There are many evenings when I sing for the town.
Cleaning and deboning the fishermen’s hauls nauseates me and crops unfailingly drown under my hand, but I excel at singing and it is a skill to which I cling most fiercely.
The island has only one pub. It is a place of warm wood and well-trod floors and sturdy furniture worn smooth from the touches of countless bodies. Before I arrived, Maebh says, the sweetest songs came from the mouths of weary sailors swaying over their glasses. She claims her own voice is too old to be sweet, but it rings true and clear nonetheless. And the church choristers, she says, do not count because there is a place for everything and the place for hymns is not a pub.
Maebh has eyes like abalone and lips so bitten by wind and her own worrying teeth that her smile is a crimson crescent. She has been teaching me the clàrsach, but I am as slow to learn the chords as I am quick to learn the melodies.
“That,” I say, when she finishes strumming through a song about two unfortunate sisters, “is a very sad fairy tale.”
Maebh is looking at me askance with a little twist to her red mouth. “But it isn’t a fairy tale.”
“I do not understand.”
This is something I say a thousand times a day. If the townsfolk have tired of it, they are too polite to let on or I am too daft to notice.
“Oh yes,” says Maebh. “The story is quite real, though it’s never been written down to the best of my knowledge. If it were a proper book, you might divide each section into its own chapter. Part the first: the sisters, which would tell of the two of them growing up together, selling poultices and herbs the way their mother taught them. Part the second: the suitor. This, of course, would be all about the newcomer choosing the one over the other. And so on from there, you understand.”
“And so on from there, yes,” I say.
I think about the two girls walking along the cliffside, and about how the younger sister went over the edge with her skirts and apron billowing around her and her scream stretching like a ribbon behind them all. This is not a part of the song, but I can surmise the elder sister went back inside to finish her sewing and never shed a tear for what she had done.
Sister Brigid has removed me from the gardens and suggested I might find myself better suited to something else.
The fishwives mend nets every day and often the novices will assist, since it is the fishermen who keep the island alive. My hands are clumsy at knitting the holes together and the scent of salt and brine has my heart humming like a zealously plucked clàrsach string.
The novices all blend together, a strange school of fish clad in drab dresses the color of the sky before a storm.
Eithne’s sharp elbow startles me. “Do you ever wish you were a kittiwake?”
Her thoughts seem not to be on her mending either. I follow her gaze. In the distance, kittiwakes perch on the cliffs and peer at the sea, occasionally diving at it and arising with silver bounty in their beaks. I do not wish to be one; there is something profoundly unsettling about the idea of forever spearing through the air and only ever skimming the surface of the waves.
“It wouldn’t be a bad life, would it?” Eithne asks.
Eithne has no family. The abbey takes in orphans for the sake of their betterment. “What were you before you came here?” I ask. Like most, Eithne is accustomed to my habit of avoiding answers and supplying my own questions instead. The difference is, unlike most, she seems to welcome it.
“Oh, somewhere between death’s door and the gates of heaven.” She grins. “That or the other place. Truth be told, there’s not much to tell. I had a mother who died, a father who went to sea and never came back, and a brother who left me with the abbey because we were living on pig slop and milk we nicked from the neighbors’ farm.”
“And you remember it all.”
“That I do,” she answers, deftly knotting off a piece of twine. “And I’ll be the first to tell you there’s nothing to envy about it.”
“If you please,” I say, “I should like to hear more.”
Her laugh is unexpected. I am not known for eliciting laughter. “You don’t remember a thing but your manners, do you? That leaves you a sight better off than most. All right, then. Here’s the time Fachtna got it into his head to try selling stones at the market, which went about as well as you’d expect.”
Until suppertime, I drink up Eithne’s mud-soaked history. Far away, the kittiwakes soar and plunge.
For days after my arrival, I would eat nothing and had to be coaxed into doing so, like a baby.
Niamh the midwife has more patience than any of the saints Sister Brigid has ever taught me about and a repertoire of curses more exotic than any sailor’s. “You were slender as a reed,” she says. “Hour after hour I sat with you, swearing you must eat something or there’d be nothing left of you at all.”
No one can say for sure who found me first. William and Áine, who come from the family of lighthouse-keepers, have no report of anything peculiar during the night, nor do any of the fishermen in their lonely boats recall seeing me in the early hours of the morning. Liam the ostler and Moira the shepherdess both swear they spotted me stretched on the shore where only moments ago there had been nothing at all, but by the time they reached me a crowd had already gathered.
Perhaps, like the drowned girl in Maebh’s song, I drifted like a swan for a long time before being seen at all.
“No one mistook you for a swan,” Niamh tells me. “Now for God’s sake, stop your bloody dreaming and get to work.”
I listen, of course. I have nothing to offer aside from speculation and Niamh has no time for it. There is yarrow to be hung and chamomile to be dried and raspberry leaves to be crushed to bits.
Niamh is colorful company, and she keeps me too busy for my thoughts to bother me. She is not one for conversation the way Eithne is, nor is she one for songs like Maebh, but everything she shares is vital. I have learned how to hold a newborn’s head, how to cleanse it until the blood sluices off its small pink body, how to swaddle it and rub it warm while Niamh tends to the mother.
“Hush,” I tell it, while it screams and screams. Niamh says this means a child is healthy, but I hear only loss and terror. “Hush. You are here now, there is no helping it. You are here and you are well.”
Saying these things helps little, but I know something of how it feels to leave a place you long for, even if you are too raw and new to understand why.
The sea is something from which we take. There is no giving. The island lives by virtue of the sea, by hauling it in nets and hacking through it with oars and pillaging its depths for more and more, always more.
The men sometimes speak of me in laughing tones, but never to my face. “Docile as a lamb, isn’t she? How much else d’you suppose she can be trained to do?”
Perhaps I am docile. I sing. I dry and administer herbs since there is no water to muddle me. I mend nets. I eat cooked meat and dry bread and train my body to accept it all and remain still even while encased in whalebone. I smile tolerantly when the fishwives tease me about the lighthouse-keeper’s eldest son with hair as bright as the beacon he tends.
Every night, I have my very own narrow bed in a room in a room filled with narrow beds. Sleep comes easily, but not without a cost. The novices have trouble meeting my eyes in the morning, all except Eithne. “You make the strangest sounds in your sleep, Colleen,” she laughs, and offers to plait my hair so it lies neatly beneath my bonnet. I would take a knife to the whole tangled lot of it if left to my own devices, but there is a strange comfort in keeping my head covered.
"Do you dream often?" Eithne asks, and I shake my head even though I have been taught that lying, like vanity, is a sin.
I dream of songs to share with Maebh so she can accompany me on the clàrsach, and I dream of stories to tell Eithne to pass the time, and I dream of working by Niamh’s side to take in all the knowledge she imparts. I dream of swimming until there is nothing from horizon to horizon but sea and sky commingling, blue upon blue.
And I dream of the cliffs and the kittiwakes and two sisters standing side by side. “Push me over,” I say. “I will not drown. Push me over and I will etch my name across the sky and sink like a stone, but I will not drown.” But the other girl never does. She only reaches out and and tugs my cloak around me so tightly my vision shimmers into a flurry of sparks. I wake up gasping with the sun in my eyes and my name unspoken.
Perhaps there exists a version of the same story, but in reverse. Suppose, in this story, the girl was not pushed into the sea to drown, but pushed out of it to live.
I suppose that is what I am. And if I am not, I suppose I could be.