“Aisling?” Brendan looks up from his slate, following the sound of Aisling’s voice. She’s somewhere above him, in the trees, but the mid-summer leaves are thick and he can’t make her out among the branches. He gets one knee under him, ready to stand up and go look for her.
Aisling pokes her head over his shoulder. “What are you drawing?”
“Aisling!” The slate slips out of his startled fingers, and he scrambles to catch it, smearing the chalk. He’s never going to get used to the way she moves, soft and quick like an animal, here one moment, there the next.
She waits with her arms crossed, eyes narrow and impatient. Brendan gathers himself, and looks down at the slate in his hands before turning it around to show her. Some of the lines have spread out into dusty gray smears, but the sharp angles and deep scowl of Abbot Cellach’s face are still easy to make out.
Aisling tilts her head to one side, matching the drawing’s scowl with her own. “He’s not allowed in my forest. Where is he?” She looks up at Brendan, sharp and suspicious, and then sweeps the forest around her with her eyes, as though she expects to spot his uncle skulking behind a tree.
“He’s back at Kells. He’s not here, he’d never—“ Brendan almost stutters, surprised by the question.
That seems to be enough for her. She nods once, chin high and imperious. “He’d better not.” The next moment, she runs off into the trees. Her white clothes and hair and skin vanish into the patch of sunlight she stands in as she stops to look back at him. “Come on! Come on, Brendan!”
He gathers up his bag for collecting oak galls, his chalk and his slate (smearing his uncle’s face more against his robes), and hurries off after her.
Aisling crouches down next to a dark hollow in the ground, its opening formed by the twisting roots of a massive tree. She looks down into the darkness and then back up at Brendan, her green eyes shining.
He finds his way carefully through the bumps of roots and drifts of leaf litter to kneel down with her by the hollow. For a long moment, he can’t see anything in the darkness under the roots—and then his eyes adjust and he sees other eyes looking back at him.
“Woah!” He falls over backwards from his crouch. Aisling shushes him.
“They won’t hurt you.” She scoots closer to him, the better to see down into the hollow—the den—and pulls her knees up, wrapping her arms around them. “They know you’re my friend.”
Brendan sits back up, a little frightened, but the sounds from the den stay soft and unthreatening. They’re quiet, high-pitched, helpless baby sounds, and he takes a chance on peeking in again.
The mother wolf stares back at him, even and incurious, her black coat fading into the shadow of the den. Four round-bellied pups squirm against her, nursing, young enough that their eyes are barely open.
Brendan glances sideways at Aisling, intending to share a (little bit nervous) excited smile with her. Instead, his smile fades.
He’s never seen Aisling so still and quiet. Her eyes are on the pups, her arms still wrapped around her knees, and her expression is distant and lost. It reminds him of his uncle’s expression when he stares out at the wall and says nothing for long, long minutes, when he seems to forget Brendan is in the room with him, or of Brother Aidan’s expression when he talks about Iona and then trails off into silence.
There is nothing in this life but mist, Brother Aidan says, when he breaks those silences, and his usually young eyes look old.
Aisling’s eyes look old.
“Do you think she’ll let me draw them?” Brendan asks Aisling, pulling out his chalk and his slate, to interrupt the strange, sad quiet.
“You can draw people who aren’t there.”
Brendan finishes up the last lobe of the oak leaf he’s drawing. “What do you mean?” He frowns and scrubs the leaf away with his sleeve, getting chalk dust all over his robes. No good. It’s not quite right.
“I mean—“ Aisling dangles by her knees from the next branch up, her long hair falling down past the branch Brendan is sitting on “—you can draw people even if they aren’t there.”
He twists his head sideways in an attempt to meet her eyes right-side up. “What?”
“You drew your uncle. But he wasn’t in my forest. And you draw Pangur when she’s not there.”
Pangur drops down onto Aisling’s branch from further up in the tree and trills, hearing her name. Aisling flips back upright to crouch and stare at Pangur. Pangur stares back, tail twitching. Aisling always wins these staring contests, but Pangur doesn’t seem willing to admit that.
“Oh.” Brendan puts his slate down in his lap. “Yes. I can draw from memory. Sometimes. I can’t draw Brother Aidan from memory.” He really should be able to, but something about Brother Aidan makes him hard to catch without looking at him. “His face is too hard.”
Suddenly Aisling’s sitting on his branch, out further towards the end, watching him. Pangur mews, surprised to find herself staring at thin air.
“Draw my mother.”
Aisling is intent, as serious and focused as he’s ever seen her.
“I want you to draw my mother.”
He tries. Every few days, between drawings of leaves and weeds and trees and Pangur and the clouds over Kells and the fat pigs in the mud and the smell of grass (which comes out in sharp green curlicues edged with yellow), he tries to draw Aisling’s mother.
Aisling is not much help. “She looked like me,” she tells him, stamping her foot, impatient with him for having to ask again. “Everyone always said we looked just the same.”
He asks who everyone is, and she goes very quiet. He goes quiet, too, aware that he’s asked something he shouldn’t, and concentrates on drawing the beetle crawling across his knee. When he looks up again, Aisling is gone. It’s three days before he sees her again—unless he counts catching glimpses of a white wolf far off in the forest.
He draws Aisling over and over, asking her to hold still and then giving up on that as impossible, making do with asking her to at least stay where he can see her. He gets her hair right, and her eyebrows, and her elbows, and her small, sharp, quick form. Her eyes are harder, but he thinks he gets them right enough, after a lot of practice.
“That’s me,” she says. “That’s not my mother.”
“You said you looked just the same.” He’s teasing her, and she knows it. She sticks her tongue out at him.
“She was bigger,” she says.
Brendan sighs, and takes his latest drawing of Aisling home. He copies it out on the floor under his bed, hidden from the view of the other brothers. He studies it and tries to imagine what Aisling would look like if she were older.
He hides in corners of Kells and sketches mothers and daughters. Some of them look alike and some of them don’t look alike at all.
When he has time, away from Brother Aidan and his uncle, he draws Aisling taller, with fewer angles and more curves, her eyes taking up less of a leaner face. He shows Aisling the drawings.
“No,” she says.
“Just tell me what she looked like!”
“I can’t.” She frowns at him, unhappy and angry. “She looked like me.”
For the first time, he wonders if Aisling’s memory works the same way a human being’s does. Or maybe she just lost her mother so long ago she can’t really remember her at all.
He tries drawing his own mother, secretly, two times. He doesn’t remember her, and the drawings look like him with long hair. He gives up, red with embarrassment.
Finally, he gives up drawing Aisling’s mother, too. Aisling doesn’t complain, though now she always looks over his shoulder when he draws people from Kells. When she does, her eyes are distant and sad, almost the same as when she watched the wolf and her pups.
The last time Brendan sees Aisling as a boy, when the North Men come, she seems very far away. Her eyes are the same, and the color of her pelt is the same as the color of her hair in her girl-form, but she is not the same. She pushes the last page of the book to him, silent in the snow. The North Men lie dead behind him, and the scents of blood and wolf hang heavy in the air.
He follows Brother Aidan deeper into the forest, hugging the torn Book to his chest, and the trees feel old and alien and watchful.
This is how Aisling stays in his memory—a part of the forest, further from him than even Crom Cruach or the North Men. They were monsters. Aisling is something else.
Sometimes, as he grows up, he dreams of wolves. Some are black and some are white, and they run, run, run through his dreams. The black wolves scatter and dissolve into blood-red ink and then into nothing, and the white wolves chase each other, in circles and whorls and loops, grabbing onto each other’s tails until they form a spiraling chain that goes back forever, back into before he was born and before Brother Aidan was born and before his uncle was born. Back into the time before Kells.
He never sees Aisling, only her eyes. The wolves all have her eyes.
When he wakes up, he always turns to look for Brother Aidan in the dark. He thinks about the stoop of Brother Aidan’s back and the lines on his face, and he thinks about his uncle and Kells.
There is nothing in this life but mist. Maybe Brendan’s expression in the dark looks like his uncle’s when he looked out at his wall or Aidan’s when he talks about Iona—or Aisling’s as she watched the mother wolf.
“Aisling!” He yells after her as she runs off into the forest, a white wolf with green eyes, flowers blooming where her paws touch the ground. He laughs as, just for an instant, he sees her as a girl again, just the same as she was when he met her.
Then he comes out of the forest and sees Kells for the first time in years. He wasn’t sure he’d ever find it again. He looks back behind him.
He pats the case with the Book, at his side, and heads down into Kells.
Three days later, when he’s had time to speak with his uncle and with everyone in Kells who used to know him or wants to know him now, when he’s had time to learn that there’s still a place for him here, he goes back into the forest.
It’s summer, and the forest feels exactly like it did when he was a boy, before the North Men came—bright and alive and full of green and light and things to see. Pangur’s granddaughter walks by his feet, stopping to sniff at insects and flowers. She looks almost exactly like her grandmother, and he bends down to pat her. The same eyes, the same white fur, the same haughty loyalty.
Deep in the forest (but not too deep—he’s not ready to lose Kells again, not so soon), he finds the standing stones he first met Aisling in, as a boy.
Smiling, he pulls chalk from the pouch at his side and begins to draw on the center stone. He runs through his first stick of chalk and has to pull another from the pouch before he finishes.
He steps back to look.
A wolf, drawn life-size, just larger than the black wolves of the woods, its outline filled in with the shapes of other wolves, curled and intertwined so tightly around and against each other that, from a distance, they look like a field of solid white, filling in the large wolf’s outline.
He nods to himself and puts his chalk away.
As he starts toward Kells, Pangur’s granddaughter darts up onto his shoulder, her puffed-up tail in his face as she stares back at the stones. He plucks her off of his shoulder, holding her as he turns to look, himself.
A white wolf stands below the center stone, looking up at the chalk drawing.
He doesn’t hear the words. He feels them in his mind.
The wolf turns her head, and her green eyes meet his.
Thank you, Brendan.
The wolf disappears, gone from sight in the blink of eye. The chalk drawing glitters for an instant, its lines sparkling green and then dulling to white again. Somehow, he doesn’t think the drawing will disappear in the next rain.
Whistling, Pangur’s granddaughter stalking along behind him, her tail and the fur on her spine still bristling, he heads back to Kells.