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In the small bedroom of her thatched cottage, Kerry Tierney struggled to give birth to her third child. Sleet, thick and dangerous, slanted sideways, pounding against the windows, seeping under the door, leaving great wet puddles on the flagstone. Outside, the driveway glittered like glass under the falling ice and snow.
Wind roared from the north, dislodging stones from unmortared fences, uprooting stunted trees, ripping through power lines, overturning boats in the harbor, sweeping away henhouses, pony carts, street signs, everything not securely tied down.
Lashed to the mooring, the ferry dipped and rose, a twig helpless in the endless cresting of the Atlantic's mighty swells. The airport had been closed since early morning, all flights to the mainland canceled, throwing the island into an isolated darkness not seen in twenty years.
Kerry had been pushing for nearly six hours with little progress. The child wouldn't descend beyond the pubic bone. The midwife, Mabry O'Farrell, knew that her patient belonged in a hospital. She knew also that there was no hope of getting her there in this weather.
"Come, lass," Mabry urged, paying no attention to the white face and trembling hands of the young man by her side. "You can manage it. It won't be long now."
"Why won't he come?" Kerry moaned, writhing with the pain of another mounting contraction.
Mabry ignored her question and moved between the woman's legs, pushing them apart. This was the third time she'd been summoned to bring a child of Kerry's into the world. It should have been easier than this.
Suddenly Kerry cried out and her legs went slack. Her husband screamed. Alarmed, Mabry moved to the woman's head, checked her pulse, and listened for a heartbeat. There was none. Immediately, she knelt down and breathed air deep into Kerry's lungs.
"What's happening?" Danny shouted.
Mabry inhaled and fastened her mouth over Kerry's, breathing deeply, pushing down hard with the heel of her hand over the woman's heart, once, twice, three times, four times...ten times. She breathed in again, twice, and pressed again and again and still again, repeating the cycle over and over. Mabry was crying now. There was little time left. If she didn't act soon, the child would die as well. "Breathe, Kerry," she begged silently. "Breathe." Crucial moments ticked by.
Finally she straightened. "Fetch me a knife, Danny, a sharp one, and see to your daughters."
The knife he brought to her was a carving knife, twelve inches long and serrated, with a brown handle.
Mabry hesitated before taking it. "She's gone, lad. You know that, don't you?"
"I'm going to save your child."
Again Danny nodded. Mabry lost precious seconds waiting for him to leave the room. Her hands shook. Kerry was dead. There was no reason to disinfect the blade. She pressed the knife into the dead woman's skin and watched the line of blood spread. Then she cut again, exposing the round pink uterus, mindful of the child so close to the blade. Feeling carefully to determine exactly where the baby was, she pricked the skin with the knife and slowly, delicately tore open the womb. Her hands grazed the baby's cheek, his forehead. She reached in, found a leg and an arm, and lifted him from his lifeless mother. It was a boy, just as she thought.
She suctioned the mucus from his mouth, heard his first strangled gasp of breath followed by the unmistakable mewl of a newborn, and watched gratefully as the blue tint of his skin turned to pink, heralding life.
After wrapping him in a blanket, she laid him in the wooden cradle that had once belonged to his sisters, the cradle with the handstitched blanket. Then she covered Kerry Tierney with a sheet, sat down in the straight-backed chair near the bed, buried her face in her hands, and wept.
Seventeen days later, Mabry stood on the bluff in front of her cottage, narrowed her eyes against the rare June sunlight, and focused on a spot in the distance where the unbroken expanse of sky met the sea in a blurred, slate-gray horizon line. It settled her, this communion with the distance, a place the ancients once called the summerlands, a place one could go for peace and meditation before time and progress had forever removed them from the path of humans.
Above her, gulls circled the ancient Celtic fort of Dun Aengus. Below, a turbulent sea crashed against treacherous cliffs, reshaping, rounding, wearing away, one centimeter at a time, year after year, the island that for three millennia had seen the births of her ancestors.
She knew the island better than anyone. She had always known it. It was part of her, the pulse of it beating through the soles of her feet in perfect harmony with the blood thudding in her throat, her temples and wrists. Ocean tides matched the ebb and flow of the life force within her, low, stretched out, calm in the morning, churning, energized, moon-touched as night deepened.
Mabry was old, the oldest woman on Inishmore. She couldn't remember how old. Once she'd known the details of her birth, but that was long ago. All who could have told her were dead now, buried beneath Celtic crosses and rich limestone turf, behind small, whitewashed, thatched-roofed churches dotting the lush green of the island, an island three miles wide, eight miles long, an hour's ferry ride from the mainland, an island where in winter time stood still and its eight hundred inhabitants reverted to the old ways, ways the mainlanders, with their computers and their cell phones and their trendy flats in Dublin, called primitive.
With hushed voices, her neighbors whispered behind her back. A witch, they called her, cailleach, an ealain dhubh, one who practices Wicca. Mabry opened her eyes, looked directly into the friendly face of the spring sun, and laughed. Perhaps she was. Perhaps she did. Voices spoke to her, urging her to keep the sacred trusts, to ease suffering with her herbs, to counsel the sorrowful, and still she continued to live, long past the time when others had closed their final chapters.
If that was witchcraft, so be it. Mabry had few illusions. Superstition had no place in her life. Experience and wisdom did. If others were too blind to see that living a long time gave a woman insights, she would make no attempt to educate them. Their superstitions brought her chickens, potatoes, and carrots for her pot. It gave her respect in the villages, something that came rarely to the old and feeble no longer able to earn their own keep.
Only once had she doubted herself, and the doubt had cost her a moment in time, a moment when her common sense was suspended, replaced by a desperate fear that held her frozen, until sanity returned and she was able to practice her craft.
It had been too late for Kerry Tierney but not for her unborn son. The woman's life had already been predetermined, but the child was another matter. Mabry had done what was needed to avoid two deaths that day. Danny Tierney was another matter. The Sight had evaded her completely when it came to Danny.
He had been a borderline alcoholic when times were good. The loss of his wife sent him over the edge of his already precarious control. Following her death he drank around the clock. Not two weeks after Kerry was laid to rest under the green limestone of Inishmore, Danny's boat foundered aimlessly on a flat sea beneath skies as cloudless and blue as a spring morning. His body was found tangled in his nets.
More than likely he would have come to a tragic end no matter what. Danny was born difficult, no matter how one turned it over. There was no polite way around the truth. The lad had few redeeming qualities. There were reasons, of course. Poor little lad, growing up with no mother, never mind a father who spent his life closing down the pubs. Normally Mabry didn't torture herself with what-ifs. But she'd known Danny Tierney all his life, and she couldn't help wondering if he'd taken another fork in the road, would it have turned out differently for him?
She sighed. If only Kerry had gone to Galway with her brother. Perhaps she would be alive today. But the girl was stubborn. She'd wanted Danny Tierney with the single-mindedness of a migratory bird whose instinct guides her, mindlessly, south, without the slightest notion of what awaits her once she lands. She was a woman island-born, island-locked, unlike her brother, Sean.
Despite Kerry's coaxing ways and her sweet, blue-eyed face, pretty where Sean's was rugged, she hadn't dreamed the dreams that moved her brother forward. There was a fineness in Sean, a quiet resolution, an honor where so few had any memory of honor. The essence that surrounded her brother and made him stand out from the rest had escaped her completely, and so she'd found her fate.
Mabry, a woman with little patience for organized religion, crossed herself and muttered a quick prayer. Later, when the moon was high, she would come back here to this same spot. She would stand upon sprinkled salt, light a candle, and with water and wine anoint her eyes, her nose and mouth, her breasts, loins, and feet, while reciting the ancient invocation for health and healing. Bless me, Mother, for I am your child. Blessed be my eyes, that I may see your path. Blessed be my nose that I may breathe your essence. Blessed be my mouth that I may speak of you. Blessed be my breast, that I may be faithful in my work. Blessed be my loins, which bring forth the life of men and women as you have brought forth all creation. Blessed be my feet that I may walk in your ways.
Perhaps it would be enough. It never hurt to offend either of the deities.
She shivered despite the sun. There was no help, no prayer, no invocation, no spell to prevent what would come. Sean would return to the island for Kerry's children, but there would be no peace. They were Danny's children, too, and Danny had a mother, an outlander, an American, a sun-worshipper with lacquered nails and a laugh like music, a woman who'd stayed long enough to bear a man's two children, long enough to break his heart.
Her mouth twisted. Foolish were the sons of Adam to think they could alter the course of destiny. Mabry was forty-seven years old before she knew that she would never leave the island, never sail down a canal in a gondola with a dark-eyed man, never feel the heat of a brilliant sun on that spot on her head where the hair parted. She was ten years older before she realized it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the sky and the sea and the spring coming in after the long, gray, wet months of winter.
Copyright © 2001 by Jeanette Baker