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Casting On. 1. Tying a specific number of stitches onto a needle as the first row of a knitted work. The first stitch is a slipknot and then one of the three following methods may be employed for binding on the balance of the stitches: the English method, the Continental method, or Mrs. Blake's method. The first two require the use of two needles; the third requires one needle and a free hand. 2. A beginning.
—R. Dirane, A Binding Love
Rebecca stood with her six-year-old daughter at the end of the pier, watching the crowd of tourists who had crossed with them on the ferry from Doolin make their way into town. With backpacks, strollers, and children on the shoulders or in the hand, the tourists laughed excitedly and called out to one another in various languages as they shuffled up the road. One- and two-storied buildings lined the street where the crowd meandered up to the bend. Upon reaching the curve, they disappeared with the road. It was then, after the crowd vanished, that Rebecca glanced up to the church's spire, which peeped over the rooftops before her. Its shiny cross winked at her brightly, reflecting the last of the day's sun. She breathed in the sea-salt air, holding on to this moment—her arrival on the island.
Sixteen years ago Rebecca had first met her best friend, Sharon. From the day they started UC-Berkeley together, Sharon had told her tales and histories of her island home and Rebecca had listened and dreamed of Ireland and of this tiny island off the west coast. There were fishing stories and tales of ancient forts, of families pulling sea-weed from the ocean to make soil. Then, from the great slabs of stone of which the island was made, smaller rocks were hewn and stacked one atop another as walls to keep the hard-won dirt from blowing back into the sea when the southern gales howled across the island. In that precious, salty soil grew crops to feed the people and grasses to feed the sheep that provided the wool from which they spun yarn. And it was from that yarn that the famous fisherman sweaters were knitted.
Rebecca was an archaeologist. Sharon's stories of the island sweaters had inspired her to specialize in textiles. When they finished their undergraduate degrees, Sharon left for home and Rebecca headed south to Los Angeles for five more years of school as she worked on her master's and then her doctorate. After achieving both, she began to teach, but always the island called to her; the beautiful sweaters and all the legends about them beckoned her. She wanted to record in pictures and in words the living history of the fisherfolk and their sweaters. As Rebecca saw it, the result would be more than an academic paper: it would be a book with photos and biographies of the women from the island. Three years of developing her proposal finally paid off. After receiving her small grant, Rebecca took the summer off to do the project, and now she stood on Sharon's island.
Lavender light sifted gently through the soft mist. Rebecca sighed, glancing once more up the street with hope. She and her daughter had begun this day in California, flying through connections in New York to Shannon, then on a bus to Doolin, and finally across Galway Bay on a ferry to the island. Having been in transit for twenty-two hours, they were unspeakably tired. Here they finally were, with mounds of luggage but no one to greet them.
"Where is that car?" Rebecca muttered.
"I have to go to the bathroom, Mama," Rowan said, sitting on the big black duffel bag and kicking her feet absently.
"I'm not sure where a bathroom is, sweetie. Can you hold it?" Rebecca replied, dialing Sharon on her cell phone. Sharon had arranged for Rebecca to spend the summer in a cottage that belonged to the parents of one of her best childhood friends.
Near the end of a difficult pregnancy, Sharon had had to stay home in Dublin rather than come to the island herself to greet Rebecca. She had, however, promised to send someone to pick Rebecca and Rowan up.
A voice answered on the crackling line. "Hello?"
"Sharon? Sharon, can you hear me?"
"Becky? Is that you?"
"Sharon, we've arrived and there's no car."
"No, no car."
"Huh. Wonder what happened to him. Why don't you go down to the pub—"
"Go to the pub? Sharon, I'm going to start crying. I've been in transit for twenty-two hours. I'm standing on an empty pier, with a six-year-old child who has to go potty. I've got a large duffel, five suitcases, two backpacks, a laptop, and a tripod. How am I supposed to go to the pub?"
"Now, let's not have one of your moments, Becky."
"I'm not having a moment. I—"
"Mama, I gotta go."
"Just a minute, Rowan."
"Go to the pub, Becky."
"What do I do with all my baggage?"
"Leave it there," Sharon said.
"What?" Rebecca yelled.
"It's an island, Becky."
"I know it's an island, Sharon. What if someone takes my stuff? Then where will I be?"
"No one's gonna take your stuff. Where would they go? It's an island," Sharon repeated.
Rebecca froze, gritting her teeth as air hissed through them.
"Go to the pub and ask Tom for the keys to the house. He'll probably have the car, too."
"Who's Tom?" Rebecca asked in exasperation.
"Tom, Tom. You know Tom. He's the one I told you about who owns the pub."
"It'll all be fine—"
"Okay, okay. I know. Thanks," Rebecca said and hung up.
Though it was a dream for Rebecca to come to the island and study the textile art of its people, she still faced the coming months with trepidation. She knew this summer would lead to a book that would bolster her professional résumé and allow her to be more selective when choosing her teaching opportunities. That was why she had come to the island. That was what she had told herself anyway.
But truly she had a deeper motivation—a certain dark crevice—a wound inflicted six years before. From that blackness—the tragedy of her relationship with Rowan's father, Dennis—she had run, driven from place to place, devoid of any contentment or peace she might have built. Though she had never married him, Rebecca had spent the two years before Rowan's birth endeavoring to free herself from his hold on her. She finally succeeded when Rowan was just a month old.
But the abrupt end of their relationship had left Rebecca bound to him in a different way—with memories that haunted her and left her feeling as unsteady as she'd been when she lived with him. In some ways, she felt even more frightened than she'd been before leaving him. The end of that relationship had left her with a restless nervousness that kept her running, moving constantly, from one promising university appointment to another. With each move, Rebecca told herself the opportunity for professional growth was better in her new position. But it wasn't truly her career that drove her. It was fear.
Six years trapped in that odd prison of freedom and flight and insecurity wore away at Rebecca until Christmas Day last. On that day, Rowan had wept when her mother told her about yet another move, crying at the thought of leaving another very-best-friend. Rowan was finally old enough to show Rebecca what their nomadic life was doing to her. Rebecca had quieted long enough to hear her child's tears fall hollowly into her wounded heart. And she knew she had to find a way to stop. To make it stop. To hold still.
The news of the grant had followed soon after, and Rebecca realized the moment had come to make her dream come true. To stop running from her demons and face them. Sharon's stories told of a place of rock and sea and a people who held on to one another—where no one was blowing away on the wind like Rebecca had done these six years. As an only child whose parents were ten years dead, Rebecca had no one holding on to her but Sharon. Rowan needed the security of a home, but Rebecca had no idea how to make one. Thus, she made her way to the only place she knew home to be—Sharon's island home.
The ferry's engine engaged, startling Rebecca.
"Is the car coming, Mama? I have to go really bad."
"No, Rowan, the car will not be coming. But it'll be fine." Rebecca mimicked Sharon's accent.
"You sounded just like Sharon," Rowan said with a giggle.
"Come on." Rebecca grinned, offering her hand to her little girl. "We need to find Tom."
"Tom? The pub owner?" Rowan asked, reaching for her mother's hand. Gently, Rowan's small palm enveloped Rebecca's first finger.
"How do you know Tom?"
"Sharon told me about him."
Rowan's hair was disheveled and the straps of her overalls were twisted and crossed in the back. Though the shadows grew longer around the two of them, Rebecca knew the deep circles beneath her daughter's eyes had nothing to do with the failing light, for Rowan was slowly rubbing the edge of her mother's finger with her thumb like she always did when she was worried. Rebecca remembered that when she was a child herself, she'd found the same security in the satin binding of her favorite blanket. For Rowan, that comfort came from Rebecca's hands. The thought made her smile.
"I was just thinking, Rowan, how lucky I am to be your blanket."
"What's that mean, Mama?"
Rebecca glanced back over her shoulder at her baggage sitting on the end of the dock. "That I will always keep you warm and safe," she whispered.
Like the tourists, Rebecca and Rowan made their way up the road. As the street curved, dappled light from the stained-glass side windows of the church brushed color onto the sidewalk on the left. Across the street, houses one and two stories high were painted brightly as if to reflect back on the worn brown stone of the church the light from its windows. Here and there, a house was painted white, yet still the door was red or blue or green or yellow, cheerfully greeting all who came up the road from the pier.
The street on which Rebecca and Rowan walked was intersected on the left by another road. They stopped at the corner, shivering in a breeze that blew through the intersection and was cold even though it was mid-June. Kitty-corner from where they stood Rebecca spied the sign for O'Flaherty's Pub.
Before she stepped off the sidewalk, three cyclists sped past the pub, racing around the corner in front of her. They slowed down and came to a stop in font of a line of parked bicycles on the opposite side of the street, where, apparently, there was a shop that rented bikes to tourists. Gazing farther up the road, Rebecca saw the church's front steps. The dusk had deepened to purple, darkening the mist that softened the village. The road continued ahead, veering around a corner to the right.
Unless she was mistaken, that road would lead a mile and a half north out of town to the cottage she was renting and to the island's small fort. The larger fort would be to the south, its ancient walls worn away by sand and wind and gale. Between these two legendary points were three miles of land and rock, north to south. East to west, the island was two miles wide, and most of its one hundred year-round inhabitants lived close to the water on its circumference.
With the road now clear of cyclists, Rebecca took Rowan by the hand and trotted diagonally across the intersection, heading for the pub. She stopped and looked at the brown door of the place, noting the chipped paint and scratches from use and weather. Gazing through the window, she saw the pub was full-packed, actually. A young man with black hair, brown eyes, and a white island sweater leaned against the window at the far right, holding his pint to his chest. Rebecca peered at the patterns of his sweater and then up at his face. Startled, she found that he was looking at her with great interest. He smiled broadly. Rebecca frowned.
"I'm cold, Mama. And I still have to go," Rowan said, her teeth chattering.
"Don't let go of my hand, Rowan. It's very busy in there and I don't want to lose you."
Grasping the brass handle, Rebecca opened the door and shimmied inside. Around the fireplace to her left, people sat at a smattering of tables, eating, while a guitar player in the corner plucked out a tune that sounded very much like horses' hooves. She squeezed past a German couple who were drinking gin and tonics and bumped into an American woman with a Southern accent who was talking to a group of young Spanish men. Slipping around them, Rebecca pulled Rowan in front of her and moved next to a man in a deep blue sweater who was leaning on the bar. He smiled at her, his blue eyes sparkling beneath the pub's dim light.
The bartender glanced over as he topped off a foamy pint of ale. Rebecca looked at his red hair, then was distracted by his green eyes. She had never seen eyes as bright green as his. They were the color of the new-growth jasmine in the backyard of her childhood home. With that thought, a wave of homesickness rolled through her.
"You all right there?"
"Uh—yes, thank you."
"What can I get you?"
"I'm looking for a key."
"To my heart?" He grinned as he slid the pint to the man in the blue sweater. Feeling the blood rush to her cheeks, Rebecca scowled, glancing away from his eyes and down to Rowan.
"No. To a house. Sharon—"
"Becky?" The bartender smiled wider.
"Are you Becky? Sharon's friend from the States?" the man in the blue sweater asked.
"Yes," she murmured. "Do—do I know you?"
"Maggie!" the bartender called over his shoulder. "Becky's here! Where's Rowan?"
"Becks?" There, hiding at the end of the bar, was Maggie, Sharon's sister, whom Rebecca had seen only in pictures. But Rebecca would have known this woman was related to Sharon even if she hadn't spoken up. Her dark brown hair was cut to shoulder length and she had no freckles—not like Sharon. It was Maggie's eyes that gave her away. They were as black and bright as Sharon's. As Maggie and Rebecca had spoken over the phone for as long as Rebecca and Sharon had been friends, the sight of her brought a relieved grin to Rebecca's face.
"Hey, Mags. Row—"
"Becks! Look at you! You're finally here!" Moving down the bar, Maggie pulled Rebecca into a hug.
"Rowan has to go to the bathroom," Rebecca whispered in her ear.
"Rowan!" Maggie said, letting go of Rebecca and picking Rowan up. "Rowan, you are so big!"
"I have to go potty," Rowan said.
"Come on, then," Maggie replied, setting Rowan back on the floor.
"I'll take—" Rebecca protested.
"Becky?" The dark-haired man who had smiled through the window stepped past the Spanish men. "I'm Eoman. Eoman O'Connelly. You've come to talk to my grandmother, Liz O'Connelly."
"Oh!" Rebecca smiled, taking his offered hand. As she did so, Rowan followed Maggie down to the end of the bar. "Wait! Mag—"
"This is Paddy," Eoman said, motioning to the man in the blue sweater. "Paddy's mum sent us over here to see if you needed a hand."
"Aye," Paddy said, taking Rebecca's hand and shaking it. "My mum is Rose Blake. You've come to speak with her, too."
"Yes! Yes, Liz and Rose," she said as she turned to look at her daughter's small form disappearing into the crowd. "I—uh—Rowan—"
"You want a beer?" Tom asked.
"No. Thanks. Actually I need the car."
"She doesn't drink beer, Tom. Remember?" Eoman said. "Sharon says Becky likes wine and cider."
"Ahhh, that's right, that's right. Cider for you." He trotted down the bar to fetch it.
"Uh, Paddy, my luggage is at the dock and—"
"Sit. Sit. You hungry?" Eoman asked.
As Tom returned and set the cider on the bar in front of her, Rebecca peered into the eyes of blue and brown and green. She realized that each of these men was the subject of at least one of Sharon's stories. Paddy was the farmer with seven kids—or was he the fisherman with one kid? And what had Sharon told her about Eoman? Suddenly Rebecca couldn't remember. She should know all these people, but she didn't. All this along with the day's travel weighing on her made her feel completely overwhelmed.
"Uh. Actually my stuff's at the dock and I—"
"That can wait," Paddy replied, gently pushing Rebecca onto a stool. "Have some supper. Tell us a story."
"A story?" Rebecca's eyes widened.
"Paddy," Maggie said, returning to the bar. "Your wife just came through the door with Siobhan. They're by the fire."
"Ah!" He smiled and went off to find them.
"Where's Rowan?" Rebecca asked Maggie as she stood up.
"With Paddy's wife and his daughter, Siobhan. I left her by the fire. She said she was cold."
"Becky was going to tell us a story. Tell the one about Steep Ravine and the goat," Eoman said.
"No," said Tom. "The one about Alcatraz."
"Aye, Alcatraz," Eoman replied. "That's a better one. I love that story."
"How do you all know about those stories?" Rebecca asked, bewildered.
"Sharon told us," Eoman replied.
The fact that all these people knew so many stories of her past was very disconcerting. "I need Rowan and the car, Maggie," Rebecca mumbled.
"What car?" Tom asked.
"John has the car," Maggie explained.
"John?" Rebecca asked.
"You know, Sharon's husband," Maggie said.
"He's here?" Rebecca frowned. Sharon hadn't mentioned that.
"Sharon sent him home from Dublin to settle you in."
"He went to Fitzgibbons'," Eoman piped up.
"What happened there?" Tom inquired.
"Bees and Trace," Eoman replied.
They all burst into laughter. Rebecca just stared at them. She was beginning to think either they were crazy or she was.
"Tell us the Alcatraz story, Becky. John may be a while," Tom said with a chuckle.
Rebecca sighed. "I'm sorry. I'm just so—so tired."
"Everything's fine now," Maggie said softly, slipping her arm around Rebecca's shoulders. "Rowan's with Siobhan."
"Not Chiffon, Siobhan. Paddy's six-year-old daughter. Maybe she and Rowan will be friends."
Rebecca stared into Maggie's black eyes. They were solid and sure, just like her sister's.
"Very best friends?" Rebecca whispered, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"Could be. Anyway, Paddy and Annie, his wife, will keep them both safe. And this is a tiny island, Becky. No one can get on or off of it without someone else knowing. No safer place in the world than an island like this."
"No safer place," Tom affirmed.
"No place safer," Eoman said quietly.
Slowly, Rebecca looked from Eoman to Tom to Maggie. If they knew of Alcatraz and Steep Ravine, then it followed that Sharon had told them many stories about Rebecca. And the fact that they were all telling her how safe the island was meant they must also know of her deep insecurity and fear for Rowan. They must know she'd been blowing in the wind. For a moment, Rebecca was overwhelmed by the idea that Sharon had told them so much about her, and fearful that she might have shared with these people the stories of Dennis, but then she remembered why she had come to the island in the first place.
"Trust us, Becky. Okay?" Maggie asked.
Rebecca nodded slowly, promising herself she would try. She had to—she needed to learn to make a home for Rowan and herself.
"Good. Have some cider. John will be back with the car as soon as he's done at the Fitzgibbons'."
"Tell us about Alcatraz," Eoman repeated.
Rebecca leaned back on the stool. Raising her glass to her lips, she swallowed several gulps of cider.
"Maybe later, Eoman," Maggie said, patting the young man on his shoulder. "Let her rest a while."