The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Tess Walsh
Maura and I lived alone in the white cottage after her parents died. It was tiny, situated on a rocky hill that discouraged visitors and invited wind. We painted it white every summer to mask the salt deposits that welled up around the windowpanes, and, when Maura was feeling whimsical, she would fashion wind chimes out of glass bottles and loose change, dangle them from the eaves and rattle the whole northern side of the island with hollow wailing. She said it was the ocean’s instrument. The others said it was the haunting of the drowned. We let them believe what they liked.
A woman named Bridie lived at the bottom of our hill; she was something like our mother, since she’d drowned all her flesh and blood babies and had no one else to look after. She had a single sheep that lived in her kitchen, whose wool clothed the entire island in lumpy sweaters the color of boiled oatmeal, and was always willing to lend anything she had on hand; buttons, fish eyes, tree bark, forks. One winter, when Maura had a tooth infection, Bridie spent four days sleeping at my cousin’s bedside and spoon feeding her mushed fruit. On the fifth day, she pried the tooth out with a spoon, put it in her apron pocket, and walked home.
The others said Bridie was a witch. Mostly, she was just sick.
The last baby she had--a girl--had come out all green and wrong, something closer to a fish than a little girl. The midwife had blood on her forearms and said nothing. She put the fish baby in a basket and walked to the village. Maura says the wind tried to stop her. Maura says she screamed with the wind. It did not matter. They came at dawn, Bridie waiting for them in the kitchen with the fish child in her arms and the sheep bleating feebly, competing with the whine of the kettle. Maura made toast with jam and sat outside our cottage to watch. She was dressed in black. Maura always dressed in black.
They marched down a sandy trail that curled around the hill. There was a small, flinty beach at the bottom. In the bad times, there had been three, maybe four bodies sent to sea from that scrap of coastline. Daily. Maura had screamed in her sleep and was labeled a banshee by the young ones with runny noses. They stayed away. We let them.
Bridie had given at least four children to the ocean by then. She knew how it was done. There was no fuss. The others went back to the village. There was still dried blood on Bridie’s sheets, a rusty blossom painfully visible when she hung them out to dry a few days later, the coarse fabric rustling in the hard sea breeze as though it were a living thing.
Maura wrapped a ribbon around a wad of thistles. She had a vial of whiskey she kept in a flower pot: something her father had given her in the good times, with instructions to save it for her wedding day. She brought both down the hill to Bridie. A makeshift funeral for the fish child. I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees as I listened to my cousin keening outside Bridie’s door. There was no wind that night, just her unearthly voice. It was not beautiful. It made my hair stand on end. It was death reaching through the veil and playing her vocal cords like a harp. It was clear as glass and twice as sharp. It was an echo without a source.
She had keened the first time when her parents died; she was thirteen. The sickness had made them green. Seawater in the blood. Too much salt in the stomach. Not sure how it got there. Not long to live. We waited for them to die, and then we waited for our turn. The island would be empty. The ocean would take us back; Maura said it whispered to her that we would be mermaids.
When she sent her parents off the coast, she almost did not come back. I waited for her to drown. I waited for her resurrection.
Bridie had the sickness. She did not die. Sometimes she looked green. The babies always were. The fathers lived in the village and they did not step forward. Each time Bridie thought it would be different. Each time, Maura looked at the beach as though it offered something more than sorrow. I rattled her windchimes and she came back to me. Not forever. We could both clearly see the thread of the blue horizon. It rocked nearer with each wave that broke upon Maura’s ankles, with every baby Bridie thought would save her.
I did not sleep. I scrubbed the kitchen floor and imagined blood running from the corners of Maura’s mouth, her throat raw from the sound that did not come from her, but from the depths.
The dawn came again; a full day since the fish child was sent home. I brought stale bread down the hill and left it on table. I took a thick jacket from the peg by the door and wound down the sandy path to the rocky beach and waited, blowing on my fingers as they grew numb. Maura paid me no mind. We had said goodbye. We said it every day.
She was wearing white. It made her look unsubstantial, the wind incarnate. The dress fluttered like so many restless birds, like Bridie’s ruined sheet. She did not look holy. She did not look green. She still looked drowned. She was almost there.
The ocean bit her, and she cried out. She waded up to her waist. The ocean swallowed her torso, concealing the evidence. From my damp seat on the sand, Maura’s body had no balloon, no weight. No future fish child.
My cousin kept going. She did not turn back. There were two white bricks in her hands, from the corner of the cottage that needed more mortar.
There was no sound. No one keened for my cousin. I did not weep for Maura. The sea had enough salt. I went back up the hill, led the sheep into my kitchen, and took down each homemade wind chime that graced the eaves of the white cottage. I no longer wished to hear the wailing of the dead. I smashed each one. I made tea. I lived another forty years. I did not drown.