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. From the scent clotted rose bed Honor paused in her work, studied the dog and whispered, ‘the girls are returning.’ Like the flight of a bird my spirits rose and I followed her gaze to the mountain, then back to me and we smiled. This time we were ready. She turned back to her deadheading, me to my wine, but a cool breeze had blown in from the forest and everything was different.
The family comings and goings are marked always with one form or other of storm. 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. This kind of thing happened sometimes. It wasn’t the girls fault. They couldn’t help what they were and the town’s people 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, and it would, 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, grey morning mist morphed into swirling clouds as if stirred by an angry invisible hand and the wind cried with bone chilling eeriness.
We worked calm and fast to batten the hatches, greenhouse, garden, animals, house, nothing new. Marius was our concern, driving in these conditions and still a few hours away. We were close and much more; you might call it, attuned to the elements than regular folk, we had invoked protection from the cailleach’s wrath, but there was a good chance he wouldn’t make it.
All we could do now was wait, we stood, the old aunts, Ellen and Mae, my twin Honor, our nieces and me. My chest tightened with pain at the waiting, the silence, and what we must do. What were they thinking I wondered? 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. What if he wasn’t there, hadn’t made it? And what if he was? Were we doing the right thing? But without so much as a glance for us or each other, Mae and Ellen, like gladiators meeting the crowd, 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 Rory and I led Liadan out and down the treacherous steps to the lane and their father there waiting.
We turned for Devlin, 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. When we got to the top we stopped, turned, and we watched them. ‘There go the roses,’ said Ellen.
As the car pulled away Liadan and Rory looked back at us. 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 Devlin 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 send and to wish them away when we needed them with us so badly. ‘Safe away 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 Devlin, for you must understand, this was not the first time, it had all happened before.
When Devlin 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 Devlin and her sisters away. We were losing again.
Making my way through the airport I thought how quickly the years had come in. In many ways it seemed only yesterday, my sisters Honor, Caer, and me, had been the young sisters. 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 Devlin. 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, sometimes from out in the world for our help. Charms, cures, curses, though we don’t deal in curses any more, that’s in the past.
Caer had left with a man who’d come from Cadiz out of interest for a book he was writing on healing traditions of Europe. Marius had the openness and sensitivity of an artist, 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 Devlin, only Devlin makes it worthwhile for all of us.’
‘I agree of course but I can’t help it, look at him, he’s beautiful, he’s crazy about her. I envy her escape.’
‘But 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 wistfully. ‘Strength I suppose, she’s been through the fires but, she’s still strong.’
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I muttered, kicking over a basket. ‘Stronger than our mother was, stronger than we are. How often were we told 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?’
‘Oh I wouldn’t say nothing,’ said Honor, she had a flair for mystery and I wasn’t satisfied yet. I wanted assurance or something. And 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. Would she take the quest? Could she? Did I even want her to?
‘Well that tells me a lot. The quest abandoned, and after everything we did. You’re not forgetting?’
‘Forget? she said glacially, how could I forget?’
We worked on, seeking solace in the black earth, peace for the peace less. 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, it was meant 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.
A First Novel by Jane Gilheaney Barry
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Writer Bio: Jane Gilheaney Barry is a Writer, Pr, and curator of the popular That Curious Love of Green blog. She is currently editing her first and has started a second novel. She also dabbles in poetry and paint, and hosts free creativity boot camps as well as an online creativity salon.
Formerly 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 12,000 people who follow her creative exploits, inspirations, and novel writing journey. She also contributes regularly to online magazine Rebelle Society. Jane lives in her home town of Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Ireland, with her husband and three children.
First Novel as yet unrepresented/unpublished.
Genre: Irish Magic Realism/Contemporary fiction drawing on Irish Mythology.