must understand, this was not the first time. When Dara was one year old we had stood in the same place watching her and her mother, our sister Caer leave. And now by choice we had sent her and her sisters away. We were losing again.
I thought how quickly the years had come in. In many ways it seemed only yesterday, my sisters Honor, Caer, and I, had been the young ones. Sometimes I’d forget Caer had been gone from the mountain for 26 years, had been dead 18 years. Honor and I were ‘the aunts’ now. Not the old aunts perhaps, but at this rate it wouldn’t be long.
Twenty six years since Caer had left with baby Dara. She was the first McCleary woman in living memory to leave for good, maybe the last. We knew we’d never see our sister again, but we understood that after all she had to go. We, Honor and I stayed on at our mountain home, minding the farm and the people as the women of our family have done for generations.
We are Bean Feasa, wise women sisters, healers, or witches. It depends what you need, it depends who you talk to. People travel from across the country, even from out in the world for our help. Charms, cures, curses, though we don’t deal in curses now, that’s in the past.
Caer had left with a man who’d come from Cadiz in Spain out of interest for a book he was writing on healing traditions of Europe. Marius was one of those rare people you don’t meet very often, secure in his own skin, a free spirit. He was balm to her brokenness. He had seen in her eyes the destruction and pain and found that he wasn’t afraid; he wouldn’t break himself against it. From the first moment he saw her he knew he’d never love again.
At the time Honor had said, ‘Caer has all the luck.’
We were working in the garden. There’d been a glut of crops that year and it took a lot of saving, our backs were sore, our baskets heaving.
‘You can’t be serious?’
‘I’m only serious about the fact she gets two great loves, and gets away from here.’
‘Three great loves, said I, you forget Dara, only Dara makes it worthwhile for all of us.’
‘I know but I can’t help it, look at him, he’s beautiful, he’s crazy about her. I envy her escape.’
‘Even so, how can she do it? How can she leave us?’
A pained look passed over her face. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Strength I suppose. She’s been through the fires but she’s still strong.’
‘Yes I know,’ I muttered, kicking over a basket. ‘Stronger than our mother was, stronger than we are. How often did we hear that growing up?’
‘You’re worried about the quest? Of what will become of us weaklings without her?’
‘I know life goes on but her time on the quest is done, a Bean Feasa can’t practice with pain in her heart, you know this.’
‘I seem to manage.’
‘You’re only bitter, it’s hardly the same!’ We laughed at that.
‘What about the child? She will come back one day, won’t she?’ Honor nodded, ‘One day.’
‘So is there nothing we can do now except wait? Rot?’
‘Waiting is so long… I wouldn’t say nothing,’ said Honor. She had a flair for mystery and I wasn’t satisfied yet. I wanted assurance or something. I wanted her to tell me that our time wasn’t done, our chances gone. After all it mattered more to her than it did to me but I was just as bound as she was. Would she take the quest now? Could she? Did I even want her to? I pushed her;
‘Well that tells me a lot Honor. The quest abandoned, and after everything we did. You’re not forgetting?’
‘Forget?’ she snapped, ‘how could I forget?’
We worked on then, seeking solace in the black earth, peace for the peaceless. You could find it there sometimes, but forget? You could never forget. I was sorry I’d said it. In truth I was more content here than she was, this fate, it wasn’t so difficult for me. Our sister’s laughter came to us in waves, languorous as the air itself.
‘Maybe she can make it,’ I suggested, I meant it as encouragement, as hope.
But without pause she replied, ‘My envy of escape and love are foolish, for strong or not there’ll be no escape for her, and maybe no escape for us.’
‘Why? What have you seen?’
‘I’ve seen nothing, It’s too hot now, I’m going in.’
Honor hadn’t seen a future for our sister, though at the time she didn’t tell me, and yet, for all of that, still she envied her.
Porto, Portugal, 1974
Dear Honor & Erin,
I’m writing to tell you the news that Dara and Devlin have a new little sister. I’ve called her Dea, The dawn of a new circle.
Dara remains the one. I miss you both but we’ve made a good life here. Sometimes I see groups of women and it fills me with such nostalgia. I miss that in my life, aunts, sisters, allies. I miss other things too, things I never thought to miss, like the stiffness of the heather as it holds its ground against the cold north wind, the winding lanes of fuchsia, the scent of the pine, the colours of the mountain. I even miss the rain.
Here Porto’s all faded grandeur, blue, white, and the sea. The scent is one of salt and heat and something else that is strange to me. I don’t know what it is, but the sense of freedom is intoxicating.
We eat bacalhau, a local fish specialty, and drink port wine and Mateus rose from the villages. We walk sandy beaches, buy fresh fish from the boats that dot the port, and looking up we marvel at the bridges over the Douro, the colourful houses that cling to the rock, and we laugh at the sun…. To be continued…
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A First Novel by Jane Gilheaney Barry
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Author Bio: Jane Gilheaney Barry is a Writer and Curator of lifestyle and creativity blog That Curious Love of Green. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel. She has also written and will publish her first eBook this year… ‘A Complete Coming Out Guide for Creatives in Hiding.’
In a past life Jane worked as a model and pr before starting her own Public Relations and Business Consulting practice. For eleven years Jane led a ground breaking traditional performing arts company she founded along with her siblings. She designed and delivered four major arts projects worth a combined investment of over 750,000 euro in Ireland’s North West region.
In four years of blogging Jane has attracted a loyal following of over 20,000 people who follow her creative exploits, inspirations, and novel writing journey. Jane lives in Co Leitrim, in the North West of Ireland, with her husband and three children.
Status: First Novel as yet unrepresented/unpublished. Approx 90,000 words. Finished. No professional edit yet.
Genre: Modern Gothic, Psychological Thriller, Irish Magic Realism, Metaphysical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Magic Realism drawing on Irish Mythology.
All images are my own.
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