Before my mother died, she gave me two gifts.
The first was the gift of believing. She was the only one in the house who still kept the old ways and showed the Sidhe the respect that was their due. The others went to mass on Sundays and thought it was enough to keep their souls and their hands clean, but Mam knew better, she did, and she taught me the same.
The second gift was an iron ring. She called me to her one morning after my stepfather had gone off to work digging trenches. My sister Cathy was outside, doing God knows what. Eating grass, most likely.
“This is for you, Deirdre.” She opened a box and took out the ring. It didn’t look like a great treasure, I’ll tell you – more like a shackle made in miniature.
“It don’t look like much,” she said, “but it’s protection, you understand?”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway. She must have noticed the fool expression on my face because she shook her head, clicking her tongue against her teeth.
Her face was so gaunt that when her brows raised or her mouth twitched, you could see muscles working under the skin, hollows opening up and closing again. There were times when I found it difficult to recognize her. She’d been strong once, a tall, raw-boned woman with a smirking mouth and startling grey eyes. Now only the eyes were the same and they stared out from a skull covered with a thin parchment of skin. I was grateful to have sold our only mirror, for I’m certain the Famine had worked this devilish change on me too, making a living girl into a deathshead.
“Look at it, girl,” she said, sighing.
I looked. There were runes etched along the ring’s edges. I couldn’t read them, but tracing my finger over them, I felt as if I were absorbing their meaning into my skin: a warning and a charm. “Stay away,” they said. “These ones are not for you.” The words were meant for the Sidhe, the elder ones who lived below the mounds and never showed their faces except in the gloaming hour when shadows reached across the fields like black hands. The etchings gave me a chill, although perhaps that was just the wind seeping in through cracks in the walls. I heard it murmuring outside, a mournful sound, full of grim forebodings.
“The Old Folk are the least of our problems,” I told her. “We’ll be lucky to keep ourselves fed through the winter.”
“Aye, perhaps so,” Mam said. “Likely that is true. But when trouble comes, it brings its sisters. There’s a sickness on the land and with it, the Old Ones will stir. Best you wear that. Keep it close.”
The ring wouldn’t stay on my bony fingers so I pushed it down onto my thumb. My skin tingled against the cold iron.
“Good.” Mam sighed, although whether it was with relief or exhaustion, I wasn’t sure. “You’re a good girl, Deirdre. It’s comfort to think you’ll watch over Cathy.”
Cathy was only nine years old, though she looked younger than that. She was hungry all the time now and had no energy to play as she once did. Even if she had, most of her little friends were gone or dead.
I narrowed my eyes at Mam, disliking her tone. “I watch her, yes, when you’re busy.”
“I’ll be at rest soon,” she said.
“No.” My eyes filled with tears. I buried my face against her chest – taking care, though, not to hurt her. She was frail now, a bundle of twigs wound together with twine.
Her hands brushed over my hair. “Now, you must be brave. I don’t see any way passed it, unless the Lord sees fit to send a miracle and why should He do that for me, seeing as so many others have suffered the like? You’ll take care of Cathy.”
Of course, I would. I always had. It seemed odd for her to ask it when Joe, my stepfather, was with us. He was a good enough fellow, not given to drink or the sort of rabble-rousing that put the landowners in a fury. He was the sort who tread along like a plow horse, not minding the blinders over his eyes.
“And me?” I said. “You’d leave me?”
She frowned, her forehead furrowing. “What choice do I have? Tell me, how many days has it been since I was able to stand? To walk? You have eyes to see, girl. You know which way this road is going.”
I clutched her hand in my own, trying to warm it. “You could fight. You don’t need to just…accept it.”
Her face cracked open in a smile, then she coughed. “Alright, darling. As you say. I’ll fight. But if something happens, you’ll kept to your promise.”
“Say it for me.”
“I’ll take care of Cathy.”
“And what’ll you do with the ring?”
“Wear it. Keep it close.”
“Good girl.” With painful effort, she raised her head from the pillow and drew me into a weak embrace.
I held her and all I could feel was how cold she was, like that strange iron ring.
“Best you fetch the priest, if you can,” Mam said.
On the way to Father Murphy’s, I found Cathy sitting by the edge of the road. Sure enough, she was plucking at what grass was left and stuffing it into her mouth. She slowed down at it when she saw me coming, but it didn’t stop her none. I’ve eaten grass myself and I’ll tell you, it may be good enough for sheep and cows and the like, but it gives little satisfaction to beings of the human persuasion. For one thing, it takes a lot of chewing and the swallowing never feels entirely right, not even if you try to crisp the leaves into little cakes. Still, it’ll put something in your stomach when hunger is stabbing at your guts and for that, it could useful.
“Where you goin’?” Cathy said.
“’Where are you going?’ I think you mean. Speak proper like they taught you in school,” I told her.
There hadn’t been any school for Cathy for more than a year. Families started pulling their children out when the potato crops went bad and after that, the schoolmaster went back east, for he couldn’t make his rents and didn’t mean to die in this backwards, half-savage end of the country.
She stuck out her tongue at me. “Where are you going, then?”
“For the Relief,” I lied.
Of course, if I were to go to the Relief Office, they wouldn’t have given me a damned thing but natter on about how I ought to be good and provident and how the work committees were going to teach us fool Irish the meaning of work. They’d redeem us all, sure enough, even if it killed us, and all the while, they kept taking food from the estates, sending it back to Britain.
I went down the road, walking slow-like to keep the dizziness at bay. My joints ached like I was an old woman and when I was about half-way there, I had to rest against the side of a tree, my fingers clawing at the rough bark to keep myself standing. The world reeled around, drunk cartwheeling, and I thought I might spew my guts, but there weren’t anything there except spit, sour as vinegar. I closed my eyes, breathing in and out, trying to slow the thudding of my heart. At last, the land settled itself and I found my feet again, taking one step, then another, down the rutted dirt road.
At last, I brought up Father Murphy to hear Mam’s sins and draw the sign of the cross on her forehead with holy water. She choked on the communion wafer, so the priest called me in and I wet it for her, until it was soft enough to swallow. It was the most food she’d had in days.
That night, I woke to the sound of wailing outside. Cathy dozed beside me, her hot face crushed into the pillow. The keening didn’t disturb her or my stepfather neither, but from across the room, I could see the ember light of Mam’s eyes, glinting in the dark. She heard it too, the cries of the banshee singing her death sentence.
The next day, we woke to find Joe standing hunched over their bed. He’d wrapped in Mam’s stiffened body in the bedsheet to keep Cathy from seeing.
“Poor soul,” he said, rubbing his hands into the hollows of his eyes
Her body was so slight under the sheet. It was hard to believe that body had brought me and Cathy into this world and three other babies besides, who’d gone early back to the earth.
“She wouldn’t eat.”
“She was mighty tired,” he said. “Now she’ll sleep.”
I didn’t mention how I’d seen her awake last night. I didn’t mention the banshee’s shrieks, the sound of her fingernails scraping against the walls.
“They’ll be missing me at the works,” my stepfather said. “I’ll go down, see if I can offer my excuses, but they don’t look kindly on men leaving, even for family matters.”
I nodded. The Relief Office only cared about one thing: whether you were there, digging their ditches or clearing their roads to nowhere. If you weren’t haunting the works, they’d dock you, whether you were picking your toes or fighting demons in company with the archangel Michael and his flaming sword. None of the fellows in the Relief Office had mothers. They were hatched out of crocodile eggs and ate their brothers and sisters.
When Cathy woke, she saw Mam’s body under the sheet. There was no hiding it from her. She started to cry and that set me weeping too. I grabbed her tight, trying to squeeze the tears out of her like I was wringing out a wet rag.
“She’s in Heaven,” I said. “It’s foolish to cry.”
Cathy gazed at me, dubious. “Heaven — with Siobhan and Mrs. Finnegal and Sam?”
Siobhan had been her best friend from school. Mrs. Finnegal had been the widow lady down the road. Both had passed on during this year’s hunger. Sam was Cathy’s pet terrier, who’d died after a kick from an ill-tempered horse.
“Yes, with all of them.” It was best to humour her, though I doubted Mam would want to be in Heaven with Mrs. Finnegal, old busybody that she was, or for that matter, Sam, who’d worn on her last nerve with his yapping.
I dabbed the tears from Cathy’s cheeks and wiped the snot dripping from the end of her nose. Soon, she tired herself out with crying.
“Do you want to go back to bed?” It would be easier for me to fetch the gravedigger if I knew she was asleep and not getting into trouble.
Cathy slumped on the pillow, her eyelids drooping. “I’ll lie down, but not sleep.”
“What are you going to do?” I didn’t like leaving her alone with Mam. It wasn’t right, but I couldn’t see any way around it.
“Pray for Ma going to Heaven.” She folded her hands together and closed her eyes.
I lingered at her bedside, watching the steady rise and fall of her chest. When I was convinced she was sleeping, I went to get the cart man and the gravedigger. They wouldn’t take her to the churchyard no matter how I pleaded.
“It’s too full. There’s no more room.”
“There’d be room if she were rich,” I said.
“Could be, but nobody ’round here is rich. We all go to the same dirt in the end.”
That might be so, but there was a difference between consecrated ground and mass graves on the heath. In a time of health and plenty, they never would have contemplated shoving God-fearing people all together in a shallow hole and placing naught but a great stone atop it to keep the dogs out. Yet that’s what they’d been doing. That’s the burial they gave poor Mam. They rolled her body into a pit alongside the corpses of a half dozen other wretches who’d starved that week.
Old McInerney, the gravedigger, didn’t keep the old ways either, so he’d put the graves near a hemlock grove, a cursed place if ever I saw one. Like as not, he thought he was doing a clever thing, since none of the landowners were wont to pasture their animals in such places.
The flocks didn’t like it there. The magic of the Sidhe pulsed in the air, souring the taste of the grass, spooking them with visions of wolves. They sniffed out the danger right away, even if they couldn’t give it a name, but men rarely heed the wisdom of sheep.
With Mam gone, I spent all my time thinking about keeping the rest of us clean and fed. The drudgery of day-to-day work kept me from falling apart inside, as I might’ve done, as I might’ve liked to do, had I the leisure. I thought I was doing well in living up to the tasks Mam had set me, but I spent more time with the washboard than I did with Cathy.
One evening, I managed a supper of cabbage stew, a princely meal by my estimation, but Cathy didn’t appear at the table.
Joe eyed her empty chair. “She’s asleep then?”
He’d come back from another day working on the roads and he looked as if he might drop at any moment. I went to the other room and checked the bed Cathy and I shared. The sheets were rumpled, but she wasn’t there.
“Must be outside playing.” I didn’t want to think about other possibilities. “Best I go get her.”
Joe started up from his seat. “I’ll look as well. She can’t have gone far.”
I waved my hand at him. I didn’t want him getting sick out there and unable to work. “Sit yourself down. Eat. I’ll find her soon enough.”
He slumped down, giving a heavy sigh. No doubt he was glad to be off his feet. “Alright then. Be careful.”
I went outside, searching the yard and the bushes. No sign of her. I checked along the road where she liked to sit, but I saw only a robin redbreast perched atop the stone fence. It tilted its head at me, as if it were going to tell me a secret, then changed its mind and flitted away.
It wasn’t until I’d checked the church pews and the market square and all of Cathy’s favoured hiding places that I grew certain of where she’d gone. I dreaded where the searching would lead me. Mam was dead and Cathy wanted to pray for her in Heaven. What better place to do it than kneeling beside her grave, even if it was in unconsecrated ground, on land too wild for tender creatures?
Mist draped itself over the hemlock grove. It was the gloaming hour, the time when shadows stood upright and walked like men, when frogs sang chimchirree and crickets played their jig.
Cathy sat near the turned earth where Mam was buried, in the center of a ring of clover. Motes of light danced around her like dandelion wisps. I covered my mouth with my hands, holding in a gasp. Mam had warned me of faery rings, but Cathy grew up with only tales of saints and angels. She’d never thought to watch her feet, to be mindful of whose land she treads.
Cathy’s eyes glimmered with tears. “I’m sorry. I wanted to come back. The circle hugs me. It won’t let me go.”
“It’s not your fault. I’m here now.”
I tried to think back on the stories Mam told me about faery rings catching unfortunate travelers, but all the tales I recalled ended poorly. What the Sidhe won, they didn’t like to surrender. They’d been cheated of this land once, long ago, and so they’d plotted a hundred ways to revenge themselves upon the race of men who’d so betrayed them.
“Mam’s here,” Cathy said. “Not in Heaven.”
I blinked, all my schemes dissolving. “Her body’s buried here. Her soul is with God.”
“But, look…she’s sitting right there.”
Cathy pointed towards the hemlock grove and my eyes followed her finger. The mist drew back like a velvet curtain and shapes grew from gaps in the trees.
People were coming from the forest, approaching a table set for a feast. As they neared, I began to recognize their faces. There was Siobhan, as small and thin as the day they’d buried her. There was Mrs. Finnegal, her wool shawl draped over her head. There were others too, all so starved and wretched it hurt my heart to look on them, and then, at last, I saw Mam.
She shuffled to the banquet table and sat among the others, taking no joy in the sight of us or in the lavish banquet in front of her.
Someone gave a loud cough, clearing his throat, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“Welcome. You weren’t invited to the feast, but you may join us nonetheless.”
A man appeared from a plume of mist, sitting cross-legged in an enormous throne at the center of table. His face shone with the wild beauty of the Sidhe and his eyes were black, showing not a glimmer of light. On his head was a silver crown and in his hand, a carving knife. A prince of the People, I thought, and a powerful one at that.
“You look upon me strangely, starveling,” he said. “It’s fortunate you and your sister found this glade of mine. You are little more than skin and bones.” He gestured to the roast pig on the table. “Come. Dine with me.”
I felt the heat of Cathy’s eyes upon me. She’d gone hungry all day long and now there was so much to eat.
“Can we?” she whispered.
The food looked delicious, corn-on-the-cob and stewed carrots, roast pig, Cornish hens and mutton pie, steam rising from it all as if it came fresh from the oven. A tantalizing smell wafted into my nostrils and drool crept to the corners of my mouth.
I gave a hard swallow. Mam had warned me against taking gifts from the Sidhe. “No, thank you, sir. I’m here to get my sister. We have dinner waiting at home.”
The prince laughed. “A dinner of what? Grass?”
“No. Of stew.” I hoped that might give Cathy a little heart. Best not to specify it was cabbage stew, however, or she’d lose hope altogether.
“That sounds lovely,” he said. “Unfortunately, I fear your sister won’t be home on time to sample it. She seems to have stumbled into a trap of some sort. Poor thing. Perhaps, human, if you take her hand, you could draw her out.”
“I’m not daft.” I said. “I know a faery ring when I see one.”
The prince cut into the roast pig, serving himself a slice. “Do you? I’m impressed. Where did they teach you that? The education of mortals seems so woefully inadequate nowadays.”
I glanced at Mam. She stared down at her empty plate. “My mother taught me.”
The prince peered down the table at Mam, then went back to heaping his plate with food. “A fine woman, no doubt, but you’ll notice that hasn’t kept her from my table. There’s a reason your human priests are so particular about where they do their burying. Land ownership is no laughing matter.”
“I told them not to bury her here. They didn’t listen.”
The prince yawned. “Hm. Can’t say I’m surprised. In any case, since your mother is here and your sister is here, why don’t you join us? It could be a family reunion.”
Before I could answer, he stretched out an arm and curled a beckoning finger, summoning a group of Sidhe from the mists. A faery fiddler struck up a tune, while two others took up a harp and a drum. The rest began to dance and so nimbly did they go that their feet barely stirred the grass.
They circled Cathy, edging the boundary of the faery ring. She gazed at them, her eyes shining, her lips parted in wonder.
I feared one of them would grasp her hand and draw her into the dance and more than that, I feared she would welcome the invitation. We were running out of time. The longer we lingered here, in this place between worlds, the harder it would be to escape.
I turned to Mam, my eyes boring into hers, searching for some counsel. Surely if anyone could help us, it was she, yet she seemed listless and at times, I wondered if she might nod off amid the festivities.
Her hands twined together atop her plate – a curious motion, I thought, as she’d never been the fidgety sort. She seemed to be rubbing at the ring finger on her left hand.
I remembered the iron ring on my own finger. She’d called it protection, but it hadn’t kept Cathy from the faery ring. Perhaps its power only worked in close quarters? But that would mean I would need to approach the feast, a risk I was loath to take.
I looked back at Cathy. The faery dancers wove and spun around her. They tossed garlands of strangling ivy ’round her neck and shoulders and threw sparkling handfuls of gems at her, which she gathered into her pockets. If I did nothing, they would have her soul for all time. I knew what I must venture.
I smirked at the prince, hands on hips, pretending an impudence I did not possess. “Not a dancer, are you, my lord?”
He cradled a hand behind his ear, as if unable to trust his hearing. “Excuse me?”
“Your subjects are decent enough at dancing, but I doubt you have the talent, the way you stay fastened to your seat.”
No sooner had the words escaped my lips but the prince sprang from his seat, vaulting over the table. He turned a handspring upon the grass and bolted up in front of me, his handsome face gone to rot. His skin was gray as dead leaves. When he opened his mouth to speak, his teeth were like rusted nails.
“You dare challenge me, daughter of man? I am the Prince of the Hollow Glade, the Elf Knight of the Fallow Lands. When it comes to the dance, none can outmatch me.”
My knees knocked together. I clenched my hands into fists at my sides to conceal my trembling.
“Show me then, if you say it’s so.”
The Prince’s face composed itself back into a mask of unearthly beauty.
“Very well.” He walked towards the dancers as if to choose a partner from among their number.
“No,” I said. “Show me.”
He spun around, looking at me if I were nothing more than a gnat.
“Such presumption. You believe yourself a worthy partner? You’re so frail one turn on the floor would break your bones like twigs.”
He was right, most likely. If my plan failed, if he claimed me and sent my body whirling across the glade, it was likely he would dance me to death.
“I’m hardier than I look.”
He stared at me for a few moments, his eyes narrowing, seeming to take my measure.
“You are bold, girl, and boldness will not be denied.” He leaned forward and held out his hand with a courtly flourish. I clasped it, touching the iron ring against his cold fingers.
The Prince looked down at the ring pressed against his skin. His face blanched. A tremor ran through his entire frame. I felt the magic humming through my veins, rattling through my teeth, a song chanted beneath the sawing of the fiddle and the steady beat of the drum.
He spoke from between clenched teeth. “Betrayer.”
I gave his hand a hard squeeze. He cringed at the pressure. “I betray nothing. I owe you no loyalty.”
“Let me go. I am the Prince of the Hollow -”
“Only if you give me my sister, Prince of Nothing.”
“Done. Have the brat. I don’t want her.”
“And let my Mam go.”
He hesitated and I pressed his hand again. He howled as the magic seared into his skin.
“Very well. As you say.”
“And the others too – you’ll let them be. You’ll let them rest.”
“But I need -”
“What you need is a good slap. Shall I give it to you now, where your minions can see?”
The Prince eyed the dancers, who had stopped their revels and were assessing the scene with curious eyes. Doubt crept into his face.
“I am a merciful prince,” he said. His voice came loud and full of bravado, issuing a proclamation. “In light of…new revelations, we will end our feasting for this night. Those who wish to sleep may return to their slumber. We shall not waken these ones again.”
The fiddler frowned at him. “But, your Magnificence, your Munificence…”
The Prince glared back. “But nothing. Am I not your lord? Do you not owe me fealty? Do not presume to question me, sirrah. I can cut your hamstrings just as quickly as your bowstrings, then I promise you will find no joy in the dance.”
The dancers stood stone-still as the dead rose from the feasting table. The departing mortals walked in a row, heads bowed, hands folded together before them, as if they were taking communion. Yet, despite this show of deference, their eyes gleamed with triumph. I swore their downcast faces hid exulting smiles. They filed past me and as they went, each gave a sign of acknowledgement, of gratitude: some nodded, some patted my shoulder, some murmured a quiet thanks.
When it was Mam’s turn, she came to a full stop, taking my free hand in hers. “You did well. I’m proud of you, girl. Don’t forget it.”
She looked to Cathy. “Goodbye, dear heart. One day, we’ll be together again. I promise.”
Cathy’s eyes welled with tears. “When? How long?”
“A long time for you and but the blink of an eye for me. For now, keep yourselves warm and fed and stay far away from these places where the world becomes threadbare.”
I took her warning. We should never have come here. Should we ever return, the Sidhe would be ready. They would be avenged for this humiliation.
Mam turned, following the others to the hill of turned earth. They took hands, forming a ring around the grave. Colour drained from their ragged clothes, then from their flesh, until their bodies melted into the long shadows of twilight. The wind rustled through the grass and even the shadows dissolved.
The Prince’s gaze burrowed into my skin like a splinter. “You have what you wanted, mortal. Release me.”
He’d sworn to do us no harm, but I worried his banqueters might find a way to slip free of such promises.
“Send your people away first.”
The Prince looked to his court. He raised his fist in the air. “Scatter now, like leaves to the wind. Come again when I call you.”
His fist opened, releasing withered white petals to the breeze. The feasters flew back to the forest. As they went, their white tunics and gowns turned grey as unwashed linens, then a funeral black. A hundred sparrows came screeching out of the treetops. They swooped low over Cathy and me, then reeled across the sky in a great wave that seemed to blot out all light.
“Now,” the prince said. “Release me.”
I hesitated, still fearful. Taking a deep breath, I released his hand. I bolted back from him, so quickly I tumbled onto the grass behind me.
The Prince chuckled, a mirthless sound. “Such distrust will serve you well in the days to come.”
“What do you mean, ‘the days to come’?”
“You have slighted me and my kin. There will be a time of reckoning.”
He glanced at Cathy. “You won’t forget the dance, will you, child? The music will always echo in your ears, wherever you wander.”
I glowered at him. “Don’t talk to her. Run back to the woods and pour some ointment on your grubby mitts or I think those burns are going to scar.”
The prince scowled, giving a sniff of disdain. For a moment, his glamour fell away again and I glimpsed his fish-teeth, glazed with blood. “Scurry away now, mortal. The darkness rises and this land is no place for your kind.”
His hand sliced through the chill autumn air. Green fire danced on his fingertips and roiled through his hair. It consumed him, even as he grinned at me, mouth slavering blood. The banquet table folded in on itself. The tempting food rotted, until it looked to my eyes like nothing but blighted potatoes turned to muck. At last, there was only the night, stars cold and distant above us.
I ran to Cathy, hugging her to my chest.
“They’re gone,” she said. “We can go home.” I didn’t like the hint of disappointment in her voice.
I grabbed her hand, dragging her up to her feet. I strode in the direction of the road, tugging her along with me.
“We can’t ever go back there. Never again. You understand?”
“I mean it, Cathy.”
She sounded bored. It was as if she thought she knew more than me. I turned and seized her by her scrawny shoulders, shaking her hard enough to rattle her teeth in her skull.
“You better damn well listen. You don’t play with the magic. Those things aren’t your friends. They want to dance you into your grave. Next time, I won’t be able to stop them.”
Cathy stared at me and I couldn’t tell if it was fear or defiance in her face.
I loosened my grip on her shoulders. “What do you say?”
“Thank you,” she said. “You came. You didn’t leave me.”
“I’m your sister.”
She glanced down, looking bashful, and planted a kiss on my cheek. “You are. I won’t forget.” As she drew back, something rattled in her pockets.
Cathy reached into one of them, feeling around. She drew out a handful of something.
We gazed down at the small stones cradled in her palm. Even in the dark, they sparkled, hard and bright as tiny stars. My jaw fell open at the sight.
“Treasures,” Cathy said. “Like in the stories.”
They looked like precious stones, but it wasn’t until we came back to the cottage and beheld them in the light of morning, that I was able to confirm it: rubies and emeralds, gems such as we knew only from tales of faraway places.
They’d be our salvation, our best escape from this devouring land, but they scared me too. Misfortune hides in ill-gotten treasure. Nothing comes without taking a price. If the price isn’t clear, it’s probably because it’s steeper than you ever imagined. Mam’s tales had taught me those lessons too. Had our condition been less dire, I might’ve heeded that instinct. As it stood, my mind swam with visions of the food we might buy, the new life we might have in lands where the Sidhe never danced in twilight glades.
After a month of scraping and scrabbling, me, Cathy and Joe climbed aboard a creaking monster of ship and sailed across the ocean to Lower Canada. I spent much of the voyage staring at a map of the place, all that land stretched out over water like a flayed hide. Folks said it was miles and miles of snow and rock and crooked trees, but there was wheat and corn enough for everyone who didn’t go mad with the cold. So many of these places had been named after fancy cities of the old familiar world, as if that would make them easy to know, safe for us intruders. Folk could pretend if they liked, but no land comes new and clean, without bones in the earth. All the same, I was glad the Prince and his kin were far behind us.
We settled in Montreal. Joe found work in a factory and I stayed on, taking in laundry and keeping house for him and Cathy, until I married. I found a good man by the name of Daniel Sullivan. He’d never set eyes on the old country. I didn’t talk about it with him or the children, except to say they weren’t missing much. It was a lie, but it kept me from wanting a past that was dead and buried.
I didn’t see as much of Cathy after Joe remarried. She grew up beautiful, as I never was. She had plenty of suitors, prosperous fellows even, but there was something strange about her, a distance that kept receding even when you tried to draw near.
Cathy was good at saying the right things, but you’d find yourself doubting as soon as you turned your back on her. Sometimes I’d come upon her when she thought no one was around and she’d be humming a melody I wished I could forget. Sometimes I’d find her and she’d be gazing off into a realm beyond the cobblestones and the tolling of church bells, a place that shouldn’t have followed us across the sea. Sometime she’d tap her foot, like someone was fiddling far away.
I ran into Joe in the street, one morning, and he said Cathy had made off West to a place where the rivers flowed with gold.
“I was hoping she’d settle down hereabouts with that banker fellow,” Joe said, “But then, she never liked the snow.”
I shook my head and bit my lip, trying to hold back my irritation. He shouldn’t have let her go. Joe had never been any good when it came to discipline and his new wife was a sickly sort whose afflictions seemed to multiply by the hour.
“How did she afford to go so far?” Cathy never had a job, so far as I could tell.
Joe shrugged, as if the question had never occurred to him.
“Can’t say as I know. She just packed up and lit off. I wouldn’t have even known where she was going, if it weren’t for the note. Awful strange thing, that. It’s at the house, if you’d like to see it. She mentions you.”
I went to the house he shared with the new wife – only for the note, not for their hospitality, which wasn’t much at the best of times. They kept offering me tea and I kept saying no, until, at last, Joe brought out Cathy’s letter.
It was short, but it took time to read because Cathy’s scrawl tangled together all flowery.
To my remaining family,
Upon much consideration, I have chosen to go to California to meet my fortune. They say the West is wild and if so, it will suit my purposes well enough.
I am sorry not to say goodbye in person. I was afraid you would try to stand in my way. I did not want our last words to be an argument. If there is time, I will endeavour to write again upon arriving in San Francisco.
Tell Deirdre not to blame herself. It wasn’t her failing, but mine. Nothing drowns out the music, so one might as well dance. Nothing sates the hunger, so one might as well sit down to eat. The Feast calls me and so long as I live, it’ll never be done.
If you don’t understand, be glad of it. If you do understand, please try to forget. By the time you read this, I will be far away. Do not follow.
With love and regret,
My heart sank. There were tears in my eyes, hard and shining as gems. I bowed my head and blinked them away, folding up the letter and casting it aside.
“Peculiar, no?” my stepfather said. “It’s her writing, sure, but otherwise, it don’t sound nothing like her. This country – I think it turned her head, put queer ideas in her.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “All we can do now is wait for her letter. With any luck, it’ll have an address.”
Part of me knew it was false hope, but I wanted to believe there was a chance she’d change her mind. I looked at the iron ring on my finger. I should have given it to Cathy long ago, but I’d always put it off, not wanting to be parted from my mother’s last blessing.
Of course, the letter never came. Perhaps Cathy truly had intended to send one, but nowadays, I think it’s more likely she did not. It was a way to placate us, to soften the blow as she slammed the door behind her.
It was hard to get news from San Francisco. What little I gleaned told of bar brawls, of fortunes won and gambled away in mere weeks, of people from distant lands lured by gold and the promise of freedom, though how much they got of either and what they traded for it were beyond my knowing. Every time I read a news clipping of a woman shot in a saloon, a woman cut up by an angry john, a woman drowned and washed up on the beach, I wondered if it were Cathy, but there were rarely any names and the names were always the wrong ones. Her fate may have been cruel, yet I doubt it was so simple. The Sidhe have ways beyond the knowing of men.
There are times now when I stand on the porch, ready to call the children inside for dinner, and the world loses focus for me. Dusk washes over the street and I enter another country, where music plays at the edge of hearing and shadows stand and walk upright, holding out their hands as if to draw me into a dance. I clasp the iron ring on my finger, my body quivering. It’s then that the children come to me, as if my distress rang loud as a shout from the porch. They take my hands and lead me inside, to our own safe table.