Once there was a man who was unhappy. His wife was dead, her body was lost in the sea. But that was not the reason why Malachy Kinnane was unhappy.
He sat at the head of the table in his kitchen watching the dead logs in the fire collapsing in on themselves. The chair to his left was empty. He had asked Rose Hanlon to sit there, but she had refused. They had all refused.
The table was sweating with the wings and legs of roasted birds, and the wheels of bread that Rose and Nellie Hayes had brought; Tommy Larkin and Johnnie Malone had come with bottles of wine and of whiskey. Malachy would be eating for a week as soon as he could get them out of his house.
The eyes of his guests swung back to that empty chair like the tongue that returns to a hole where a tooth had been. But they were looking at him too. No doubt of that.
He felt the prickle of them on his skin. Their eyes on him. Seeing how he was taking it. His gestures were measured. The drop of his head. The slump of his shoulders when he thought no one was looking. Was he drinking too much? Was he drinking enough?
They would offer their sly kindnesses. Nellie Hayes would go through Eimear’s things if he was too upset. Rose Hanlon would bring food over and check the contents of the presses while she was at it.
And the talk? The hissing whispers after Mass. In the shop. Over tea. After a pint or two. Relentless. Spawning other stories, in other places, over other drinks, with the glance around and the lean in.
Nellie Hayes was still watching the empty chair when she started telling the story about the time Eimear came down to the shop, with blood on her face.
‘I told you before—Eimear fell going down the hill on the ice,’ Malachy said.
Nellie shrugged, ‘But imagine, she didn’t pay any heed to the blood pouring out the top of her head? She was some woman.’
Malachy shivered. They were remaking the dead. As always. Knitting the flesh of words back on their bones. The coward would be wise, the angry man an idealist, and so on. Recast from finer stuff, in an endless stream of stories that comforted the living. When they died, they too would be remembered and remade.
Malachy never liked it. Let them be. Do not call the dead from the ground.
He shivered again. It had crept in with the wind under the door. The smell of her. Fingering him, trailing around him. He sniffed the air, trying to find the stink of her, from her dress on the side table, the cushion from the chair she had sat on.
The wind was rattling the slates on the roof.
His guests had stopped speaking. Tommy Larkin scraped his blade against the knuckle of his tobacco. Johnnie Malone’s shadow twisted and pawed at the wall as his hand reached towards the bottle for another fill of his glass.
Tommy Larkin said, ‘Eimear was a lovely quiet girl all the same.’
Malachy heard the hail of her fingers on the windowpane.
‘It’s only the branches of the oak tree on the glass,’ Rose said.
The clawing of the branches against Malachy’s heart made him shake. He drummed his fingers ever faster on the table.
‘Jesus, Malachy, will you quit it? You’re scaring the life out of us,’ Johnnie Malone laughed. He pulled his chair closer to the fire.
Nellie Hayes was telling about Eimear and Batt Lowry one time after Mass. Batt had been pushing this story on everyone about his uncle George who died in Canada. But Eimear had just looked at him, and said nothing. Finally Batt had run out of juice and left the church grounds altogether. No one had ever stopped Batt in his tracks.
‘She was a lovely quiet girl,’ Tommy Larkin said, sucking wetly on his pipe. Malachy shuddered.
He saw the roundness of her face at the window.
‘It’s only the harvest moon rising,’ Rose said, but she pulled the beads out of her bag.
Eimear Kinnane was so cold. She was hunkered down by the hen coop at the side of the house, peering around at the door.
She thought Malachy would be alone. But by the time she reached the house, they were already arriving. Bringing him gifts. So she waited. Watching the dance of orange light from the window.
She would walk to warm herself.
She would go in.
She settled back against the wall, pulling the thin cloth of her borrowed dress around her. The wind had picked up again.
Malachy’s moon was so large, fevering in his head.
‘She was a lovely quiet girl all the same,’ Tommy said.
Malachy heard a bird dying in the yard.
The hens were loud. Maybe Malachy hadn’t fed them. Maybe they knew the smell of her. Eimear kicked the wire behind her with her heel. Their round squawking filled her ears. Someone would hear.
She kicked the coop again. The birds were smashing their wings against the wire. Turning the wooden handle, she lifted the sagging end of the gate so it did not scrape against the gravel. With one eye on the door she shooed the hens out of the coop. Let Rose Hanlon or Nellie Hayes bring Malachy his eggs in the morning. She smiled at that.
She felt the downy head of one of the chicks brush against her ankle like a kiss. None of them had left—they were waiting for food. A tiny beak nipped her bare foot. Their noise grew louder.
Someone would hear.
She reached down and picked up a chick, more fluff than flesh, the bones of its leg tiny in her fist. Her eyes never left the door. She held the body close and warm in one hand. Its head lay soft in her other. She turned it. Gently. Gently as the world turns or an idea turns—in and around on itself. Until her hands separated and she held the chick’s head in one palm and its heart in another. It was easy. She laid them both on the ground beside her, and took another chick. They were so loud.
She did not hold them gently now. She turned her back from the door. Reached for them. One, two at a time. Crushing them in her fist. Wrenching each head from the body.
Then the frenzy of it left her, and she breathed easy again. She stood in the yard, oblivious to the coldness of the wind now, staring down the slope of Malachy’s fields to the sea.
The moon was a blade on the water.
Malachy opened the front door and stepped out into the yard.
Eimear stood before him with blood and feathers on her hands. His thoughts thrashed about in his head. She’s-dead, she’s-not-dead. She’s-dead-not-dead.
I’m dreaming, he thought. His teeth clattered. Nellie Hayes and the rest of them had raised his wife’s ghost from the dead with their words.
Then the crowd was standing behind him in the yard, beside him, in front, moving towards her. Eimear did not stop looking at him. She wiped her fingers off a dress that Malachy did not recognise.
Their voices swarmed around her. Hands touched her shoulders, her head, her arms.
She was a fruit picked apart by birds. Her eyes never left his face.
‘For God’s sake, bring the poor woman inside!’ Nellie Hayes said.
With the light on her, they all fell back a bit. It was Eimear all right, but she seemed a little bit leaner, her hair a shade darker, the curve in her jaw a little sharper, her nails a shade longer. The more they looked, the more unreal she seemed to them. As if they had never seen her before. But they knew it was her, they knew it was Eimear.
She saw the table sagging with food and drink, the lit fire and abandoned glasses and, although Tommy Larkin stood in front to block her view, Eimear saw too the narrow table by the door with her own white dress laid out on it. She walked past him, towards the table. The dress lay flat, the arms folded across each other on the lap. She ran her finger along a lace sleeve. Eimear looked at the lifeless dress on the table and she wondered for a minute if they were right.
If she was dead.
If she was visiting her house for one last time, before she passed on to the other side.
She felt like crying for the part of Eimear Kinnane that lay dead inside that dress on the table. But she felt too the cold creep from the flagstones up her scratched and tired legs. And the ache in her back. And the fury in her. So she did not weep.
‘It’s bad luck to wake the living,’ Johnnie Malone said to his glass.
‘What happened to you, Eimear?’ Nellie Hayes said.
Eimear felt hot. They were looking at her. She felt like her tongue was too big for her mouth.
‘What did you think happened?’ her throat was closing in on itself.
Their faces were bright, puzzled.
‘We thought you had fallen,’ Tommy Larkin said.
‘Thought you were out walking,’ said Rose Hanlon.
They looked at Malachy, like children.
‘You were tired,’ Malachy said.
The neighbours looked at each other. Tired was a good word. Malachy’s arms twined around Eimear, pulling her into him. Smothering her body in his. He pushed out dry kisses on the top of her head.
‘So was that what happened?’ Nellie Hayes asked.
Eimear felt the swarm of their eyes on her skin. They were touching her, handling her with the carefulness of their words. But Nellie could never control herself. She was dropping glances at Rose. She made herself smile at them.
‘I don’t remember,’ Eimear said.
‘I must have been walking,’ she said.
‘I must have been tired,’ she said.
Nellie nodded. She rubbed Eimear’s shoulder. Smiled. Exchanged another look with Rose. Eimear felt the rod of Malachy’s arm against her back.
She didn’t think she could look at him, but she did. She forced herself to look at him, as if she’d never seen him before. As if she was tired. As if she had been walking. As if she had not been waiting outside of her house for the last hours.
‘But you should rest now,’ Malachy said. His fingers snaked around her own.
The crowd sighed. Disappointed. The night was cut short. But it was not every night that a woman came back from the dead, and there would be plenty of time for talking on the way back down to the village.
She could not have him touching her any more. Eimear’s tongue was enormous in her mouth, and strange to her, as if it had never known how to move or to say a word. It was important that she say a word.
Eimear reached for Nellie Hayes. Took the older woman’s hand.
‘If we cannot have a wake,’ she said, ‘let us have a party.’ Her lips were sticking together. She was hot. She felt Malachy’s eyes burning on her, but she did not look at him.
‘Hear, hear!’ Johnnie raised his half-empty glass to her and drained it.
‘I am a little tired though,’ Eimear said, ‘I would like to sit.’
Tommy Larkin gestured to the seat beside Malachy’s. ‘Sit down here in your own chair.’ She smiled at Tommy but sat instead in Malachy’s seat at the head of the table.
Malachy wedged himself into the smaller chair beside her.
‘Husband,’ Eimear said, and Malachy felt her voice vibrate through him, pushing in the cavity of his chest. ‘I am hungry. Will you give me the goosemeat on your plate?’
Malachy felt the eyes of the others on him as he gave his plate to her. He watched as she took his knife with the bone handle and put the point of it into the flesh of the goose, slicing the meat and the sinew away from the bone. She left the knife back on the table, and she took the meat in her fingers. She ate the skin and the flesh and the fat. She sucked the meat left on each bone slowly and dropped it on the floor when she was done.
‘Will you fetch me another plate?’ she asked.
Malachy piled again his plate with meat and returned it to her. So it went until a ring of bones on the floor circled her chair and her chin glistened with the grease of the goose she had eaten.
‘I’d like to tell a story,’ Eimear said.
Rose smiled and loosened her grip on her beads. Tommy’s black nails happily worked his tobacco into the bowl of his pipe. Johnnie poured himself another drink.
‘Let’s be having you then, girlie,’ Tommy said, and he leaned back on his chair.
‘Once there was a man who was unhappy,’ Eimear said. ‘Every morning he took his father’s boat out and went fishing. Every day he drilled seaweed into the grey soil his father had passed down to him. He nursed his sick lambs. He pulled his sheep out of the ditches in his fields. Every night before he went home to his wife, he watched those fields gleaming black in the moonlight and he wished from his deepest heart for a son.
‘The routine of his life used to comfort him. The living. The dying. The trees bursting with fruit. Their shiver in winter. Now his apples rotted and festered in the grass.
‘But the seasons passed and his wife gave him not son nor daughter. Without a son to pass his farm to, what was the point in the endless ploughing, and pulling, the shearing and seeding?
‘Each spring was now an enemy. Each spring became another to be endured. Another start of another growth. But he and his wife getting older with each flowering, each ripening, each falling, each dying.
‘Every night he carried his disappointment back to his wife who waited for him at the window. She would lie beneath him, as he emptied himself into her. She would feel the weight of his farm on her. Feel the press of the soil between his shoulder blades. Until it seemed to her that he did not walk on the soil, but already lay under it. Under the weight of it.
‘She would rise after, as he lay slumped, blind in his sleep. And she would look at the moon. She would pick at the tightness of the skin on her belly, as she watched the swell of the moon. She would pick and pick at herself, until the skin burned under her nails as she looked at the moon that grew fat when she did not. She hated the fatness of the moon.
‘She told herself she would conceive. But each month the moon grew large, and then her blood came. She came to hate the blood and the flesh that had failed her. The belly that would not carry her child. The breasts that would not feed her child. The arms that would not hold her child. She hated the flesh that could not make her child.
‘She ate less. She smiled less. She cried less now. Her tears had turned to salt in her sockets.
‘Then one night as she looked at the moon and she picked at the flesh on her arm, a flake of her skin came off in her hand. Transparent as the moonlight. Floating slow past her to the floor.
‘At her second touch, another layer of skin fell from her. Half the length of her arm and falling away from her like the wing from a giant grey butterfly. Shiny and clear and collapsing to dust as the air ran through it.
‘The more she rubbed, layer after layer fell away. Sheaves of her skin, falling soft and silent as snow. Spilling into dust at her feet.
‘She could not stop scratching herself. Flakes of her fell away as she walked. When she lifted an arm. Turned her head. As the back of her leg touched the hem of her dress. She grew used to the fine coat of dust that trailed behind her wherever she went in the house. But still she looked at the moon, and still she picked at herself.
‘So the woman became more flake than flesh, slowly turning to dust. The ashes of her sadness lay on her husband’s pillow and covered his bread and seeped into him as he slept at night.’
‘And the husband?’ Johnnie Larkin asked. ‘What happened to him then?’ He laughed and winked at Malachy.
Rose was leaning away from Eimear. Her hand was in her pocket, clamping her beads. But Nellie was watching Eimear, her head tilted, looking at the strain and flush on the younger woman’s face as if she’d never seen it before, listening to the catch in her breath as she sank back into the chair.
‘I’m sure that they all lived happily ever after,’ Malachy said. He filled the glasses of his guests.
‘Or they made each other miserable to their dying day. Isn’t that the way these things usually go?’ he laughed. ‘I had never guessed that my wife was such a storyteller.’
His hand clasped her shoulder. Eimear pulled her body away from him. She looked tired. She looked as if her body would not hold her head except for the wooden backbone of the chair.
Malachy smiled at her and at the crowd.
‘I think we might call it a night,’ Malachy said.
The round rap of a hand on the door interrupted him. The Widow Mullen came into the room.
‘I’m sorry I’m late.’
She saw Eimear collapsed in the chair at the head of the table and stepped back against the door. Malachy went to her and he led her to a seat. They gave her a drink. Malachy watched the wet lip of the glass against her mouth.
Eimear roused herself. Did the others not see the drag of the buttons on Maeve Mullen’s new coat? Or the recent roundness to her face?
Eimear said, ‘Husband, I am thirsty too. Will you give me a drink from your glass?’
Malachy waited. They were watching him. He passed her his drink. She drained the glass and held it back out to him.
‘Will you pour me another?’ she said. He did as she asked, holding the bottle in both hands, but still the wine sloshed out, clotting in pools at the base of the glass, staining the wood of the table, his hands.
Eimear drank from her husband’s wine until his bottles were empty, and her teeth and her tongue were black from it, but she did not grow merry from it, and neither did her thirst diminish.
‘Johnnie, my story is not done yet,’ Eimear said, ‘I will tell the rest of it now.’
‘Once there was a man who was unhappy,’ Eimear said. ‘He lived in a house that was cold. Even when he lay in his bed in the dark, when sleep should curl snug around him, he felt colder than the stars hanging in the sky on a clear night. The cold bit into his skin, and began to eat the flesh from his bones and freeze the blood inside him.
‘When he looked at his wife, he grew colder. He could not touch her, be near her. So he circled her, small circles at first, the other side of the bed, the table, the room, then the house. The far side of the garden. The morning in the currach, the evening in the field.
‘He took to walking. The force of her pushing him out the door, up the yard, out on to the path towards the black woods at the foot of the mountains. As the days went by his walks grew longer and wider, but the coldness in him would not shift, even when he walked far up the hill, beyond the fields behind his house, up to where the trees began and he could no longer see his cold roof and the cold walls of his house.
‘One afternoon on his walk, he met a woman leaning against the wall. He knew of her. Her husband had died two days after they wed. He had drowned out fishing. They said she was bad luck. But a man who lives in a cold house does not think much about luck. The young widow had a jug in her hand.
‘The widow said she thought he might like something to drink. He could see the jug was brimming with water and a little of it had spilled on the dry earth in front of her, and even on her skirt. As she offered the jug to him his fingers touched her hand. It was soft and warm. He felt a shock on his skin. His fingers were swollen and sticky. He felt a stirring in him. And he wondered about the softness of her arms, and her breasts. His face flamed and he drank more water but he did not dare look at her again.
‘He hastened away up the path towards the woods.
‘She called goodbye to him, laughing. He did not turn back to her. But he thought again about the heat of her hand touching his, before he walked through the pine trees into the darkness of the woods.
‘The next day she was waiting again with a jug of water. And she held onto it with her two hands as he took the jug, though it was no heavier than the day before and it did not take two of them to lift it to his lips. So he clasped the jug, curling his hands around her fingers and they lifted it together to his mouth. The water streamed out of it and down his chin and neck and shoulders. And they laughed together, but the heart was thumping in his chest and he felt a heat in him that the water did not cool.
‘On the third day, she said the jug was broken, but there was a well at the back of her house if he wanted water and she would show him the way. He felt a pounding in him as she took him by the hand up a path behind her house. At the well he took her shoulders and turned her around and pulled her to him.
‘So they were fast together, fixed like a man and his shadow. The man spent every minute he could with the widow woman, except the times when he went back to his cold house. But he found that he did not mind the cold so much any more.
‘When the man came back to his wife, he seemed strange to her. He shimmered with heat. The light from him blinded her. She grew clumsy around him.
‘His hard brightness shook the walls, rattling the glasses in shelves. Until she dared not look directly at his light. Dared not stand in the same room, for fear of his burning.
‘But then he would leave again, and the walls would shiver and fold in on themselves, leaving his wife in the quietness and the coldness and the darkness.’
Johnnie nudged Malachy in the ribs, nearly falling from his chair as he did so.
‘Ho ho, Malachy! We didn’t think you had it in you!’ Johnnie said. His leery gaze flicked over the widow.
A red stain flushed the widow’s chest and neck. Malachy grabbed Eimear’s wrist, pressing his fingers into her flesh.
‘You’re hurting me, Malachy,’ Eimear said.
He dropped his hand.
‘Enough, Eimear! Your words have been true enough and lie enough to cause harm to people in this room,’ Malachy said, pointing at the widow.
‘Did you not do the same to me with your half-truths?’ Eimear said. But she did not stand, and she did not have the heat in her voice that Malachy had.
Tommy Larkin put his hand on Malachy’s arm and said: ‘Don’t mind Johnnie, he’s just drunk and he’s stirring the pot. It’s only a story she’s telling.’
‘Yes, let her tell her story,’ Nellie said, ‘for I don’t think it’s done yet.’
Malachy looked at them all, but they stared back at him. And none of them moved.
‘Let‘s hear her story,’ they said. And there was nothing for it, but for Malachy to sit back down in his chair, and to wait for Eimear to speak.
The bottle made a popping sound as Johnnie took another dose, and he said, ‘Eimear, have you a story about a woman who walks off the edge of a cliff?’
‘Jesus! Johnnie…‘ Tommy said, dropping his pipe.
‘I only know the story of a woman put in a cave,’ Eimear said, as she looked at Malachy.
Malachy sat with his eyes closed. He did not see Eimear looking at him, or the eyes of the others on him. He did not move, he waited only for the shape and the spike of her words.
‘Once there was a man who was unhappy,’ Eimear said. ‘He had two women: a small one and a big one, and the big one was growing larger every day. Soon there was not space in his head for the two of them and he knew no rest in the bed of either.
‘When the man realised that he wanted a son more than he wanted a wife, he went to the bed of his wife in the middle of the night, and he tied her in a white sheet so that she could not move. He put a strip of the sheet in her mouth so that she could not scream. Then he sat with her in their bedroom, with the tears running down his face and he waited for the moon to dim in the belly of night cloud.
‘She was a small woman, and he carried her in his two hands like a bride through the night.
‘She thought, he is carrying me to the sea. She thought, he is my husband, he loves me. She thought, he is carrying me to the sea.
’His feet knew the way up the high road behind the houses, along by the hanging fields, and down the other side where the headland dips, where the land is more stone than soil. Where the sea whips the rock. Where the caves are.’
‘You know the caves on the beach by the Lady’s Steps?’ Eimear said. ‘They cut back into the rock, go way back. You know when the tide comes in?’
‘Go on, go on,’ they said.
‘From his arms she saw the black loom of cliffs breaking the sky. The stars spun around her as he made his way across the stony beach, grunting as the water splattered his shoes. She heard the smash of the waves breaking their backs again and again on the beach.
‘He stepped into the largest cave. Streams of water were already shooting across the floor. The crash of the waves grew softer as he carried her further inside. He would not leave her in the mouth of the cave, where her body would fly out with the sea and the fishermen would find her on the bloody rocks in the morning.
‘He leant her against a flattened sheet of rock, then stood back and looked at her. As if he would say something. As if she would say something. He put his lips on her swollen mouth pressing the cloth further down her throat. Then he left.
‘She heard the clatter of his feet on the stones as he ran across the beach. Then only the muffle of the sea outside.
‘Her bare feet curled with the cold and damp of the rock. Through the mouth of the cave, she could see the slit of sky, and the waves breaking, streaked with foam and moonlight. Inside the cave, as the water came in, she could see nothing, as if the sea had already taken her eyes before he took her body.
‘She moved further back against the rock wall, feeling the spike of barnacles in her back. She did not see the water, but she felt the icy bite of it as it slid up her shin, then pulled away again.
‘Another wave slapped against her, the shock of the cold pushing her backwards against the rock. Then pulled away again, leaving her sodden, weeping, shaking. Bracing herself for the next wave.
‘Her mind was thrashing in her head, slapping itself off the inside of her skull like a dying fish.
‘The water streamed up her thighs, her hips. Each wave a knife in her. Each wave reminding her that she could feel colder, wetter. Each wave taking a little piece of her living body away with it out of the cave.
‘She thought about her dying. About a head covered by the sea. About a cave filled with water and a woman floating and tumbling in it. But as she thought about these things, and her body began to lose itself, surrendering to the water, her mind shook itself free from the woman’s body and flew out into the night.
‘The woman’s mind saw a boat where a dark-haired man was sleeping among his nets. Her mind put a dream into the fisherman’s head.
‘He had a vision of a woman in a cave dressed in white, with the waves rising up over her body. In this vision she begged him to come to her and rescue her in the largest cave by the Lady’s Steps.
‘The waves were up to her chest now, and the woman did not know where her body ended and the water began. But her mind spoke to the wind and the sea. So the wind turned cold and whistled. The sea grew rough. A wave splashed up over the side of the boat wetting the leg of the fisherman and woke him from his sleeping. His mind was full of the vision he had dreamed. He put out his oars and he rowed towards the Lady’s Steps.
‘The fisherman steered his boat into the mouth of the cave and he saw the woman drowning in the water. He blessed himself, for he thought that God had wanted him to save this woman from her dying. He pulled her into his boat, and he gave her his jacket to cover herself.’
‘Hold on, Eimear!’ Malachy stood. He was hot, angry. He would deny. The others sat stuck in their chairs. They stared at him, as if they had never seen him before. No one smiled or jeered.
It was over.
He felt hunted. The room was closing in on him.
Eimear did not speak. She put her left arm around Malachy’s neck and kissed his mouth.
Her lips felt soft. He tasted salt and honey. Her mouth was wet on his. He remembered her lying in the crook of his arm, the heat of her, the shy smile of her, the hollow of her collar bone, of pleasure twisting in on itself. He remembered his father, his mother’s smile, the first sunrise, the thrum of the heat of the sun on a summer day, the painful hollow in him when he kissed her. He was turning inside out.
Malachy felt the sorrow spike in him—he knew he would never feel these things again.
The crowd was standing now, looking to Eimear. Waiting for her to finish it.
The knife with the bone handle found her hand. Twisting her fingers around itself, pressing its cold shape onto her flesh. Her right arm was high behind her, falling like a song, and Eimear Kinnane took the heart of her husband back to her.