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Near Mount Monadnock
Southern New Hampshire
4:00 p.m., EDT
June 17, Present Day
Keira Sullivan swiped at a mosquito and wondered if its Irish cousins would be as persistent. She'd find out soon enough, she thought as she walked along the trail to her mother's cabin in the southern New Hampshire woods. She'd be on a plane to Ireland tomorrow night, off to the southwest Irish coast to research an old story of mischief, magic and an ancient stone angel.
In the meantime, she had to get this visit behind her and attend a reception tonight in Boston. But she couldn't wait to be tucked in her rented Irish cottage, alone with her art supplies, her laptop, her camera and her walking shoes.
For the next six weeks, she'd be free to think, dream, draw, paint, explore and, perhaps, make peace with her past.
More accurately, with her mother's past.
The cabin came into view, nestled on an evergreen-blanketed hill above a stream. Keira could hear the water tumbling over rocks and feel it cooling the humid late spring air. Birds twittered and fluttered nearbychickadees, probably. Her mother would have given all the birds on her hillside names.
The mosquito followed Keira the last few yards up the path. It had found her at the dead-end dirt road where she'd left her car and stayed with her throughout the long trek through the woods. She was less than two hours from Boston, but she might as well have been on another planet as she sweated in the June heat, her blond hair coming out of its pins, her legs spattered with mud. She wished instead of shorts she'd worn long pants, in case her solo mosquito summoned reinforcements.
She stood on the flat, gray rock that served as a step to the cabin's back entrance. Her mother had built the cabin herself, using local lumber, refusing help from family and friends. She'd hired out, reluctantly, only what she couldn't manage on her own.
There was no central heat, no plumbing, no electricity. She had no telephone, no radio, no televisionno mail delivery, even. And forget about a car.
On frigid New England winter nights, life had to get downright unbearable, if not dangerous, but Keira knew her mother would never complain. She had chosen the simple, rugged existence of a religious ascetic. No one had thrust it upon her.
Keira peered through the screen door, grateful that her mother's stripped-down lifestyle didn't prohibit the use of screens. The pesky mosquito could stay outside.
"Helloit's me, Mum. Keira."
As if her mother had other children. As if she might have forgotten her only daughter's name since chucking the outside world. Keira had last visited her mother several weeks ago but hadn't stayed long. Then again, they hadn't spent much time together in the past few years, never mind the past eighteen months when she'd first announced her intention to pursue this new commitment.
Her mother had always been religious, which Keira respected, but this, she thought as she swiped again at her mosquitothis isolated hermit's life just wasn't right.
"Keira!" her mother called, sounding cheerful. "Come in, come in. I'm here in the front room. Leave your shoes on the step, won't you?"
Keira kicked off her hiking shoes and entered the kitchenor what passed for one. It consisted of a few rustic cupboards and basic supplies that her mother had scavenged at yard sales for her austere life. Her priest had talked her into a gas-powered refrigerator. He was working on talking her into a gas-powered stove and basic plumbingeven just a single cold-water faucetbut she was resisting. Except for the coldest days, she said, she could manage to fetch her own water from the nearby spring.
Winning an argument with Eileen O'Reilly Sullivan had never been an easy task.
Keira crossed the rough pine-board floor into the cabin's main living area. Her mother, dressed in a flowing top and elastic-waist pants, got up from a high stool at a big hunk of birch board set on trestles that served as her worktable. Her graying hair was blunt cut, reminding Keira of a nun, but although her mother had turned to a religious life, she'd taken no vows.
"It's so good to see you, Keira."
"You, too." Keira meant it, but if she wanted to see her mother, she had to come out hereher mother wouldn't come to her in Boston. "The place looks great. Nice and cozy."
Her mother sat back on her work stool. Behind her, a picture window overlooked an evergreen-covered hillside that dropped down to a stream. Keira appreciated the view, but, as much as she needed solitude herself at times, she couldn't imagine living out here.
A nearby hemlock swayed in a gust of wind, sending a warm breeze through the tiny cabin. Except for a wooden crucifix, the barn-board walls of the main room were unadorned. Besides the worktable and stool, the only other furnishings were an iron bed with a thin mattress, a rocking chair and a narrow chest of drawers. Not only was the small, efficient cast-iron woodstove the sole source of heat, it was also where her mother did any cooking. She chopped the wood for the stove herself.
The land on which the cabin was built was owned by a South Boston couple whose country home was through the woods, in the opposite direction of the path Keira had just used. She considered them complicit in her mother's withdrawal from the worldfrom her own family. They'd let her choose the spot for her cabin and then stood back, neutral, until she'd finally moved in last summer.
A year out here, Keira thought. A year, and she looks as content as ever.
"It really is so good to see you, sweetheart," her mother said quietly.
"I didn't mean to interrupt your work."
"Oh, don't worry about that."
A large sheet of inexpensive sketch paper was spread out on her worktable. Before retreating to the woods, she'd owned an art supply store in the southern New Hampshire town where she'd moved as a young widow with a small daughter. Over the years, she'd become adept at calligraphy and the tricky art of gilding, supplementing her income by restoring gilt picture frames and mirrors and creating elaborate wedding and birth announcements. Now she was applying her skills to the almost-forgotten art of producing an illuminated manuscript. The same couple who'd let her build on their land had found someone willing to pay her to illustrate an original manuscript of select Bible passages. Other than requesting an Irish Celtic sensibility and choosing the passages, the client left her alone.
It was painstaking workdeliberate, skilled, imaginative. She had her supplies at arm's reach. Brushes, pens, inks, paints, calligraphy nibs, gilding tips, a gilding cushion, polishing cloths and burnishers.
"You're working on your own Book of Kells," Keira said with a smile.
Her mother shook her head. "The Book of Kells is a masterpiece. It's been described as the work of angels. I'm a mere human."
Another wind gust shook the trees outside on the hill. Storms were brewing, a cold front about to move in and blow out the humidity that had settled over New England during the past week. Keira wanted to get back to her car before the rain started.
"Did you see the Book of Kells when you were in Ireland in college?"
"I did." Her mother's tone was distant, controlled. She shifted her gaze to the blank, pure white paper on her desk, as if envisioning the intricate, thousand-year-old illuminated manuscript. "I'll never forget it. What I'm doing is quite different. Much simpler."
"It'll be wonderful."
"Thank you. The Book of Kells consists mainly of the four Gospels, but I was asked to start with the fall of Adam and Eve." Her mother's eyes, a striking shade of cornflower blue, shone with sudden humor. "I haven't settled on the right serpent."
Keira noticed a series of small pencil sketches taped to the birch board. "Those are some pretty wild serpents. It doesn't get to you, being up here all alone drawing pictures of bad-assed snakes and bolts of lightning?"
Her mother laughed. "No bolts of lightning, I'm afraid. Although " She thought a moment. "I don't know, Keira, you could be onto something. A bright, organic bolt of lightning in the Garden of Eden could work, don't you think?"
Keira could feel the tension easing out of her. She'd moved to Boston in January after a brief stint in San Diego and had trekked up here on snowshoes, hoping just to find her mother alive and reasonably sane. But her mother had been warm and toasty, a pot of chili bubbling on her wood-stove, content with her rigid routines of prayer and work. Keira had thought living closer would mean they'd see more of each other. It hadn't. She could have stayed in San Diego or moved to Miami or Tahiti or Mozambiqueor Ireland, she thought. The land of her ancestors.
The land of her father.
Her mother's sociability didn't last, and the humor in her eyes died almost immediately. A studied blankness a sense of peace, she would no doubt saybrought a neutrality to her expression. She seemed to take a conscious step back from her engagement with the world. In this case, the world as represented by her daughter.
Keira tried not to be offended. "I came to say goodbye for a few weeks. I leave for Ireland tomorrow night for six weeks."
"Six weeks? Isn't that a long time?"
"I'm doing something different this trip." Keira hesitated, then said, "I'm renting a cottage on the southwest coast. The Beara Peninsula."
Her mother gazed out at her wooded hillside. A second screen door opened onto another rock step and a small yard where she'd planted a vegetable garden, fencing it off to keep out deer and who knew what other animals.
Finally, she let out a breath. "Always so restless."
True enough, Keira thought. As a child, she'd roamed the woods with a sketch pad and colored pencils. In college, she'd snapped up every opportunity to go placesbackpacking with friends out West, jumping on a lobster boat with a short-lived boyfriend, spending a summer in Paris on a shoestring. After college, she'd tried several careers before falling back on what she loved mostdrawing, painting, folklore. She'd managed to combine them into a successful career, becoming known for her illustrations of classic poems and folktales. That her work was portable, allowing her to indulge her sense of adventure, was another plus.
"When I was here last," she said, "I told you about a project I'm involved withI'm working with an Irish professor who's putting together a conference on Irish folklore next spring. It'll be in two parts, one in Boston and one in Cork."
"I remember," her mother said.
"One of the emphases will be on twentieth-century immigrants to America. I've been working that angle, and I ended up deciding to put together and illustrate a collection specifically of their stories. I have a wonderful one Gran told me before she died. She was from West Cork"
"I know she was. Keira " Her mother's eyes were pained.
"What's wrong? I've been to Ireland before. Not the Beara Peninsula, butMum, are you afraid I'm going to run into my father?"
"Your father was John Michael Sullivan."
But Keira was referring to her biological father. Her mother had returned home from a summer study program in Ireland at nineteen, pregnant with Keira. When Keira was a year old, her mother had married John Sullivan, a South Boston electrician ten years her senior. He was killed in a car accident two years later, and his widow and adopted daughter had moved out of Boston and started a new life.
Keira had no clear memory of him, but when she looked at pictures of him, she felt an overwhelming sense of affection, gratitude and grief, as if some part of her did remember him. Her mother never discussed that one trip to Ireland thirty years ago. For all Keira knew, her biological father could have been a Swedish tourist or another American student.
She debated a moment, then said, "A woman on your old street in South Boston heard about the folklore project and got in touch with me. She told me this incredible story about three Irish brothers who fight with each other and fairies over an ancient stone angel"
"Patsy McCarthy," her mother said in a toneless voice.
"That's right. She says she told you this story, too, before your trip to Ireland. The brothers believe the statue is of one of the angels said to visit Saint Ita during her lifetime. The fairies believe it's not an angel at all but actually one of their own who's been turned to stone. There's more to itit's quite a tale."
"Mrs. McCarthy told a lot of stories."
"Her grandfather heard this one when he worked in the copper mines on the Beara Peninsula and told it to Patsy when she was a little girl in Ireland. The village where the brothers lived isn't named, but there are enough details"
"To pinpoint it. Yes, I know."
"And the spot where the hermit monk brother lived. You could make a stab at finding it, at least, if you know the story." Keira waited, but when her mother didn't respond, continued. "Patsy told me you were determined to find the village and look for the hermit monk's hut on your trip to Ireland before I was born."
"She's a gifted storyteller."
"Yes, she is."
Her mother lifted a small, filmy sheet of gold leaf to the light streaming in through the window. The use of gold real goldwas what distinguished a true illuminated manuscript, but Keira knew it was far too soon for her mother to apply gold to her work-in-progress.
"Do you know the difference between sin and evil, Keira?"
Keira didn't want to talk about sin and evil. She wanted to talk about Patsy's old story and magic, mischief and fairies. "It's not something I think much about."
"Adam and Eve sinned." Her mother turned the gold leaf so that it gleamed in the late-afternoon light. "They wanted to please God, but they succumbed to temptation. They regretted their disobedience. They took no delight in what they did."
"In other words, they sinned."
"Yes, but the serpent is a different case altogether. He delights in his wrongdoing. He exults in thwarting God. He sees himself as the antithesis of God. Unlike Adam and Eve, the serpent didn't commit a sin in the Garden of Eden. The serpent chose evil."
"Honestly, Mum, I don't know how you can stand to think about this stuff out here by yourself."
She set the thin gold leaf on the pure white paper. Keira knew from experience that the gold leaf was difficult to work with but resilient, able to withstand considerable manipulation without breaking into pieces. Applied properly, it looked like solid gold, not just a whisper of gold.
"We all sin, Keira," her mother said without a hint of a smile, "but we're not all evil. The devil understands that. Evil is a particular dispensation of the soul."